One of the posts I was working on back in January when I lost my job was about the nonsense about how "e-books are the future!" Well, here's another person's take on it, Tom Dupree e-Books Rock But Will They Rule?
And the answer is, not really. Don't get me wrong, e-books will grow fast in the next decade. They really have no place else to go. I see several applications where e-books are preferable to print. See Tom's article for some. No, really, go see his article for how people are using their e-readers. While all printed material is classified as "ephemera", some are more ephemeral than others. And it's my prediction, that the most ephemeral aspects will be taken over by the e-readers (newspapers, magazines, things you read once and then toss). Temporary printed needs like the manuscript and movie scripts will also be converted quickly. Why? Because e-readers are better at this (and once someone crosses and e-reader with pen markings on the page, it'll be killer).
At the latest novel critiquing weekend, one of the critiquers used their e-reader to do their critiquing. Several of us did our critiques on the electronic files themselves (not bothering to print out hardcopy). I did this myself. I don't like it, but the economics make it preferable (that is, given my druthers, I would rather mark-up hardcopy).
Textbooks and reference books (as someone taking classes now can tell you, hauling text books is a royal pain) will be up next. Right now there are secondary markets that are keeping textbooks still on the printed side (and market forces in that e-book readers are expensive and e-books aren't all that less expensive). Being able to add content (video, blackboard tie-ins, highlighting, note taking, personal adjustment to texts, etc) will all make the difference here. Also, economically, the ability to sell old books and cut your overall costs will mitigate the acceptance of e-books, which you really can't return (although a change of market from buying to renting maybe in order here, which an option to purchase for those books you want to keep).
Now, here's some of the interesting things to keep in mind. First up, I've stated before that music and reading materials are different (especially for anti-piracy schemes). But here's some numbers (I wish I had all my links for this, sorry).
Napster took the music world by storm in 1997. The Apple iTune's Store revamped how music was sold in 2003. As of last year, even with the "explosive" growth of online music sales, they only accounted for less than 33% of unit sales (all the music sites, not just the iTunes Store). Unit sales. That means every single sold online counted as one. I don't think any brick and mortar store or Amazon sells singles on media. That means (expensive) physical CDs are outselling mostly singles (cheap) 2 to 1 over a decade after the revolution. Most people are still getting most of their music off of physical media (which they may then rip to their MP3 players).
So, do I think e-books will overtake printed media anytime soon? I see the easy stuff going quickly (newspapers, magazines). Newspapers will be quickly replaced (market demographics). Developing a new advertising paradigm (probably based on internet ads) will be most critical. Industries that use a lot of very temporary, but high quantity of printed materials will convert next (manuscript reading and the like). Magazines not so fast (kids still read them a lot, cost of e-readers are a little out of their range). Reference and text books will be after that. My guess is e-readers will take about 30% of novel sales in the next decade. The cost of e-books isn't low enough to alter the market for books. It'll be an "ease of use, I can carry my whole library, and download a new book in a minute" argument. That's not normally enough of a benefit for most people.
Just keep in mind, not everybody has a cell phone (let alone a smart phone), a computer (or internet access), or is in love with technology. And many of those people buy books.