One of my favorite novelists today is Max Barry, who recently wrote a fun blog entry on why it takes so long to go from a signed publishing contract to the point that your book is actually on store shelves. Because it really can be from 9 months to 2 years. (One reason among many to self publish these days, though there are still some reasons to seek a publisher as well, especially for non-fiction where publishing credibility is important.)
But right after reading that, I received this other blog entry on how e-books don't seem to be taking over printed books ... and therefore there's a good future for the printed book. This came not long after I had a conversation in Barnes & Noble about how much I still loved being surrounded by REAL books, and how reading on devices just wasn't the same.
BUT ... I don't think the story for the future of printed books is written so much by competition with e-books, but by the competition with everything else. Apps, for instance, and YouTube. And video games. And NetFlix. You name it. There's a lot of competition against the written word that just didn't exist not long ago.
What does this mean for authors? Seth Godin talks a lot about building "tribes" of followers that naturally want to follow what someone is doing, and I agree with the networking approach. But I also wonder how creative authors ought to get. Upcoming movies tend to drive book sales. How many authors ought to go the extra mile to connect their book with a movie, or an app, or a piece of music, or anything else that seems to go viral these days while books struggle to do so?
On the other hand ... we shouldn't forget that most apps, like books, lose money. Most songs, like books, lose money. It is the rare creation that makes much money for the artist. And in this case we need to remember that fiction is a thing that should be written by the author who must write it, cash be damned. In some cases, same thing for non-fiction, although many times non-fiction is used to encourage business in other forms, and the cash earned directly from the book isn't the end goal. Credibility and business sales are.
In any of these cases, it is the idea -- not the form -- that wants to spread. And the author or publisher need only make sure that the idea is in the form that people want to receive it in. This might mean that the printed book sees an ongoing decline into the future. MAYBE some day it's gone altogether. But that will only happen when price can no longer meet demand.