Without exception, physical copies of books, longterm, will be a premium product for wealthier readers… The creation, distribution, and stocking costs are simply too high compared to digital books (both audio and "print-replacement" formats).
To address Jason's points:
- There was a time when it was unthinkable that the majority of the middle class could own a computer, TV, radio, etc… Prices come down over time to produce the technology, and this should be even more rapid for e-Books, which use a "razors and blades" business model.
- It's not a tactile loss, but an exchange. There is nothing proven to be inherently beneficial to childhood development about the "feel of paper". That said, there are numerous studies that show that exposing children to a variety of textures/materials dramatically speeds development of certain spatial coordination and dexterity skills. Still, even removing books entirely from the equation, it's likely that conscientious parents could still provide a wide variety of tactile experiences via toys/games/clothing. As for the "eating a kindle" argument, I'd say it's likely that child-specific e-Readers and tablets are likely to appear within the next 5 years – ruggedized units meant to be safely placed in mouths, and even charged without risk of harming the child reader.
- eBook sharing is inherently easier than physical book sharing. The difficulty you're really talking about is more of a licensing and royalties issue – and especially in the case of shorter works meant to be read repeatedly, I think childrens' books will lead the way to share-friendly licensing models… Can you imagine sharing a favorite eBook with another parent, or a whole PTA group, that could be read 1-3 times for free… And THEN needed to be purchased to read again? I can already picture how impossible it would be to resist that click to buy button with a crying two year old at bedtime. Other possibilities would be shared licensing, where each progressive "buyer" passing the book via word of mouth reduces the price to everyone else who bought the book… Getting an affiliate cut from each sale… adhoc library functionality between connected devices – readable on any single device at a time (unless paid for again)… Lots of possibilities, that all fit short-form content better than an adult novel that is typically read once and tossed/passed on.
In summary, I see the opposition to digital publishing centered around resolvable technical issues more than anything else… And we haven't even started to break the ice on innovations that would increase/encourage reading made possible by these devices – enabling a constantly-travelling parent to record audio for a story and "read to their child" even while away from home, for one simple example.
But will print publishing ever truly disappear completely? It's highly unlikely within our lifetimes. But again, it may become cost prohibitive for most people long before then. The real key questions going forward will be making the all-digital playing field more level with regards to fair use and copyright.