In the information and entertainment industries, bits and atoms often are confused. Is the publisher of a book in the information delivery business (bits) or in the manufacturing business (atoms)? The historical answer is both, but that will change rapidly as information appliances become more ubiquitous and user-friendly. Right now it is hard, but not impossible, to compete with the qualities of a printed book.
A book has a high-contrast display, is lightweight, easy to "thumb" through, and not very expensive. But getting it to you includes shipping and inventory. In the case of textbooks, 45 percent of the cost is inventory, shipping, and returns. Worse, a book can go out of print. Digital books never go out of print. They are always there.
Other media has even more immediate risk and opportunity. The first entertainment atoms to be displaced and become bits will be those of videocassettes in the rental business, where consumers have the added inconvenience of having to return the atoms and being fined if they are forgotten under a couch ($3 billion of the $12 billion of the U.S. video rental business is said to be late fines). Other media will become digitally driven by the combined forces of convenience, economic imperative, and deregulation. And it will happen fast.