Jonathan Coulton (famed musician of Thing a Week notoriety) has a fascinating piece up today about scarcity and the future of commerce, essentially. I highly recommend giving it a gander (although fair warning: there's a bit of salty language in there).
As an author and librarian, this is a subject that is very near and dear to my heart. Books--written information of any sort--have already made the transition into the digital world. Anyone with an eReader and the desire can download books illegally. It isn't difficult. As more and more eReaders go out into the wild, it's only a question of time before practically anyone will be able to read any book they want for free--no library involved.
The question, of course, is will they?
I'm not sure they will. Just because something is free doesn't mean people won't pay for it anyway. There are plenty of examples of this, from free music over the radio, free television over the airwaves, free water at public drinking fountains, free public sports facilities. MP3s are free these days, but people still pay for them. Why is this?
For one thing, you've got what I'll call the public water fountain effect. Some people just don't like having or using something they might get germs off of. Yes, MP3s can be downloaded, but many times you might end up with some other nastiness along with the MP3. Viruses, Trojans, Keyloggers--you don't know where that MP3 has been. I believe there will always be people willing to pay a reasonable amount of money for the assurance that what they're getting is new, clean, and unspoiled. This is why thrift stores can coexist with high fashion. It's all clothes, but there's a different audience for each level.
I also believe that many people are inherently good. When it comes to readers in particular, they develop a strong connection to their favorite authors. They want their authors to keep writing, and they're willing to pay money for those new shiny books. This is why hardcovers have sold so well over the years. Same information, radically different price point, but people pay extra to read it first. Even if you cut out all the publishers, agents, editors and the like (which you can't--I'll get to that in a second), readers will still want new stuff from their favorite authors. Authors who (speaking from experience) can't afford to write for free. Not at the level fans have come to expect.
And what about those editors, agents, and publishers? I believe that more and more, people will turn to them as the gatekeepers of quality. Not the sole gatekeepers. There will always be breakthrough authors--whether they're discovered by an editor or by an audience. But quality rises to the top. Inevitably. If you're writing at a high level of quality, sooner or later, you'll be found, and you'll be paid for it. Yes, some people might continue writing books for free, but unless there's a huge spike in the number of talented, independently wealthy writers out there, you don't have to worry about that subset of the group.
And it's important to recognize that authors don't write in a vacuum. That editors and agents contribute significantly to the process. They earn those paychecks, folks.
So will books become like Legos? Printable and indistinguishable? I don't think so. They're not interchangeable. It will be interesting to see what happens as 3D printing takes off. Laws will change. Behavior will change. But there have been imitation products for sale for a long time. Products indistinguishable from the original. People still pay good money for the original. Why? Because. It's new. It's real. It's authentic.
I suppose I'll end with an observation. A lot of the time in these "what will the future be like" articles (not in Jonathan Coulton's, mind you), writers focus on one aspect of society, taken to an extreme. I believe society changes and evolves in so many different ways that it's impossible to predict what will happen. Yes, piracy will increase. But industry will adapt. Laws will adapt. People will adapt. Libraries will adapt. Authors will adapt.
We all change. Change isn't bad. It's necessary, even if it can be scary sometimes.