Are books sacred? You know, in the 'holding a book gets you closer to godliness' kind of way. And if they are, does the sanctity extend to their digital versions? Does reading Jonathan Franzen's Freedom on a Nook, Kindle or iPad fill you with the same inspiration as curling up on the sofa, turning physical page after physical page, touching, feeling, perhaps even smelling, the paper and print?
Really the question is, does the soul of a book lie in its content alone, or does the format feed it too?
If content alone defines a brand, then physical books do not matter. The great stories can be told, and read, on screens and with plenty of tech benefits too. So the brands should work in just the same way as before.
True, you won't be seeing every fellow holiday maker lounging around the pool reading Dan Brown's latest code always a great ice breaker as there's no cover to hook a conversation to. And you'll not chat up that young woman at the Tate because her tear-streaked copy of One Day is peeping out from her handbag. If the content we consume is not evident to those around us, will we still make the same social links, defined by shared taste and mutual interest?
Some might say, books are a private thing, a matter for personal reflection. Not a social medium. Is that so? Or, is that always so? Content defines passions, and passions create communities. The new formats may obscure this sort of affiliation.
Here's a truism: Everyone's different! No one has precisely the same set of preferences and habits as everyone else. And with 7 billion citizens of our planet, there's a whole lot of variation in media consumption. Some will hold on to books till the day they die. Others will plunge deeply into digital only. Yet others, will do a bit of both. Others still may start their young lives as digital mavens, only to discover the sensory rewards of printed paper later (Read Gary Shteingart's Super Sad True Love Story).
To me, the name of the game is eclecticism: have everything for everyone, let people choose. People have the power and control to build their content libraries around themselves. Let them shake and stir it, according to their own tastes and circumstances.
What does this mean for publishers and book retailers? It means, everything's sacred. Whatever your format, do it really well. Meaning: respect the content, and respect the vessel it travels in.
You'll have to do ebooks, so do them really well. Think far forward and understanding how they will be consumed; especially as they go through successive innovation phases. Retailers and distributors need to be alert: no space is required for digital books. Theoretically anyone can do it: your bank, the electrical retailer, the post office, Tesco of course. But it's the curatorial brands that will convince people to trust them, brands that demonstrate taste, judgment and a deep understanding of content.
And for good old books? Love them, but make the experience of buying them exciting. It may not be as instant as a download, but it's amazing how much experience, inspiration and fun you can put back into bookselling. (Don't forget micro-publisihing and micro-binding!) Ditch the fusty, embrace modern entertainment. Turn your bookshops into idea shops. They'll be the best place to trade insights, opinions and imagination on the High Street.
And, crucially if you're a bookseller, stay flexible. Stock ereaders, go long on ebooks, arrange your space to offer everything for everyone. Build your brand for every customer, and every format.