New York, 2014—Back in 2009, the headlines about book sales and the future of the publishing industry looked about as grim as those about newspapers and magazines. But as indicators about the book business, the headlines were misleading. Books were poised for a significant breakthrough, the beginning of an era of enormous, positive change.

Unlike other printed media, books do not have advertising, so there is none to lose. They do not have subscribers, so holding onto them is not an issue either. The main challenge is to manage inventory, making books available where, when, and how readers want them. And on that score, the advances in gadgetry and the changes in popular habits over the past decade, especially since 2009, have produced a major advance.

When we talk of a “book reader” now, we don’t just mean a person, but a device. Stored in the device is a small collection of books and other reading material downloaded from bookseller offerings and libraries. We can, of course, still read books in the classical format, virtually unchanged since Gutenberg. When we’re done with it, a book still becomes an artifact placed on a shelf, a reassuring way to honor the object and its author. With enough books, you can still turn almost any room into a place of warmth and style.

But in 2014, that option for reading is only one of many from which to choose. Even five years ago you could already read a book on your smart phone’s screen, not to mention on early versions of handheld electronic machines like the Kindle. Or you could download the audio version of a book, for your commute or your exercise routine. If you wanted a printed book, but couldn’t find it; but you could order a bound copy churned out from a machine that provided a cover and glued the spine—Voila! These print-on-demand machines soon became smaller and more efficient. And all of these technologies fed the biggest innovation of all—the rising belief by everyone in the publishing chain, from author to consumer, that readers should choose from several options of how to access a book, and they should be reasonably assured of finding it.

Books contain stories, research, journalism, poetry, images; their function dates at least back to the cave paintings. What has evolved over time is the means of delivery. In the twentieth century, the advent of digital composition eliminated some of the machinery of bookmaking, but not the essential relationship between writer and text. In the twenty-first, the impact of technology on the content has mainly to do with the new ways readers can use books as research tools.

Now, links embedded in the text take you to definitions, explanations, and reference points, such as original documents. So the substance of the books—especially nonfiction narratives, investigative reports, and scholarship—is enhanced by the expanse of material beyond the page. Whatever form of book you are holding in your hand, you are, in effect, in the expanded universe of the author. A printed book comes with the reference materials available on the Web; a screen device can include all kinds of links; and the newest entry, what looks like paper but is powered by a chip and has downloading Wi-Fi capacity—all these enlarge that author’s universe. Content is deeper, broader, and more easily updated than ever, yet it is still the domain of the writers who shape their own vision.

Content is the sine qua non of information. But it is distribution that provides the audience, and it is distribution that has undergone the most important transformation in the digital age.

At the middle of the last century, the cozy neighborhood bookstore began to be challenged by mall stores, owned by chains like Walden and Dalton, which introduced discounting and other marketing bells and whistles. The better independent booksellers responded by upgrading and expanding their inventory, producing “superstores,” such as Denver’s famous Tattered Cover, which has well over a hundred thousand titles, expert service, and in-store events. The chains—Barnes & Noble and Borders—soon adapted the superstore model, adding, for good measure, coffee bars. Book sales also moved into the “big box” stores such as Wal-Mart and Costco, but these sold a limited number of discounted titles and “deleted” any book that did not meet immediate sales expectations.

Peter Osnos is CJR's vice-chairman.