Once upon a time, photography was a means to an end. You commissioned a photographer to create a portrait, something you hang on the wall. You didn't pay someone to produce a negative, you paid them to provide you with a finished piece that you could hang on your wall.
That finished piece was the key - because not only were cameras "rare" (by today's standards), the skills, techniques and materials needed to create the finished piece were even more hard to come by. Photographers, and print-makers, could charge a premium because they provided something you couldn't get on your own.
Today, photography is still a means, though to a very different end. Cameras are not rare. Prints are not rare. In fact, many would argue that prints aren't even necessary. We take our photos with the camera in our phone, save the images in the cloud, and share them with our friends on Facebook. Printing has little to do with photography.
As a photographer, this leads to an interesting dilemma. All of the previous barriers to entry are gone. Everyone has a camera, and almost no one cares about prints... right?
Well, there's a pretty good chance that if you don't care about prints, and don't care about selling prints, then your clients won't much care either. That's fine, but what if you're leaving something on the table. I'm not just talking about money - what if you're leaving on the table an opportunity to add value to your clients.
Solving the right problem.
What do you do that helps people remember the way they feel? How do you help tell their story? I don't happen to think that handing over a disc of images is necessarily the best thing for a client. Don't get me wrong, I'm not fighting against providing digital files - that's really a fight that's just not worth it anymore - at least for weddings. I just don't happen to believe that what really helps people remember the way they feel at their wedding, is a disc with a few hundred (or thousand), color-corrected digital files.
Sure, I provide my clients with a disc, so that they have an archive of the images from their wedding day. And then I do what I was really hired to do - which is to help them remember, by creating something meaningful - an album.
Portrait clients don't hire me because they want a disc of files. They don't hire me to simply provide them with a disc (or gallery) of photographs. Sure, they want to be able to share those images, but they are commissioning me for much more than that. They want something tangible that helps them remember. That's why people purchase large wall prints and canvases. It's why they purchase books, and put prints in frames and put them on their desk.
You are the expert
Here's the thing, I still think that clients come to us because we offer them something they can't get on their own. Of course they can get 4x6 prints, and 5x7 prints, and 8x10 prints. They can even order their own books, or canvases, or framing. That's not the real value. The fact is, I don't think it's about the "photography," and I don't think it's about the "products." I think it's about solving your clients problem.
By the way, when you're the expert, and you solve your clients problem, they will pay you accordingly. When your expertise, and your skill, and your talent, provide something of real value to a client, the result is that you end up making a profit. Often, we think that the problem we get to solve is "my client needs pretty photos." If that's the problem, then really, shooting and turning over the files is a great solution. For some clients, that's likely the case, and you can build your business on that. (By the way, my experience has been that the only profitable clients in that category are commercial clients.)
On the other hand, if the problem is "I want to remember the way I feel at my wedding," or "I want to remember this stage of the life of our family," then you have an opportunity to add real value by providing something tangible.
Opportunity looks a lot like hard work.
This is probably the most important part of the question. Of course, I never thought I'd quote Ashton Kutcher on this blog. Then again, he was paraphrasing a quote from Steve Jobs, that was borrowed from Thomas Edison. Here's the point:
Many photographers have built viable, valid business models based on simply turning over the files, and not adding any value through tangible products. It's your business, and you can do whatever you want. At the same time, a lot of photographers don't even bother with what we commonly call "sales," because it's hard. They don't even bother because it requires developing a plan, and knowing what you're doing. They don't even bother because it's simply "easier" to just "share" all the files.
My take? Be someone that takes the opportunity to add value. Be someone that makes your clients better. Be someone that makes their lives better because you're willing to do the hard work of giving them REAL value in their lives as a result of what you do for them. That's a business model that will NEVER die.
Are print sales dead? Sure, if by print sales you mean finding a way to sell a bunch of 4x6's and 5x7's and whatever. If that's what you're referring to, then yes - that strategy is dead. On the other hand, if you find a way to add value to your clients, then no - adding value to your clients will never be dead.