There is a fan-fucking-tastic article on The Globe and Mail about the future of the book in the face of the rising popularity of ebook readers. The general gist of the article is that ebooks work phenomenally for everyone but publishers. I feel the same way about this as I do record companies, especially now that the more industrial means of production (note: there really needs to be a 'commie' HTML tag so I could nest it in sarcasm tags) for printed material have largely been rendered optional. You don't need an expensive to produce trade paperback to have a fair number of folks able to read your work.
I hope that over the course of time this evolves to make self publication easier for writers who aren't political wingnuts with an agenda to push and works to erode the control publishers currently have over what is available to the masses. This doesn't necessarily mean that spare bedroom fiction writers are going to storm the marketplace (and they probably shouldn't) but that you could feasibly have a book out there with a large means of distribution without the overhead of having a publishing company and all of the baggage that typically comes with influencing that availability. The downside to this is that, as is typically the case when something gets easier and becomes more visible, the marketplace will likely be flooded with (e)reams of unreadable genre fiction that will make discerning between half-assed experiments and totally assed experiments in publishing difficult if not impossible. This flood might be the savior of traditional publishers, enabling them to gain additional cachet as a litmus for quality or at least works that have been checked for spelling and grammar. This might even convince publishing houses that they might need to do a bit of marketing that matters to promote books instead of limiting it to the typical book signing events and review copies.
The interesting part about this is the role that Amazon is beginning to take in shaping the pricing structure of ebooks. Rather than directly fighting publishers prices, Amazon just started selling them for less and sometimes at a loss. Media types have done no small amount of speculation on how free Kindle offerings are going to skew the popularity of ebooks on the whole and this plays out when you look at the digital bestsellers list. The hole in this particular theory about free ruining the market is that most of what is listed and is zero cost is genre fiction that wouldn't ordinarily be at the top of any list much less a bestseller list. The authors (or, maybe, publishers) have made a conscious choice to make their books available at no cost in exchange for the increased visibility. Amazon then takes care of the distribution end of the deal and gives people a little more impetus for buying a Kindle. Seems like a pretty good deal for everyone at the party other than publishers. They would largely love to pretend that ebooks never happened or that things remained the way they were when readers were still expensive or next to useless in terms of functionality and that paper books were still the absolute nadir of written word consumption where they had more control even when dealing with the world of one stop distributors (which are famously vicious about their terms for selling a product that is not a bestseller). I have precious little sympathy for this weird protectionist stuff and almost no patience for folks moaning about their deflating bottom line while others are actually doing pretty well by, you know, adapting to the circumstances.
I'm no marketing dude and despite the fact that I work for a publishing company of sorts, I'm the IT guy so I have no idea how all of this will play out. Maybe it will mean the end of the written word as we know it (insert ominous music here) but, as someone who reads a lot and dislikes most of the physical aspects of the book format (especially the dreaded hardcover edition that always precedes the mass market edition), I hope that the growing multitude of forces that have a stake in the future of both ebooks and publishing manage to shake things up in a productive way that might provide the appropriate shaking out of stupor and slap of reality. People who write, keep on writing. Thanks.