Anyone who is involved with writing books or publishing them is aware of the dramatic changes since ereaders became a viable option. We can thank Amazon and the Kindle for that, although I prefer and own a Nook. Publishers are running scared, not only because of the economy, but because authors don't need them to publish an ebook. J.A. Konrath has been a primary proponent of authors self-pubbing via ebook and leaving traditional publishers behind. Even Norman Spinrad has decided to go the epub route.
I think publishers have good reason to worry. The irony of it all is that they've largely done it to themselves. There are fewer books being published and most of those are by proven bestselling authors. The midlist, those books that sell moderate quantities consistently, is being all but eliminated. Taking a chance on a new writer? It's not done very much. Patience to grow that writer is rare. And promotion? Hah! Authors are now expected to pay for that and organize it on their own. Sometimes an agent or publisher wants to see a marketing plan along with the book.
Is it any wonder that writers, some of whom have spent years trying to find an agent and a publisher, are opting to epub their books themselves? Online writing groups can provide the critiques and editing that publishers formerly did. Promotion is largely through social media rather than print ads and book tours. And distribution is via wi-fi at your local Starbucks. So what purpose will the major publishers serve in this brave new world?
Oh, I don't think books will ever totally go away. Heck, even vinyl hasn't disappeared entirely. (Vinyl records have a much richer sound than CDs or MP3s. Ask any musician.) But when was the last time you--or more importantly your kids--bought a CD? Even most of my recent music purchases have been generally through iTunes. I'm not even saying that's a bad thing.
I'm a fan of what used to be called folk music, but is sometimes referred to as singer-songwriter. There have been a few revivals since the 60s and 70s, but it's been mostly a niche market with very little chance for the musicians to get a record contract with one of the major labels. The technology that enabled these musicians to record their own CDs at a reasonable price changed things. I could go to a local coffee house (lots of those in the Boston area), hear a performer and decide if I liked him or her enough to buy a CD to take home with me. You've probably never heard of Cheryl Wheeler or Garnet Rogers, but I have all their CDs (now loaded on my iPod).
My question was always what would be the equivalent of the try-before-you-buy of a coffee house concert? Amazon and Barnes and Noble have answered that one with the free first chapter for ebooks. Then how do you choose which first chapters to try out? I suppose it's the same way as which coffee house you decide to go to on a Saturday night. A friend says, "Hey, Don White is playing at the Me and Thee coffeehouse in Marblehead. We should go see him. He's great!" In other words, word of mouth. I see that the SinC survey confirms this, even for paper books.
The difference is that musicians are, by nature of what they do, performers. They like going in front of an audience and putting their art out there. They use the feedback of the audience to know which songs are good and which are not so good. Writers are not generally performers or marketers of their own work. (Forget James Patterson.) A lot of us are not very good at reading our books at bookstore signings. Even Robert B Parker gave a perfunctory reading when I went to see him. (Although he was a great speaker.) And will there be bookstore signings when most books are bought in electronic format?
I think traditional publishing will still exist in some format in the future. There's still a cachet about being through that tortuous process of submission and rejection and revision to finally make it through to published book. I will admit to a fantasy of holding a hardcover edition of my book, published by an imprint of one of the Big Six, in my hands. But there's no longer a stigma attached to publishing your own book electronically.