Paper books. They're nice to hold in your hands. You can take them on the bus, you can read them in the bath, you can easily lend them out to your friends (and never get them back, in my experience) ... and, if news reports are to be believed, they're fucking dead.
In 2001, Apple computers launched the iPod. Until that time, mp3s and music downloading had been the preserve of music nuts, people given to sharing music illegally on sites like soulseek and kazaa. Most people who shared mp3s were music nerds, and used file-sharing to listen to new music and try out new bands & artists without risk. After Apple launched the iPod (and subsequently, the Apple store) everybody was at it. By 2009, even people who don't really like music all that much (e.g. the kinds of people who habitually buy CDs in supermarkets along with the weekly shop... Robbie Williams fans and the like) wanted one. Everybody and their wife / husband / civil partner had an iPod.
Along the way, the swapping and sharing of music had become the property and preserve of the people who made it. MySpace allowed bands to easily manage their own hosted website, distributing their music directly to their fans without the need for tape-swapping or a middle man. Bands no longer needed a record company or a publicist to share their music with others. This way of doing things opened many bands' eyes to a more DIY way of doing things: they owned their music, they didn't need to sign over their rights to somebody else, and more crucially, they didn't have to spend a lot of time trying to get industry attention.
Will we now imminently see the same sort of sea change in publishing? Several e-readers are now available, and bookworms can now purchase e-books on Amazon for as cheap as $1.99. This kind of publishing allows writers to upload and directly distribute their work directly to readers, and to interact with them on the Kindle forums. Rather than losing out on royalties, authors using this method of publishing get to reap the entire profits that their work generates. [There's an interesting post on how this approach worked for one author - whose novel was already available in traditional format - on The Millions.]
I don't know how e-books would work for a reader like me. In an embarrassingly old fashioned manner, I like the feeling of a book in my hands. Equally, in my doddering old age, I'm prone to leaving expensive items in public places. That's two iPod shuffles and a mobile phone I've lost already this year, by the simple expedient of catching a train. Well done, me. So would I ever use one? It's difficult to say until I've held one in my hands. I might really like it, although I'd probably leave it on a bus or something. But it's not use relying on me for predictions. You're reading the musings of a woman who thought CDs would never take off. [Note to self: never take job working in the Futures department of any large corporation].
In theory, for authors, the e-book looks attractive. You can choose how the book's marketed, and what goes on the 'cover'. You get the final say in editing decisions, and you don't have to attract the attentions of a publishing house or agent. But equally, there are so many downsides. The writer becomes solely responsible for the marketing and selling of his or her own book, if he or she publishes this way, and although there's no significant financial outlay, is still essentially self-publishing. Although most writers are more than happy to spend a lot of time and effort publicising their work, how many want to be solely responsible for it? A lot of writers might be left doing the e-publishing equivalent of spending all day on MySpace browsing people's profiles and clicking "add". "Add." "add".
And how might this alternative access to publishing affect the quality of work that's available? If this method captures authors' imaginations, we might see a lot of un-rewritten work out there, with 'authors' who don't bother with the sort of extensive writing and rewriting that fiction needs to be readable. This might leave a lot of e-book adopters with a lot of dross to sift through, and a general loss of faith in the medium as a whole. A lot of the work available won't be going through the extensive professional attention of editing and critiquing process of conventionally published books. There again, it also means that genuinely interesting, good quality books that publishers are currently unwilling to risk publishing, will get into the public domain. We might see a wildly oscillating range of quality of books, but also an explosion in style and genre. It could be an exciting time.
E-publishing is already starting to have an impact on the publishing industry, and it'll be interesting to see how this pans out. Will readers ever totally abandon the paper and ink book? And if they do, how is the landscape going to change for publishers and writers?