In related news, I had not realized until recently that practically anyone can now put a book on Amazon. Of course vanity publishers have been around for a long time, and self-publishing, through services like Lulu, is becoming increasingly popular. But self-published books very rarely make it into a bookstore. I kind of assumed that you had to have an actual publisher, however small, to get your books listed on Amazon and other major online retailers.
Not so; it turns out, through Smashwords, anyone can publish anything. They do no editing whatsoever. They allow anything that's not illegal. You can't publish your fan fiction, but you can public anything else as an ebook, set whatever price you want, and see it appear for sale. (Apparently it does take a while for new titles to get distributed, so it's not like you can just upload an ebook and see it on Amazon the next day. But it will get there.)
Smashwords is actually a pretty interesting site; their premise is that essentially, online publishing will work precisely like fan fiction: 99% of all published ebooks will vanish in a sea of crap, while the tiny percentage that are worthwhile will be noticed and made more popular by word of mouth. They're quite enthusiastic about this "new publishing model." Of course they would be, since it's their business model. But people (especially frustrated would-be published authors) have been talking about "cutting out the middle-man" forever, and there's a reason why the current agent/publisher system still exists besides just being a scheme to get between the creator and the money. For better or worse, they act as gatekeepers. There may be a lot of bad books being published, but at least any random book you pick up off the shelf at Borders will (probably) be coherent and readable. If you've ever read agents' blogs or the wails of a slush pile reader, you know that 90% of the manuscripts actually submitted for publication are indescribably bad. Not just Stephanie Meyer bad, but this-writer-needs-therapy-and-has-never-e
I do think that self-publishing, crowd-filtering, and digital distribution will become much bigger in coming years, but there will always be some sort of industry formed around those who take on the role of gatekeepers.
I went hunting around to see who's actually trying to make it as an ebook author, bypassing the traditional publishing route.
Let me first say that I know nothing about the authors whose work I'm about to criticize; I'm sure they're swell guys, and they seem to be doing what they love, which is cool. And if they have fans (as they seem to), that's also cool.
But I checked out one of the most-downloaded titles on Smashwords: Helium 3 by Nick Travers. (The fact that it's a free download probably helped.) Travers has a blog where he talks about promoting his book online. He seems to be an average guy who likes writing and found that his free sci-fi novel became moderately popular. More power to him.
I skimmed the first chapter. It's not indescribably bad. It's not even really bad; I'd probably enjoy reading the rest of the book more than I'd enjoy reading Twilight. But it's not good. The plot and setting are generic Hollywood space opera, the characters just stepped out of a roleplaying game, and the dialog is awful. I also caught several grammatical errors in the first few pages.
Next, I found Darrell Bain at Double Dragon Publishing; his books are also available on Amazon.
The first chapter of some of his books can be read online. My opinion: pretty much the same as above. Bad, cliched, clunky writing with completely unoriginal plots. (The excerpt from Quanty, in particular, made me want to scream. Every single line was a howler.)
I'm curious to know how much money he actually makes off of his writing. I'm sure it's not enough to live on, but it looks like he's retired and doing this as a paid hobby.
The growth of this sort of publishing is going to have an impact. A lot of would-be authors are in it for the attention, not for the money. Fan fiction authors are ecstatic just to get a few reviews; seeing your name on Amazon.com and knowing that people are downloading, even paying money for, your books (even if it's only a couple of hundred dollars per year) would be enough for a lot of writers. There are already a small handful of these online publishers actually making a living at it (my understanding is that most of them make their bank on smut fics), and sooner or later, we'll see break-out success stories from authors good enough to be noted for their writing but who bypassed the traditional system. It remains to be seen whether the end result will be good or bad for the literary world, and for those who want to make a living as writers.