I see real issues rising from the deluge of digital books (and not books) being published by the hundreds of new e-book publishers cropping up like sprouts in a cornfield. This first, and perhaps the most telling for new authors, is the potential for the same type of predatory “publishing” that hit with the first POD publishers, and that has now, mostly, gone by the wayside. (Yes, PODs still charge, but most have stopped touting themselves as publishers; they are printing services, the author is the publisher). This stems from the fact that many (not all, certainly) of these e-publishers really aren’t “publishers”: they do no editing, do not screen their product for quality, do not offer appropriate cover art. Many charge the author for services such as the aforementioned inappropriate or just plain crappy cover art. They are the equivalent of POD printers, but only offer “e-printing”. The problem with this is twofold: first, it inundates the market with low-quality product, and second, because there are hundreds of thousands of these books hitting the e-book market, there is a pressure on pricing and a dilution factor for consumers.
Here, as I see it, are the long term effects this will generate: First, yes, the consumer is all excited about being able to buy books for 99 cents, and they are doing so in record numbers. Authors generally get a larger cut of e-book sales, but how much real income is being generated. The total number of e-books being sold is huge, but the profits are not off-setting the loss this is causing in the print book market. The lower priced e-books (usually “published” at low cost due to the aforementioned lack of services generally provided by publishers, like editing) are driving down market prices for e-books from publishers who do provide these services. This is, of course, intentional. Contrary to popular belief, there are costs to publishing an e-book. These “real” publishers are generally also the companies who are publishing print copy books, so there is more pressure on them to make up this lost revenue elsewhere, like cutting back on their “real” publisher services. Ouch… I’m reminded of the predatory retail tactics of Walmart, pricing below profit margin to pressure competitors out of business, then raising prices.
Second: The dilution effect will eventually have a negative impact on sales. It hasn’t yet, evidently, but it will. It has to. Even now, as a consumer, I’m utterly sick of searching for good new books in the e-book pile… Even at a dollar each, I’ll probably have to buy twenty to find one I like, or one that is even readable. Contrary to popular belief, the consumer does have discriminating taste; this is what has made POD self-publishing less a “scarlet letter” than it was a few years ago. You, as an author, are judged not as to how your book made it into print (or e-print) but on how it was received, reviewed and what awards it has won. This is where e-books are going.
On the upside: E-publication has opened a huge market for novella-length and shorter work. There is no really viable print market for these lengths, although for flash fiction, you might try DailySF, which is now a SFWA market. Magazines are dying or dead, anthologies are great, but don’t make money, and just try to publish and sell a novella at a profit. But once again, there are the two above problems with this as well.
So is there a solution? Sure: search for good e-books by looking for good reviews, etc, and drive the market back to where it belongs. And even better, if you read an e-book and like it, review it on Amazon, Goodreads, or any one of a dozen other sites, and recommend it to your friends!