Went to a very interesting talk by the estimable Ruth Linka of Touchwood Editions and Brindle and Glass about the effects of ebooks on the publishing industry. This was a couple of weeks ago, but it took me some time to both process the information in her very informational talk and examine my own feelings about it.
It's a complicated subject, the role of ebooks in the world of publishing. I read a lot of ebooks, and a lot of books released free online under Creative Commons licensing. Ruth mentioned something about the new "Cult of Free" that I wish I'd written down, about how my generation very much believes in free things, and how that's not exactly harmonious with the publishing industry. More on that later.
Ruth also said very definitively that ebooks are not a trend. They are here to stay. The difficulty lies in that there are easily two dozen separate and unique file formats that someone at a publishing house has to convert them to.
There is a movement, of course, towards some sense of uniformity. And PDF, of course, never goes out of style, though it's less than ideal for several platforms. And a different ISBN is needed for each individual e-release. All of which takes man-hours, which contribute to the price of a book. This leaves aside the fact that the cost of editing remains the same, and one of the biggest components of book price. There is a general feeling that ebooks should be cheaper than paper because there are no associated printing, storage, or delivery costs, but those are much smaller factors for small printers. For large distributions, like that of bestsellers (Harry Potter, Twilight, or anything else people dress up and wait for hours in the rain for the release of), editing and other man-hour costs become a much smaller part of the cost, which allows them to keep the cost of ebooks low. Given the low cost set as the standard for ebooks, it is harder for small publishers to keep up with low prices.
On the other hand, ebooks are ideal for self-publishers. The cost of a print run can be hugely intimidating for an individual, but ebooks have, wonderfully, no printing costs. With no initial capital outlay (other than an editor, of course, and a graphic designer), epublishing allows many more authors to get their work out there. There is still, of course, the attendant hard work and devoted marketing required of any self-publication, but it makes it more accessible. But part of that accessibility is that the market for ebooks is flooded, and not everyone is willing to pay for an ebook by an unknown author, especially a novel, when there are novels available for free under Creative Commons and public domain. Novels by noted authors, too, including Cory Doctorow.
Part of that is my own devotion to the Cult of Free (backed up, you'll note, by there being no price tag on any of the stories I have up). But it will be interesting to see how the Cult of Free and other market forces affect the future of the ebook and the publishing industry.