Since Johannes Gutenberg first began mass-producing movable type in 1439, the publishing industry has come a long ways. And as technological advances compound the progress almost exponentially, things seem to change on almost a daily basis.
Back when I first started sending my work out to publishers in the late 1980's, the one firm and fast rule was to always include an SASE, or a Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope. This was to ensure you'd get that rejection you were anticipating back from the publisher. If you didn't include an SASE, you were almost guaranteed of never hearing from them.
Now sending an SASE is still a firm and fast rule when submitting work via the postal service, but with so many in the industry moving online, using snail mail is dying out. In fact, I haven't sent anything out by regular mail for a long time. I personally feel that if the agent or publisher is not fully functional online with e-mail submissions, or at least an online submission form, they may not be as up with the times as I want in an agent. After all, who wants a dinosaur to market your science fiction novel? That's not to say someone who still requires submissions be sent regular mail is completely out of touch with the modern world. It's just that I prefer to take that risk out of the equation as much as I can.
Just as submissions are almost completely done in the virtual world, the publishing side is following suite. They're a little slower at it, and with valid reasons. Many people still prefer a good book to curl up with and read. A book just feels better, more natural. It's probably just a lifetime of conditioning, and fifty years from now an e-reader will feel right. For now, though, paper books are still the industry standard.
More and more publishers are marketing virtual books. The whole concept is probably older than most people realize. It all started with Project Gutenberg in the early seventies. There was a push for e-readers as early as the turn of the century, but unfortunately the world didn't seem to be quite ready for them and they almost faded into obscurity. They've had quite the revival lately though. The American Publishing Institution estimated that by mid-2010, sales for e-books represented as much as 8.5% of total book sales.
There are both positives and negatives to this. On the upside, it's awesome for authors. Standard royalties generally pay the author no more than 15% on a regular paper book's sales. Royalties for e-books can be upwards of 25% to 50% or even higher sometimes. That's a substantial number. It's possible because there is less overhead associated with making an e-book. There are no paper costs, ink costs, printing and labor costs, distribution costs, and the list goes on.
I'm in on the movement. As a science fiction writer and aficionado, it seems I'd almost have to be, right? My wife bought me an Amazon Kindle as a present last Christmas. It's a wonderful thing. I charge it like a phone or an iPod and use it like a book. It doesn't have the shiny pixelated look to it like a computer screen does. It's not quite the same as reading a regular book, but it's pretty damn close. I can store thousands of books on it and it's no larger than a standard paperback. Oh, and with the click of a button, I can buy more books. I click "buy" on Amazon, the book appears in my Kindle and the money vanishes from my checking account. Scary!
Kindle is not the only e-reader out there. There are plenty more of them, and others are coming along every day. The market is there for them, and when the market supports something, it is probably here to stay. At least until we all get atomic chipsets in our brains and use our thoughts to access something in the virtual world.
The downside to e-publishing is the publishing houses are losing a huge chunk of revenue, and they want it back. Suddenly the author is making a much larger amount of money that comes from the revenue they used to make by printing paper books. In fact, taking away the need to stock books on shelves and market and distribute them suddenly takes away the need to even have a publisher. All you need is a little tech know-how and you can publish your own book. Amazon already has a means to do this in place for free.
There are obvious issues with this, as you may have inferred if you've read my previous post on self-publishing. The editing process is a very vital part of the industry, and this takes away the editors along with the publishers. Publishers and editors have a tremendously important role in the industry, in spite of the advances in technology.
So where is it all going? Where will we be in fifty years? How about a hundred or more? No one really knows yet, but some kind of change is definitely on the way. Gutenberg changed the world forever when he invented mechanical movable type printing. The industry doesn't really want to change. There's pressure from publishers not to change. But that isn't going to stop progress. It'll be a little slower to happen than maybe it should be, from a technological standpoint, but the change is coming.