Can I be pessimistic here for a second? (I know, why break the habit of a lifetime?) I don't believe that a halcyon age of author-led publishing is coming. I don't believe that books are going to die or even that the widespread take up of e-books is going to free us from the shackles of publishers. Maybe a few big names with loyal audiences and strong brands will break away and make even more millions. But, as their contracts are probably pretty preferential already, why should they bother?
At the other extreme, it's true that the playing field will be lowered for unpublished writers. People will be able to publish directly to their audience - an idea that excites those writers who growl about agents and editors being the "gatekeepers" of the publishing world. Big deal. I could do that today, if I wanted to, go through a print-on-demand publisher and list my book on Amazon. And I could probably sell about fifty copies too, maybe a hundred if I really worked at it. Again, big deal.
Let's play fantasy publishing for a second. Let's imagine that, from tomorrow, physical books cease to exist and everyone (small children included) has their own e-book reader. And then let's imagine that all of the inexperienced, unpublished writers flood onto the market, clamouring for attention. Because I've met some of these writers (online) and let me tell you, they don't know how to write and they don't know how to edit, but they do know how to make a lot of noise. And your beautifully crafted, rigorously edited book has to compete amongst all that clamour. No matter how good your self-promotion and social media skills are, this virtual cattle market is not going to make your life easier.
I wonder who will get the top spots on the iBookstore or Amazon's front page? Will it be you, with your loyal and independent cult following? Or will it be the publishers and big-name authors, who can afford to pay for the privilege in exactly the same way they do today in bookshops around the country? Meanwhile, your book flounders twenty-seven pages deep in the search listings.
We live in interesting times, to be sure, and the publishing industry may never be the same again. But it will still be there, because we need publishers and they need us. A few people will get to be the Arctic Monkeys of the e-publishing world, but as for the notion that the cream always rises to the top, well, good luck in that centrifuge.