Agent-blogger Nathan Bransford sees an e-future where the barriers and gatekeepers to publication fall away in the face of cheap e-distribution. In this world, the new rejection letter will be the silence of an indifferent marketplace.
This is probably true. I'm not sure it's such a good thing for authors, though. A winnowing of submitted manuscripts by agents and other gatekeepers makes the quality of the work the barrier to entry into the marketplace.
When readers do the winnowing you have to persuade people to read the manuscript for them to find out if it's good or not. This is going to lead to several developments that aren't necessarily favorable to authors.
1. The price of a book is going to come way down. Authors can tolerate a lot of this, as self-published e-books pay much higher royalties than conventional books. But a reduction in the perceived value of content is bad for the market. And with so many potential authors fighting for attention, the price could ultimately reach zero, as authors give away work in hopes of gaining attention they can parley into paying opportunities.
2. Meanwhile where attention is scarce and at a premium, people will start charging others to generate it. Amazon and other companies which e-publish lots of authors who generate few sales, will probably start looking to exploit the authors as a profit center.
Authors might end up paying for some online version of co-op, where you appear higher in people's searches or are featured more prominently on the web page.
If self-publishing replaces a sizable chunk of what is currently published conventionally, authors may have to go out-of-pocket for editorial. Freelance publicists will definitely be pitching services to authors.
The current rule that authors do not pay for publication and that money flows to the author will change to an entrepreneurial model where authors are expected to invest money to try to reach an audience.
3. Whatever the mechanism is for generating reader attention, it will be corrupted. This has happened on every author "display site," where "popular" books get that way through back-channel vote-trading and glad-handing. I've heard that there's similar fishiness among the Amazon "top reviewer" ranks.
The fact that nobody has figured out a way to use "crowd-sourcing" to sift slush yet indicates that it's problematic.
And the fact that so many nominees for big awards are not bestsellers indicates that popularity isn't the best measure of quality.
I posted this response as a comment to Nathan's blog entry, and he's been kind enough to make it his comment of the week. Speaking of generating attention...