So those of you who have been following the conflict over the current state of the publishing industry (who by the way are entirely nerds) know that the battle lines have apparently been drawn between those who support "traditional" publishing and those who are going full speed ahead with the new concept of epublishing. Some on one side use the argument that the epublishing sphere is producing a bunch of crap that will crowd out good literature and ultimately harm the industry as a whole, while the epublishers are crowing about the apparent downfall of the publishing companies that have acted as gatekeepers for so long and the birth of a new era of freedom for writers as a whole.
I think in a lot of ways the industry has changed permanently, but the conflict we are seeing between self publishers and publishers, editors and agents isn't helping any of us adapt to the change.
First off, a distinction needs to be drawn between the publishers and the distributors. You have to keep in mind that for the past who knows how long, the only way a book could be sold was through a bookstore, and that most of those bookstores were chains owned by a handful of companies. Publishing companies were the people who developed relationships with those distributors and got the books from the authors hands to the stores. They were almost like the union for writers as a whole; they were big enough that the distributors had to listen to them or lose out on product, and for the most part I believe that they tried to guarantee the fair treatment of the writers producing the product they sold. The agents who represented the authors were likewise part of that process.
Unfortunately, that bargaining all too often came out in favor of the distributors. As I heard it described to me, the bookstores kept the lion share of the profits, while the author, agent and publisher basically divided up the small remainder. It was the needs and demand of the bookstores that moved books in and out of shelves in less than a year, that told publishers that if a book didn't sell they would have to ship it back and store it at their own cost, and that generally bent things in the advantage of the distributors. Writers are very often known as being poor, but I doubt the publishing company was the reason for it. It was likely the fact that the publishing company could only get so much out of the bookstore before they were simply turned down.
Now the internet has officially revolutionized the industry, almost on accident. Suddenly the bookstore is not the only place to find books. In fact, it's almost a second choice behind Amazon and other online stores, where electronic books and actual hardcopies by the thousands are available at the click of a mouse. The effect has been devastating to the distributors who have had a lock on the market for so long. Long invincible chains like Borders are literally vanishing almost overnight, and the publishing companies which had spent so long developing ties with those stores are suddenly left hanging in the wind, with the likelihood of unpaid bills piling up behind them. It's probably going to end up with a balance that favors writers much more heavily, but for the time being it's chaos.