The future has enough room for both self-publishing and traditional publishing (plus hybrid publishing!). But self-publishing needs to refine itself in order to have staying power.
Right now Publishers are the arbiters of good literature/books. It is still, and always will be, a great accomplishment to have your book published traditionally. But self-publishing could improve its reputation if authors step up to the plate.
As with everything, there is a good and bad side to self-publishing. The bad side is obvious: self-publishing is overrun with terrible books. People believe that they can write anything (good or bad), publish it online, and become bestsellers. Don’t get me wrong, I am all for freedom of expression (as well as making money!), but if authors take self-publishing seriously, readers will too. Right now many readers won’t bother picking a self-published book, unless it is already a bestseller, because they assume it is poorly written.
Authors need to view self-publishing as a real business (as all the successful self-publishers do!). They need to put time and effort into their books. But this goes beyond the writing, that is only the first step. In my (decidedly biased) opinion, what they really need to do is put money into the books.
First, they need to get the work developmentally edited (here is where my bias comes in!). The reason most traditionally published works are good isn’t just that the publishing houses are picky; it is because they employ editors to make the books better. No author can be critical of their own work. See my previous post about why this is important.
Next, they need to get the book copyedited. Typos are obnoxious. Most readers notice them, and it makes them lose faith in the author if they can’t get through a single page without an error.
Then, correctly format your book so that it is easy to navigate as an e-book.
Also, hire a good cover designer! People say don’t judge a book by its cover, but who among us doesn’t do that! A cover tells you what type of book it is and it indicates the caliber of the writing. Let’s be honest, a crappy cover makes you assume the writing is crappy. Check out this post for more details on cover design: Simple Tips for Hiring a Book Cover Designer
Finally, get to marketing! This is always my least favorite part (mostly because I suck at it), but it is obviously a huge and necessary part of finding readers.
Of course, there are tons of smaller steps in between (like hiring critique partners or beta readers, doing research, etc), but you get the idea: take self-publishing seriously. If you treat it like a business and put money into it, you are way more likely to succeed.
This is all up to the authors. Readers will buy whatever crap is put out there if it has a fun gimmick. But if you want self-publishing to be taken seriously, authors need to take it seriously.
People are going to find a way to filter out the crap and find the real literature. Make sure you are on the side you want to be on.