The first edition Kindle was released on November 19, 2007. Other devices followed suit (e.g. Nook, Kobo, iPad, etc.). Publishers and the buying public were slow to accept E-Readers, though.
And for good reason.
In addition to the expenses (and bugs) associated with early-generation E-Readers, content was an issue. Publishers treated E-Books as second-rate, releasing them long after print books were published, so content was either unavailable or old news. E-Books were viewed as sales cannibals and had to be properly isolated in the market...you know, squash the competition. (NOTE: It's The American Way.)
Rather than embrace the transition to digital media for what it's worth, it looks like the publishers resisted the move in every way possible. E-Books were created by scanning print copies, and they came out with so many errors you'd think publishers screwed up the typesetting intentionally out of spite. Not to mention the rights-management nightmare authors (and agents) faced.
While publishers dragged their heels, slowly and obstinately venturing into the E-Book market like a child being forced to eat a plate of cold Brussels sprouts, self-publishers have embraced the medium, learning its ins and outs and providing content that has quality competitive to traditionally published books.
In the meantime, E-Readers took hold with consumers.
Earlier this year, news broke that Amazon.com sold 105 E-Books for every 100 print books. While E-Books account for only 14% of all general consumer fiction and non-fiction (according to Forrester Research), it is clear that they are on the rise...although it is also clear that print is not dead.
But that market is changing, too.
Print-on-demand (POD) services like Lulu have been around for many years (since 2002 in Lulu's case). Authors were limited in how they could use them, though. Publishers had a lock on distribution, there was no other way to get into a major bookstore or library. Vanity projects dominated the self-publishing market. In order to sell copies, authors had to find ways to get copies in front of people on their own. Marketing options were limited and sales were low or non-existent.
Then, one of the world's foremost booksellers, Amazon.com, opened its doors to self-publishers. We could now get our books on shelves (albeit virtual shelves). Companies like CreateSpace (owned by Amazon.com) offer print-on-demand with a slew of additional services, ranging from interior and cover design, to access to an expanded distribution network—i.e. the wholesalers who sell to libraries and bookstores.
Many talented writers have embraced self-publishing. Some—Barry Eisler and J.K. Rowling, for example—stepping away from lucrative contracts, and others—like John Locke and Amanda Hocking—starting out on their own and finding success.
I think the future is bright for self-published authors. We are on the forefront of the E-Book market, embracing it faster and deeper than publishers and since we are individuals, we are each able to maneuver faster.
We can also mobilize, and find strength in our numbers. Add in the power of social networking, and marketing your work becomes much more dynamic (and affordable, with the primary investment being time).
Don't let anyone tell you "Don't try to self-publish...you're not [INSERT NAME FROM ABOVE] and can't expect their success. Traditional publishing is still your only real option."
You're not one of those people, and shouldn't try to be. Be yourself. And write the best book you can. If it's really good, and if you work hard, you will find your audience.