This post was prompted by the recent announcement by shadowhelm of his beginning a new publishing company, an E-publisher. Like most, if not all, it appears that Sky Warrior Book Publishing expects authors to submit stuff for payment via royalty alone. Even if I'm wrong on this, the following still applies overall to the E-publishing industry.
I have no problem with other people supporting these ventures. However...
... an Ebook publisher who's going to be serious -- to me -- has to work just like a regular publisher. That means no "speculative" publication of an author's work. If you accept for publication, there needs to be an advance, judged against your guess of potential sales, just like regular publishers.
If that's not the case, it sends a signal to me that the Ebook publisher is not serious, or at least not confident in their ability, to give me any more than I could give myself. I have the same access to the Web, I can either make, or have made, a sales website, I even have some small fanbase to spread the word. This is true of ANY published author. The ONLY thing that's being offered at that point is perhaps some of the administrative duties of running a site that sells stuff, but heck, Amazon does that too.
A publisher has to bring more to the table. That means money, editors/proofreaders, artists/layout people, and connections for distribution. THOSE are the things that make an author take you seriously. Advances are THE way of proving that a publisher seriously believes in what they are doing. They're sending the author money based on their evaluation of the value of that work, and betting not just that advance, but all the work they're going to do WITH that book to get it sold, that it'll make enough money back to pay off the advance AND all their efforts AND then at least a little more.
As an author, I'm putting many hours of my work on the table. I may have already done the work, but it was still time sacrificed from something else. What is the publisher offering me?
In the case of Real Books, the physical ones, a good publisher is offering me a lot; besides the advance, they have well-established sales and distribution channels to major markets. An E-Publisher doesn't, as a rule, have any better access to these than I do personally, unless the E-publisher is itself part of a larger publishing or media conglomerate, or otherwise has a LOT of fame associated with them that will naturally serve to draw people to THEIR E-publishing site rather than anyone else's.
So that's my take on it. If I want to offer my novels online (and they're not novels owned by Baen, which DOES have the connections and distributes a lot of Ebooks profitably), then an E-publisher needs to show me -- unambiguously and clearly -- what they offer me for my E-novels that I cannot do myself by putting my book on Amazon.
I have to trot off to work, but before I go, an example of what E-publishers COULD do to have value added: have people or organizations with POWERFUL online presences as major advertisers and front men/women for their publishing work. But that can't be "sometimes John Scalzi mentions our stuff" but "John Scalzi has a regular column all about our stuff" or "Slashdot features our stuff every week" or something of that nature.