The History Of Publishing
Publishing is sharing of ideas and information.
Think of the town crier; the temple scribe; the playwright — these are all publishing, and they’ve all been around for thousands of years.
Pre-1440, dissemination of ideas was necessarily limited. A scribe can only pen so many books, and many people couldn’t read. New ideas spread slowly, limited by distance and education. The printing press arrived in 1440, and mass production of writing emerged. Books, tracts, magazines and newspapers could be read and shared.
And nowadays, publishing can be virtual and/or physical: blogs, journals, blogs, newspapers, books, radio, television, film…all is production and dissemination of creative work. The computer, and how we use it, changed everything.
This post is a transcript of a talk I will be delivering next week. Because the talk is quite long, I’ve set it out over three posts. I’ll put the slides for the talk at the end of the final blog post.
I thought it would be of interest to you, the reader (plus, I’m lazy; it’s a lot easier to write a talk twice than invent a whole new blog post!). The talk is called Your Story, Your Way: Options for Publishing, and I’m delivering it as part of a workshop for the Ronald Hugh Morrieson Awards.
Now, before I begin: a disclaimer. I am not a publisher, an expert in the publishing industry or a lawyer. Think of me as a gifted amateur — all information offered here is my own opinion. That being said, I have an MBA and I’m continually analysing markets for the Day Job.
This post is mostly about fiction because that’s what I write 🙂 but some points in here are relevant for non-fiction too.
The Costs of Traditional Publishing
Up until the mid-nineteenth century, book publication was a costly enterprise. Print was laid on a page, often by hand. Printing presses were expensive and cumbersome, and print runs had to be large to reduce the per unit cost. Books are relatively large, heavy objects, so freight was expensive. And because paper is susceptible to damp they had to be stored in good conditions; inventory cost was high.
Not surprisingly, then, publishers tried to reduce the risks of printing books that might never sell. Works were published in serial format, like Dickens and Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes , or an author might fund or part-fund the initial print run. Walt Whitman, Mark Twain and Virginia Woolf all paid for early productions of their work. Woolf, I suspect, was motivated by creative control, but Twain, an entrepreneur, was frustrated by his publisher.
Throughout the twentieth century, print costs reduced. Skilled labour was replaced by machines and cost-effective distribution and supply chains were developed. And in the 1900s, a new model of publishing developed: venture capital.
Throughout the nineteenth century, and still into this day, large publishing houses offer advances to authors in anticipation of monies earned. In return, the publishing house gains the lion share of sales, and provides all the work to get the book to market.
The mid-late 1900s were the hey-day of print publishing. It took a lot of capital to buy the presses to set up a publishing house, and it took a great deal of time and experience to develop the distribution networks of bookstores, libraries and bookclubs to purchase the books. So there was limited competition. And in times of limited competition, margins are high.
So, by the mid 1900s, trade publishing of fiction was probably a highly lucrative industry, as judged by the number of bookstores, newspapers and publishing companies.
THEN… along came the computer.
‘Frame-breaking change’ is business-speak for when rapid changes are enforced upon an industry, usually through technology. This isn’t a phenomenon unique to publishing: in the eighteenth century railways did this to stagecoaches.
What did the computer do?
Initially, computer-induced alterations were small. Typing became faster and it was easier to edit. But rapidly, the changes increased and increased, and this highly networked, traditional industry struggled to adapt.
And then — there was AMAZON.
And the everything changed, almost overnight.
In 1994, Jeff Bezos created Amazon as an online bookstore. Bezos used this new computing technology to offer books to purchasers directly from printers. This meant no inventory costs, and a wider selection: a virtual store could stock thousands more titles than a traditional bookseller.
I’ve heard it said that although Bezos always dreamed of Amazon being a general store, he began with books, because he saw the high-margin publishing infrastructure a being ripe for change. I don’t know if that is true, and I also don’t know if its true that Bezos doesn’t care about literature; he’s certainly been very supportive of open access content creation.
But whatever the motivation, Amazon fundamentally changed the publishing industry, possibly even more than the introduction of the printing press.
Because after selling physical books, Amazon went three steps further. It digitised the books; it allowed content creators open access to its publishing platform, and it created a new, mass-market format for reading.
So, here’s what computers have done (so far) to publishing:
- Per unit print costs have dramatically reduced.
- Books can be digitised.
- iPads, kindles, phones are all reading devices.
- Print books can be bought and sold online, anywhere in the world.
- Books can be downloaded as digital versions instantly, with no shipping costs.
- Publishing platforms for trade fiction are open-access.
- International cross-collaboration between creators is easy
- Relationships between suppliers, distributors and content users can be developed across borders
- Formatting and design are constantly improving, and ebooks are looking prettier than ever
- Cross-content creation is emerging: say, books with music, or videos with vlogs
- Piracy is easy
- Increased competition for leisure time
Excited about what might come next?
Next Post: Show me the money: Where publishers make their profits.