The Three Biggest Publishing Revolutions in History (One of Them Is Right Now)
Posted On: 2014-12-10
by: Mercedes Tabano and Ashley Zee

10th, 2014
Stories have been with us from human’s earliest days. Our collective imagination conjures the image of early humans sitting around a campfire telling stories throughout the night that how integral stories are to our identity as a “human being”.

By contrast, books - particularly easy access to books- is a recent development. There were several major developments that helped books become as popular as they currently are. These revolutions forever changed how books are accepted and distributed. These publishing revolutions made new careers and industries while toppling others. The most exciting thing is we are living in one of these revolutions right now!

The Printing Press and Movable Type

The way it was

The time and manner in which one encountered books depended largely on one’s geographic location. The very first printing press in the world came from China. Hand-carved block printing originated in China, though it quickly spread to other countries. Hand-carved block printing was more efficient than copying texts by hand and enabled texts such as The Lotus Sutra (a Buddhist text) to be widely disseminated throughout China. While hand-carved block printing flourished for the next few hundred years, in the eleventh century Bi Sheng invented a moveable printing press which revolutionized printing in Asia. Other inventors finely tuned this moveable printing press in subsequent centuries, but due to the extreme difficulty of intercontinental trade most people outside of east Asia were unaware of this amazing technological development.

In Europe, Johann Gutenberg invented the movable type printing press in the fifteenth century; though Gutenberg’s press came a few hundred years after the Chinese printing press, its impact and significance on the world was no less intense. Prior to his invention, every word in a book had to be copied by hand. This meant only the very rich could afford them. Because books were prohibitively expensive, new ideas rarely reached the everyday person. They accepted the conventional wisdom and their world because there was no way to learn about anything else. Also, since there were no books, reading and writing were considered ‘luxury skills,’ not an essential life skill.

How it changed everything

Regardless of one’s geographic location, once movable type became a reality, everything changed. Suddenly, dozens of the same books could be produced in a single day. People that refused to embrace this new technology were not able to stay competitive in the marketplace. Eventually, the number of books that could be produced daily swelled to hundreds, then thousands. For the first time, people had access to books and new ideas. Suddenly reading and writing was a valuable skill that had socio-politico-economic implications. As printing presses became more efficient, newspapers appeared for the very first time. This enabled the people to get their news within hours of it happening (instead of the months or days it took previously).

It also launched the entire industry of journalism and magazines. Of course, the new industry didn’t stop there. People weren’t satisfied with just reading about events and happenings, they wanted stories. So the fiction market was born. Suddenly, people who were good at telling stories could earn a living through their stories without needing to become a ‘real’ storyteller.

The Industrial Revolution and the Rise of the Mass Market Paperback

How it was

Moveable type was an unprecedented invention. Of course, paper and ink were still expensive. So even though the average person could afford a book, they could not afford a great many of them. Also, most people still didn’t know how to read or write beyond basics. Reading for fun was something only the wealthy and well educated did, because they were the only ones who had significant time for leisure.

How it changed everything

The industrial revolution happened and every facet of life changed. For the first time, a cost effective way to manufacture paper and ink was invented. Now, instead of just newspapers and full-length books, fiction magazines appeared. Since these magazines were cheap, anyone could and did afford them. Once authors realized they could write for the “everyday” person instead of just the privileged few, the content of the stories changed. They no longer needed to be great literary tomes with redeeming value. Public education also appeared around this time, as did leisure time, creating an entirely new generation who clamored for these different types of stories. ‘Pulps’, ‘rags,’ and ‘penny dreadful’ were types of stories written for the ordinary reader of the working class. These magazines gave rise to an industry of short stories. Also, serials became popular at this time such as The Old Curiosity Shop (Charles Dickens) and Varney the Vampire (Thomas Preskett). Both women and men eagerly devoured these entertaining magazines during their newly acquired free time.

Traditional literary authors that placed a premium on book length, level of difficulty, and exclusivity were not happy about this change as they lost sales to “pop” authors like Charles Dickens, Lester Dent, and Zane Grey.

Amazon Kindle and the Rise of Self-Publishing

How it was

In the late twentieth century, books seemed to settle down into what we expected them to be forever. Six major publishing houses (and their many imprints) owned over 95% of the publishing world. In order to be published, an aspiring author had either to know someone or be very lucky. Most authors found themselves in the slush pile and languished for years before a publishing house agreed to print their book (assuming that happened at all). Since publishing houses had such huge overhead, they did not want to publish books that only appealed to a handful of readers. This made selling even specialty ‘how to’ books difficult. It also created artificial sacristy of books, as publishing houses only put out so many a year.

How it changed everything

In 2007, Amazon’s first Kindle exploded onto the scene, forever changing how we publish and read books. Many companies tried to imitate Kindle, including Barnes and Noble, Sony, and Kobo. However, the revolution wasn’t in the reader itself, it was in the stories. At the time, Amazon was new and hungered for more stories. They wanted to be the biggest online bookseller in the world, so that meant they needed the most books. They decided to acquire these books by launching ‘indie publishing’.

With indie publishing, all the gatekeepers to publishing were removed. Without an upfront fee, broke but talented writers could publish their books and have them available to millions of prospective clients with just a few clicks of the mouse. Because overhead was so low (it’s just pixels and digital intangible files after all) the price of books also lowered. This meant that a greater number of people could read books more often. Kindle author success stories such as Amanda Hocking, Hugh Howey, and J.A. Konrath inspired even more people to indie publish. Gradually, the stigma of self-publishing gave way to the adventure, to the excitement of indie publishing.

So who isn’t happy about this change? The traditional publishing houses. Will they go the way of the people who hand wrote the books? It’s just too early to tell.

We are living in one of the three biggest revolutions in book history. And right now is the time to be innovative, adventurous, and to most importantly, now is the time to publish. Careers are made when new technology comes out, and this revolution still has a long way to go!

Until Next Time,
Mercedes Tabano and Ashley Zee