History and Future of Publishing

From the pen of an Evil Non-Genius:

With all the cries about the impending collapse of the print publishing industry due to the advent of digital books (not to mention high costs, incompetence, stagnation, and any other number of factors that will doom any industry), I decided to dig into the history of books to see where we’ve been, before I try to imagine the future.

I had some funny notion that I could put together a blog that might show historical cycles.  But what ended up holding my attention was the history of books before the advent of the printing press, which seems fitting given the topic that started my research.

Authors of antiquity had no rights in their intellectual property. Anyone could take written books (or papyrus or scrolls or stone tablets), copy them, edit, add, revise, and sell them to some other wealthy person. Authors had no control over their product. They could only expect to gain fortune or fame through association with wealthy leaders who approved of what they wrote and supported them so they could continue to write.

And even if someone wrote for their own pleasure or for the education of their students, they had no good way of selling what they wrote, so like teachers today, they were underpaid and unappreciated for their efforts, and their wisdom touched only a lucky few. Some things never change.

The ability to copy and change intellectual property for free is a model some internet aficionados believe is necessary for the dissemination of information to the masses. It’s the reason they give for promoting piracy. But what it does is promote the exact opposite—and that’s history speaking, not just me.

Historically, when only the wealthy could afford to buy books or support writers, then only the wealthy possessed the information in those books. They also controlled the knowledge inside the books and to whom it was given. It would take a broad-minded leader to support an author who criticized his administration! The emperor Augustus surrounded himself with the best authors of the time—in other words, he bought them. People might steal and copy the works of these reknowned writers, but how valuable would the information be if it was controlled by Caesar?

Over time, as leaders decided prestige was in the accumulation of vast libraries only the elite could read, their barbarian enemies rolled in and destroyed those same libraries because the books disagreed with their political or religious agenda or because it’s easier to control an uneducated populace. Churches ordered the mass burning of books written by authors of different religions. Writers could and did lose their heads attempting to write what was called “seditious” propaganda. And it no doubt was seditious since the only purpose in writing it would be to promote the writer’s beliefs if the government wasn’t paying for it.

I know this sounds like an argument for disseminating information to everyone as quickly and cheaply as possible, but that only works for a very limited frame of time. We have to stop thinking in the short term. What happens in ten years, after books have been “liberated” by the internet and both publishers and authors approach bankruptcy? Go back to the beginning of this blog. Read “Writers could only expect to gain fortune or fame by being associated with wealthy leaders who approved of what they wrote and supported them.”

Want to count how many people are willing to pay authors to write just for them? Maybe Walmart would buy a few inspirationals! I suppose Homeland Security might shell out for written reports on a few designated troublemakers. Why would any sane person spend years of their life writing a book on spec if they have no means of protecting and selling their work so they can put food on the table? What kind of writers do you want in your future? We’d be back to books for the elite very quickly.

I really don’t want to spend my old age reading some ten-year-old’s digital revision of the latest novel privately produced by some mogul! I want real information, not just some left-wing or right-wing fanatic’s view of the world which he generously published for nothing.

I suppose copyright law doesn’t have to go the way of the dinosaur if print publishing declines to nothingness, but now that we have the power to create the Alexandria of digital libraries, I’m only seeing the gradual erosion of copyright law from pirates and Googlebooks and the like. What happens if someone pulls the plug on the internet after all our knowledge is stored there?





History and Future of Publishing — 4 Comments

  1. I’ve been reading numerous books about the development of the novel, which touches on the history of publishing, during the eighteenth century in particular. (Robert Darnton has some entertaining yet enlightening books about publishing during this time.)

    What strikes me is how much of a sense of “we’re inventing something new” was going on–a lot like now. Experimenting with writing, voice, narrative process, and publishers experimenting with format, with subscription, with prices, how to get the word out–review venues, ads via cartoons and broadsides in windows (Facebook?) etc.

    The print copyright paradigm seems to have changed, and something new is needed. What I see is what the music industry already did: iTunes and the like, cheap music easy to download. People seem to be willing to pay if it’s easy to get in reliable format. Nicely produced ebooks buyable with three clicks and a modest price, I hope, will diminish the proliferation of piracy. I hope.

  2. I realize we’ll have every possible kind of print and electronic book available probably for as long as I live, but it is fascinating to try to guess the next step. I cannot imagine reading anything on an iphone, and I’m not fond of short stories which seem to be the 99 cent special of the day, so I’m hoping 3 clicks will get me longer novels!

  3. Love this: “(not to mention high costs, incompetence, stagnation, and any other number of factors that will doom any industry)”

    You’re a gem.


  4. Pat, thanks for this thoughtful post. It’s a sort of inverted version of “When Guns Are Outlawed, Only Outlaws Will Have Guns.” When “information wants to be free” then only those who write propaganda and ad copy will be able to make a living (or keep their heads).