The concept of publishing began long before the invention of the printing press. It began as far back as the invention of writing. Scribes copied works all by hand. Obviously, this was a long, painstaking process, thus, books developed along with movable type.
The Invention of the Printing Press
The Chinese inventor Bi Sheng reportedly invented the first movable type with earthenware circa 1045, but it wasn’t until Johannes Gutenberg invented his own movable type with metal around 1450 that printing really took off. It was at this point that books started to become more widely available. By printing books, the cost of production was reduced enormously and more books could be printed faster. This allowed the common citizen to afford books.
In 1455, The Gutenberg Bible was the first major book printed in Europe with movable type. It wasn’t until 20 years later that the first book in English, Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye, was printed. Then in 1640, the Bay Psalm Book was the first book printed in the North American British Colonies.
Early Publishing Models
By the early 1800s, two publishing models had emerged. An author could sell the copyright and receive a one-time payment from the publisher for the rights to the book. Alternatively, the book could be published “on commission.” In this model, the publisher would advance the cost of publishing the book and keep all of the profits until the cost had been recouped. After that, the publisher would keep 10 percent and the author would get the rest. If the sales did not recoup the cost of publishing, the author would be responsible for the cost.
The Inception of Traditional Publishing
Sometime in the next hundred years or so, these dual models faded and what we now think of as traditional publishing emerged. In some ways, the traditional model blends selling the copyright and publishing on commission. Many authors get an upfront payment for their book, and authors sign away their rights to the book. Additionally, publishers keep all profits until the cost of production (and the advance payment for the right to publish) have been recovered, and then they give the author royalties. However, the royalties are much lower, often between 10 and 20 percent.
The Introduction of Self-publishing
With the creation of the world wide web in 1990, the world of self-publishing exploded. It was suddenly easy to type your book from a personal computer and send it to a printer. When Amazon launched in 1994, it became much easier to sell your book online. Simultaneously, the online program Story Space was released. It was a software for creating, editing, and reading. Michael Joyce’s afternoon, a story was sold on floppy disks as a demonstration of the program. When CreateSpace, then called CustomFlix Labs, launched in 2002, it changed the game: it allowed authors to print and bind books like any other professional book on the market. In the years that have elapsed since then, the market has become flooded with self-published works. This a double-edged sword; authors who are unable to get a publishing contract are still able to get their works out to their readers, however they aren’t taken as seriously.
The Birth of Hybrid Publishing
Most recently, hybrid publishing has become a new model for authors to consider when publishing. This new model gives authors the creative control of self-publishing and the creative and professional expertise and distribution of traditional publishing. The payment distribution is reminiscent of the “on commission” model of the early 1800s. The publisher only takes a small cut of the royalties, but the author is responsible for the costs of production.
Hybrid publishing is still coming into it’s own, and has made great strides towards being seen as on par with traditional publishing in the last few years. In 2018, the Independent Book Publishers Association published a list of nine criteria to be considered a hybrid publisher. This gives the moniker legitimacy and establishes that the books are of quality and available widely.
In 2019, traditional publishing, self-publishing, and hybrid publishing are the main paths for publishing for authors.
A Brief History of Publishing
People have been publishing information for thousands of years. There’s no way we could possibly illustrate every innovation in publishing since prehistoric man painted on cave walls, but we wanted to give you a brief timeline to show you how changes in the industry have really picked up since ancient times.
~30,000 B.C. – Cave walls become the first medium when ancient humans draw two rhinoceroses and one bison in Chauvet Cave in France. These are some of the earliest known drawings.
~4000 B.C. – Egyptians first use hieroglyphs inscribed on pottery jars and ivory plaques that would then be deposited in tombs. Brittanica presumes these markers identified the dead.
~3300 B.C. – Cuneiform, a combination of writing systems, sprouts in the Mesopotamia region. The system uses pictographs, and documents are written on a clay tablet with a stylus.
196 B.C. – The Rosetta Stone is cut in three languages – hieroglyphics, Egyptian demotic, and Greek. Translators were able to use the Greek inscription to decipher the hieroglyphics in the 1800s, more than a millennium after they had gone out of use.
~105 A.D. – The Chinese invent paper.
868 – The Diamond Sutra, a scroll of Buddhist text created through woodblock printing, is created. It is found in 1900 in China, and it’s one of the earliest books found with an exact date.
1456 – Gutenberg prints the Bible in Germany. It was the first book produced on a printing press anywhere in the world.
1690 – Publick Occurrences, the first English-American newspaper, debuts.
1731 – The first general-interest magazine, The Gentlemen’s Magazine, is printed in London. The magazine ended in 1907.
1776 – Thomas Paine anonymously printed Common Sense. The self-published book sold 100,000 copies within three months and became the best-selling work of the 18th century. With the advent of digital technology, however, self-publishing has been made incredibly easy.
1800s – The “penny press” arrives in the U.S. Newspapers were available for just a penny, allowing the masses to consume this information for the first time instead of just the elites. By reducing the barriers to read news, citizens began writing letters to the editors with more regularity. Michigan State University’s Brian Thornton said no first letter to the editor has been officially recognized, but that they increased with the penny press.
1899-1967 – Magazines explode, with several of today’s household names making their first appearances. National Geographic, Reader’s Digest, The New Yorker, Newsweek, Seventeen, Playboy and Rolling Stone all release their first issues during this time period.
1940-1971 – The first e-book is published, though Wikipedia contributors disagree with which was the first.
1970s – Punk rock and DIY zines become popular. According to Duke University, however, the first sci-fi fanzine was published in 1930.
1993 – IBM invents the Simon, the first smartphone, according to PC World.
2002 – Research in Motion releases the BlackBerry.
Mid-2000s – Social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter emerge. Bloggers rise to prominence. More than just letters to the editor, these tools give voices to the voiceless. See: Wired’s Who the Hell is Bob Lefsetz?
2007 – Apple releases the iPhone. Google announces Android. Amazon debuts the Kindle. Print-on-demand gains traction, allowing books to be printed one at a time once an order has been received.
2009 – Self-published titles top 764,000, more than twice that of traditional titles, according to Publishers Weekly.
2010 – Apple releases the iPad.
2012 – Float and ReadSocial team up to build the iOS library for the ReadSocial API framework.
Even with this condensed version of history, you can see how quickly innovations in publishing have developed. Month to month now, it seems, some publisher, software developer, or hardware manufacturer is putting out some new product that has the potential to change publishing. Apple announced iBooks Author in January, O’Reilly’s Tools of Change conference in February featured many sessions on digital publishing and mobile devices, and ReadSocial’s Travis Alber recently discussed the API with the Wall Street Journal. Not too far from today, you’ll see many more advancements in this industry. Everything from educational imprints to trade publications and fiction are rapidly changing.