When we talk about publishing the written word, at any point in its history, we are talking fundamentally about putting the written word in front of readers. There have been many different phases of this activity, triggered by many significant technologies.
Writing itself seems to have had various origins, including in Egypt the transition from broadly significant symbols in the famous Narmer palette, to symbols signifying sounds, which can be used to construct words. It wasn't easy to bring early writing to a wide audience, but one form of publishing was of course carving words on temple walls for all (who could read) to see.
The temple carving process was:
- costly, requiring special tools and trained craftsmen
Meanwhile, writing on less permanent media, such as papyrus, was developing, and this had other problems:
- required large amounts of manpower to reach a wide audience
- prone to copying mistakes
- easily destroyed
Of course, several thousand years later the next development in publishing arrived - the printing press. William Caxton introduced the printing press to England, though he did not invent the process. At first, printing presses were crude affairs, using moveable type to construct pages, which had to be disassembled to construct the next page, and so on, so to make the best of the technology you had to know how many copies you were going to print, as new print runs required doing the same thing all over again! The printing press made it:
- easy to make multiple copies
- difficult to amend a just small part of the copy
- impossible to correct what has already been printed and disseminated
As printing developed, so did writing and publishing. It became easy to become a prolific novelist, though publishing practices as late as the 19th century were different to what we have today - with novelists like Dickens and Trollope being published first in serialised form in newspapers.
The role of the publisher was essential, both for the newspaper serialisation (the publisher was the newspaper, and the distribution was almost universal) and the book form (publishers took care of selling to book shops, something authors could not do by themselves).
Six hundred years on from the invention of printing, we have an advance in technology (the internet) which has led to a number of changes in the process of publishing the written word. These changes include:
- The devaluation of the written word (even if publishers charge "too much" for online editions, many people are writing copy and placing it on the internet for everyone to read without paying a penny - this blog, for example.
- The devaluation of publishing (electronic self-publishing can happen through online book-sellers or just via a personal website, while paper self-publishing can be done cheaply through an online printing firm).
- The increased power of the new book media - e-readers can bring the "printed" word to you more quickly than ever.
- The return of serialisation - some authors are viewing e-readers as an ideal medium for publishing serialised books.
Far from simply introducing a "publish" button, the internet has taken us off into many interesting avenues - and at a faster pace than ever.