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The evolution of publishing

20th February 2013

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
  • permanent

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.

What's next?

Welcoming more team members

14th February 2013
Categories: staff

We welcome two recent arrivals to the Oxford Web team: Greg Joy and Sue Head.

Greg joins us as part of his placement year studying IT at Oxford Brookes University.  He is already proficient in HTML, CSS and PHP coding, along with a few other languages such as Java.  He has been hard at work on one of our ecommerce websites.

Sue's background covers engineering, project management, and software sales, and joins us as a project manager, aiming to ensure that our customers' requirements are carried out to the bet of our ability and to our customers' satisfaction.

Wristwatch computing - will it work?

13th February 2013

There has been a large amount of speculation very recently that Apple is working on a new wristwatch computer.

Of course, wristwatch computing is not new.  As far back as 1980, I was able to play with a wristwatch calculator (with bright red LEDs) which could perform very basic calculator functions including addition, subtraction, division and multiplication.  The buttons were fairly fiddly but it did the job.

Science fiction for a long time heralded wristwatch communication - from Dick Tracey to the Power Rangers - and that too has been a reality for a little while - LG for example brought out a wristwatch phone a couple of years ago.

But the universal computing/communication device has of course become the smart phone, which provides a screen big enough to see things on, and big enough to tap out messages.  Does it end there, or is there a 'next step' - onto the wrist?

Proponents of the technology may argue that with an ultra-high definition display, a wristwatch-sized device can still display useful information.  And that we don't need keyboards any more, given the ability for phones to recognise the human voice and act on it.

So if size is perhaps not an issue, what's to stop this new gadget becoming Apple's next massive hit? If anything, I'd say it's the inconvenience of having to have it on your wrist.  

Think about it - a phone can be in any position.  It can be propped up or held close when you're reading; it can sit on a car dashboard; it can be held at arms length when you're sitting on the tube with no room to move your elbows.  Having to move your arm to a particular position to use a device would effectively kill it for me.

Have you had any experiences with wrist computing?  Let us know!

The website that grew, part 9

11th February 2013

"What do you want to achieve with the online shop?" asked Hugh.

"I want to supplement the shop's income." said Kate, "so that we can be more profitable."

"And what does that mean in terms of volume of orders?  A hundred orders a month?  A thousand?  Ten thousand?"

"I really want 500 orders a month online."

"How many customers come to the real shop right now?  As in, how many different people do you see in a month?"

"I'm not sure.  It's probably around 500, but some of those would come back several times in a month."

"OK.  Whichever way look look at it, you need customers from outside Aylesbury, which means advertising online.  So if you're aiming for 500 new orders, you should build something solid, that works, and that brings people back to the site, and something that grows.  When you get to 500 you should be fairly certain that the next month is going to bring more orders, and so on, month after month."

Kate was sceptical.  "How can I be sure that this will happen?  And what's it going to cost?"

"It's not cheap, but cheap will get you the results you're getting now.  We know what works because we've done it before, but it will need your input."

Kate's problem now was that she couldn't spare the time, and John didn't want to. "What if I can't provide much input?  Can you help?"

"We can provide more day-to-day help," said Hugh, "but it is more expensive.  What about your shop assistant - er.. "


"Yes, can he spare any time?"

"Not really, but I think I might be able to persuade John's mum to get involved.   She's started using an iPad and she loves it!"

"OK.  That sounds good."

Hugh and Kate chatted about how the online shop would attract and retain customers, and Hugh promised to put some figures together.  They agreed to ditch the shop and start again with a completely bespoke shop (though built on some readily-available open source software that Hugh had used before).

After 3 days, Hugh came back with a proposal and an estimate.  The estimate contained the following figures*:

website redesign £1000.00
bespoke online catalogue £1000.00
integration with paypal and amazon payments £1000.00
email list management and sales follow up  £1000.00
set up of blog £1000.00
project management and training £1000.00
TOTAL £6000,00

*Please note that the prices in the table above are completely made up; every shop is different and it is no use extrapolating these prices for your individual circumstances.  A web developer will normally discuss your plans, and tailor the solution to your requirements, the speed at which you want to grow, the technology available at the time, and so on.

Although Hugh's pitch had sounded convincing, and he'd also included examples of websites that he'd built which were doing well in terms of sales and visitor numbers, Kate baulked at the cost.  But she sat down with a spreadsheet and worked out the return in investment, and became calmer.  "Once we hit the 500 sales mark", she thought, "it will take just 8 months for the profits to pay off the website."

She did think that John and Nancy would be difficult about the cost, and she resolved to get at least one more quote.  She searched the internet for local web shops, found a few, and fired off some enquiries. She arranged meetings with the ones who seemed most friendly, and in due course received two more estimates, one cheaper than Hugh and one more expensive.  

Then she organised a lunch with Nancy, and we'll find out more soon....

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