Reinventing the Book World

By Munyon, Daniel | The World and I, January 1999 | Go to article overview

Reinventing the Book World


Munyon, Daniel, The World and I


After surviving and thriving more than 500 years, the printed book may finally be displaced by a better technology.

In the two centuries before the fall of Rome, the book assumed the facing-page, bound-edge format that it still retains today. Subsequent, slow evolution of the page and book took place in the age of the manuscript, the era before printing, when texts were copied by hand.

Neither Johannes Gutenberg's invention of the printing press over a span of more than 10 years in the 1440s and '50s nor the subsequent explosion in titles and copies of books changed the basic format.

What did change was the way of handling the books. The slow process of hand-copying manuscripts in the manuscript age had assured that books were so relatively rare that a very limited book-handling profession could manage their distribution and organization.

As the printing of multiple copies of books fed a growing wave of interest in reading, learning, and knowledge, however, the publishing profession emerged to address issues of supply and demand. Publishers brought together the known elements of writing, printing, and reading into the business of learning. Through time, the interaction of authors, publishers, and readers standardized the book around two basic sizes: reference, in a roughly 8.5 x 11 inch configuration, and entertainment, in a roughly 5.5 x 8.5 inch design.

Mechanization

Printing and publishing played vital roles in political movements of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, even as the underlying technologies remained basically unchanged. Starting in the second half of the nineteenth century, however, mechanization began to transform the industry, just as electronics has transformed it anew in the latter half of the twentieth.

In the nineteenth century, trains speeded book distribution and machines that bound covers to pages opened a printing bottleneck. Mechanization of printing presses increased their speed and print-run capabilities, even as development of wood-based paper provided an abundant source of fiber. Color printing improved with the proliferation of petrochemical inks.

The period from 1920 to 1960 was probably the best of times for publishing and printing houses established after 1800. Producer costs were at their lowest, and books were still treasured commodities. Type printed on paper was the dominant source of information and a major source of entertainment, even as radio and, later, television developed.

After 1960, the publishers' empire began to crumble. The first pillar to crack was the control of copyright. With the introduction of the photocopier, cheap, uncontrollable copying of sections from books began to erode the power of the publisher. At the same time, automated typewriters and the Variatyper publishing system reduced the costs of authoring and composition, just as mechanization had reduced the costs of printing and binding in previous decades.

The computer revolution that began in earnest in the 1970s changed the publishing world forever. Computer communication systems, which would grow into the Internet, allowed information to be shared easily and at low cost, without the physical copying of originals; microcomputers, which would become today's high-powered personal computers, put the power of information creation and access on the desktop. …

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