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Publishing Revolution

Engraving of printers at work

The times, they are a-changin. We are living in the middle of a publishing revolution, and its collective impact is perhaps second only to the changes unleashed by Johannes Gutenberg with his printing press.(1) Any writer who desires to be published had best take note because “If your time to you is worth savin’ / Then you better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone“.(2) This is an introduction, an overview of this revolution to start you thinking about how you will ride the wave to survival and success.

Dawn of the Digital Age

Popular media heads talk about the cultural revolution brought about by the Internet, but for all of the colossal changes the Internet has created in our daily lives, the Internet is not the beginning of the current publishing revolution. It’s closer to the culminating end of the revolution, but it isn’t quite that either. You might call it the web that has brought all of the elements together.

If you are looking for a beginning to the current publishing revolution, then look to the first computer printer. The computer printer signaled the beginning of the digital printing revolution. With the invention of the computer printer, information that was created and stored digitally could be modified and printed at any time. Most of the world didn’t notice when this little invention came onto the stage because most of the world was still using typewriters. But this was the first stone to start the landslide of change that would alter the publishing world forever.

With the advent of the personal computer and personal printer there soon followed desktop publishing which exploded onto the market in 1985 with the release of the MacPublisher software, the PageMaker software, and the Apple LaserWriter printer.(3) While the early software and hardware was difficult to use, and the results often crude and unprofessional, the rocks had begun rolling down the mountainside. Even with its limitations, this new technology brought new freedoms, and possibilities. The new publishing age had begun in earnest.

The first computer printers produced results that looked nothing like the quality results from a traditional printing machine, but the output from digital printers continued to improve, and rapidly. By the late 1990’s technology had come far enough that digital printing offered results which appeared equivalent to traditional offset printing. Companies began offering print on demand (POD) services where books could be printed in individual copies at the time of order instead of printed ahead in the large, and expensive, print runs required by traditional offset printing.

With POD, it was now possible to have a book printed and bound for a very modest sum.

Along with the rise of POD printing, electronic publishing also began to grow in popularity. Blogging software allowed authors to publish their work on the Internet instantly for anyone to read, and various file formats allowed authors to sell (or give away) their writing which could be read on computers, or other electronic devices. Publishing had reached its most costless, easy, and efficiently distributable form.

The Democratization of Publishing

Stack of books, photo courtesy

Anyone who has kept up with current events in the world around them knows about the proliferation of e-book readers, blogs, and, to a lesser degree, POD printing. But seeing and hearing about these things doesn’t tell you what all these changing times mean for you as a writer. You might be asking, “So what is the big deal?”

The big deal is the democratization of publishing, and this change will completely alter how we understand, and approach, publishing.

Gutenberg’s press was one of the earliest steps toward the democratization of knowledge. The democratization of knowledge is “The acquisition and spread of knowledge amongst the common people, not just privileged elites such as priests and academics.(4) Likewise, the digital age has brought about the democratization of publishing, which is the spread of publishing amongst the common people, not just the privileged elite. Now anyone can publish, and there are many available paths of publishing to follow. The question is, which path should you take?

Before the digital age, publishing options were very limited. Books were printed in large runs on offset presses and sold in bookstores. If you were lucky, your book was printed by a large publishing house which then distributed your book to bookstores across the country. What books failed to sell in the stores were thrown out. There was a high initial cost to printing, and a high amount of waste, as many books were never sold and ended up being destroyed. If your book was not printed by a publishing house, you could try the path of the few hardy (or foolish) souls and pay someone to print your books, and then try to hawk them around town and across country yourself. That almost always turned out badly.

Before the digital age, production costs were high and distribution costs were high. As a result, the cost of publishing was high. Digital printing has brought production costs down to nearly nothing (anybody can have a 200 page paperback book printed for under $15.00) and distribution costs can be nil (if your book is accessible on the Internet). Those two things which for generations appeared as fixed obstacles in the way of publication are now gone. Publishing today is a world so different that a person from a hundred years ago, or even fifty years ago, would not recognize the world today. Everything has changed.

Everything has changed, but that doesn’t mean everyone is successful, or rich. The one mountain left to climb in today’s digital publishing world is the mountain of exposure and recognition. Anybody can publish at minimal cost–but that accomplishes next to nothing if nobody knows your writing is there to read. In a world increasingly awash with books, you need to be seen and to stand out from the crowd. You need exposure. In a world where publishing is increasingly easy, the volume of poor published material is huge. More than just being seen, you need to stand out with a name (brand) recognized for quality. Today, being published and accessible is the easy part. Exposure and recognition are the battles you must fight.

The Road Ahead

There is no one right answer, no one right choice, for how everyone should publish. Where once there was only one way, now there is a multitude of paths. Different writing is best published in different ways. The key to making the right choice is being informed about your options, and accurately evaluating your material and your goals.

There are three basic options for publishing:

  • Publishing through a traditional publisher
  • Publishing through POD
  • Publishing electronically

Some niche subject books are best sold through POD. Fiction seeking to be the next bestselling novel will be most successful through a traditional publisher. Technical writing on subjects that are quickly changing can be best distributed electronically for timely consumption and updating. Further, it should be pointed out that it is not necessary that one option exclude the others. A book printed through POD can also be published electronically, and this might eventually lead to distribution through a traditional publisher.

In the end, the most important thing to remember is that with the democratization of publishing, the power is now with the people–with you, and your readers. The largest publishing companies release hundreds of new titles every year and they cannot effectively promote every title. The small publishing companies don’t have the budget to effectively promote all of their few titles. The world is drowning in published material, and the fact that you are published is not enough. Anyone, with a little effort, can be published. That fact won’t make you stand out. The majority of authors must rely on their own efforts and their own personal “brand” if they want to see success in their publishing efforts. The publishing method is becoming less important, while the product itself, and the author, are becoming more important. And that is a good thing.