History of Publishing Wrap Up

I enjoyed the history of publishing papers from the spring term and as I file them away (well, really just find a place to pile them in my needs-to-be-tidied up office) I’m thinking about some of big topics we covered and the perspectives that the class explored—the nature and consequences of ebooks (the epocalyse), the evolution and surprising stability of the bestseller list (with its recurring self-help and celebrity fallbacks). Papers looked at choices to be made in self-publishing and in choosing books for translation and at the complexities of publishing in table top games and comics. One even explored handwriting and its relation to the written and printed word.

It was a term in which the Department of Justice sued Apple and the five (other) 6 publishers for price fixing, in which Microsoft invested several hundred million in the Barnes & Noble Nook, in which 50 Shades of Gray dominated (so to speak) the bestseller list, and in which we learned about new plans by Oregon heavyweights Blackstone and Ingram to complete in new ways in the ebook marketplace.

We looked at books as artifacts and as products, even folding paper at one point to make book signatures, and we talked about the evolution books from rock painting to the invention of paper to the epub and mobi formats and Amazon select (or if you prefer, from stone tablets to digital ones, and hey, were the early cave paintings the first comic books!?).

I’m scratching around at the mental itch that this change to ebooks somehow echoes earlier publishing revolutions (the printing press, cheap paper, offset printing) and may end the same way, which a period of grass roots indie and self-publishing followed by a new round of consolidation, gate-keeping and—as one student last year put it—censorship by business model. We’ll see. There are too many moving parts for a clear picture, at least for me.

Ebooks and audiobooks are also converging and our consideration of these led to some fun (and yes, it’s an adjective—look it up) discussion of what it means to read. Is listening to an audiobook reading? The class was split on whether reading is engagement with a text or whether it involved some connection with letters, spelling and the like.

[to be continued…]

About Ed Battistella

Edwin Battistella’s latest book Dangerous Crooked Scoundrels was released by Oxford University Press in March of 2020.
This entry was posted in History of Publishing Observations, Ideas and Opinions. Bookmark the permalink.