The Summer Solstice of Publishing - Katherine Roberts

It's midsummer, although you wouldn't know it from the weather as I write this (Spain is apparently sending us storms). So rather than yet another summer solstice blog post, I've been thinking about where we might be if you view the publishing industry as a single year. It goes something like this:

JANUARY: Stone Age ~ 40,000 - 10,000 BC
We live in caves. People tell stories around the campfire at night. Nobody writes them down but somebody might illustrate the most exciting ones on the cave walls. (January is a long, dark month.)

telling stories around the campfire
(Emeldil, CC*)

FEBRUARY: Pyramid Age ~ 4,000 - 2,500 BC
Europeans are still living in caves, but in Egypt they are building pyramids. Priests decorate the walls of their temples with religious texts in hieroglyphs, while further east in Mesopotamia people are writing similar texts on clay tablets using a clever pen-press language called cuneiform. Bestseller: The Book of Coming Forth by Day (Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead) - a collection of spells to help you survive the afterlife. Hang on to it. You might need it later in the year.

early Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs
(Gunter Dreyer, Public Domain)

MARCH: The Greek Poets ~ 500BC
Papyrus scrolls (the vegetarian option) and parchment (animal skins) replace clay tablets and stone, enabling the literate to carry their words to the masses. Poets flourish in the city states of Ancient Greece. Bestseller: Homer's Iliad and Odyssey about the Trojan War and its aftermath.

(William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Public Domain)

APRIL: The Christian Era ~ AD 100 - 1500
Over in China, they are already printing in Chinese using wooden blocks. The Diamond Sutra (868) is possibly the first ever printed 'book' (it's a scroll).

Diamond Sutra
"Reverently [caused to be] made for universal free distribution by Wang Jie on behalf of his two parents on the 13th of the 4th moon of the 9th year of Xiantong" i.e. 11th May 868, Public Domain

Meanwhile, back in Europe, the Roman-style codex (a book with pages as we know it) replaces scrolls. The Vulgate Bible, translated into Latin from the original Hebrew, becomes the Catholic Church's official copy, from which translations into hundreds of other languages are made. In monasteries, teams of monks make copies of the Bible for wealthy patrons, beautifully illuminated by hand on vellum. Bestseller: The Bible.

Gutenberg Bible
by NYC Wanderer (Kevin Eng) originally posted to Flickr, CC*

MAY: Look out, here comes the Printing Press! ~ 1500
Gutenberg invents a hand-operated printing press using movable type. Within a few decades, the first printing presses spread across Europe, making mass distribution of the Bible and many other books possible.

portrait of Erasmus of Rotterdam
(Hans Holbein - Web Gallery of Art, Public Domain) 
A Dutch scholar Erasmus (formerly a Catholic priest) becomes the world's first surprise bestselling author, selling 750,000 copies of his works in his lifetime.

JUNE: The Golden Age of Publishing ~ 1800 - 2000
It does not stop there. As the Industrial Revolution gets underway, Koenig and Bauer mechanise the printing process using steam power, greatly increasing the number of books printed per day. This speeds up even further with the invention of the rotary press in the US, using cheaper paper from the new paper mills. By the 20th century, ease of printing and falling costs mean large scale distribution of books to the masses is a reality. As a result, adult literacy increases, which in turn creates more diverse writers. The first copyright laws are passed, and it becomes possible for the first time for an author to make a living from selling their work, given some help to print and distribute the books. Publishers take these authors out to lunch and treat them in a gentlemanly manner. They can afford to do this, since the industry is protected by the Net Book Agreement, which came into effect on 1st January 1900. Publishers, agents, and several authors get rich. It's the summer solstice of publishing.
Bestsellers: too many to count, from Jane Austen to J K Rowling.

JULY: High Discounts and the rise of Amazon ~ 2000 - 2050
The Net Book Agreement was finally abolished in 1997 by the Restrictive Practices Court, removing price protection on books and making discounting legal (before this, books had to be 'damaged' before they could be sold cheaply). With ever higher discounts, publishing becomes an increasingly commercial business. At the same time, digital publishing makes the printing and distribution of books much easier and cheaper. These two developments change the industry swiftly and irreversibly. In less than two decades, independent bookshops close, bestsellers are piled high in the bookselling chains and sold for less than the price of a postage stamp, the midlist disappears, celebrity authors abound, and Amazon opens its free digital text platform to authors who cannot get (or no longer want) publishing deals in the new, cut-throat world of publishing... this, folks, is where we are today. Love it or hate it, the KDP is part of 21st century publishing - and if Amazon hadn't done it, I'm fairly sure someone else would have.

Note: Since this video was made, Createspace has merged with the KDP. There are also other ebook platforms (the main ones being Apple, Kobo and Nook), and alternative paperback platforms such as IngramSpark that charge a fee.
Bestsellers: Celebrity authors, marketable debuts, and social media stars.

AUGUST Digital Smart Age ~ 2050 - 2200
We are getting into science fiction territory now, but I am a science fiction/fantasy author, so deep breath...
Publishing goes entirely digital, despite the 'Amazon Tax' raised by certain governments in an effort to hold back the tide. Large print runs are a thing of the past. Physical books are printed on demand by the zippy new book-printing machines you find almost everywhere - descendants of the pioneering Espresso machine seen here:

Espresso print-on-demand book machine
by ActuaLitté, Xerox PUF, impression à la demande, Salon du Livre de Paris 2015, CC *
Eventually, people might have smaller personal book machines in their own smarthomes, linked to a personal recycling machine. Publicly funded libraries are gone forever, but charity-run libraries, antique bookshops, and charming book cafes fill the hole. Literary festivals still happen, too, but there is far more digital interaction with readers online using the new virtual reality, and many festivals have gone entirely digital too. It is now normal to be an indie author or micro-publisher, and countless millions more books are 'published', but consequently a much lower percentage of authors make a living from publishing their work. Word of mouth is more important than ever before, and some books go viral while others sell just a single copy to the author's mum. Amazon and the other tech giants - many of which are startups you won't have heard of yet - get rich as they exploit this ever-lengthening publishing tail.

SEPTEMBER: The Big Crash ~ 2200 (though actually I think it might come a lot sooner than this).
Everyone is reliant on the internet for everything, and we have become complacent. One day it is simply no longer there. This might be the result of overload from the many billions more users, massive power failure, a teenage hacker, digital world war, or sabotage by activist groups after scientists prove the new 7G communications necessary to keep up with increased demand is killing us all. (If you think this is unlikely, see the EU 5G Appeal and 5G Exposed site, among others - if they're right, we might not even survive to get 7G!) Billions of books, which are only stored digitally, are lost forever. Businesses and governments collapse overnight. There is panic and rapid breakdown of global civilization. Publishing books is the least of our worries, but people still need stories, now more than ever. We return to the world of dial-up modems and dog-eared paperbacks printed in the 1900s, while authors tell horror stories like this one around their reclaimed woodburners at night. It is a dark age for digital communications and publishing, or a new dawn for community and storytelling, depending how you look at it (and if you survived the 5G).

OCTOBER: Space Age ~ 3000
The world has recovered, a bit saner than before, a lot less populated and with the survivors determined to learn from past mistakes. A new planetary government has realised that our dying Earth is no longer enough for what remains of the human race. Colonisation of other planets has begun in earnest. Publishers set up on each new planet to distribute nostalgic books by Earthborn authors to a whole new market, and authors (and their publishers) can make a living again, using a safer communications technology that will be invented along with faster-than-light space travel and planet-wide teleportation.

Mars - before colonisation.
ESA European Space Agency & Max-Planck Institute
for Solar System Research for OSIRIS (CC *).
NOVEMBER: Universal Age ~ 5000
Earthborn authors are out of fashion. The only people who live on Earth now are off-grid fanatics and descendants of 5Generation mutants, who have cut off communication with the rest of the universe. Meanwhile, Authors Electric is continually inventing new ways to distribute their books across the universe using new digital tools provided by Amazon Mars (which relocated just in time to avoid the Big Crash of 2200). People won't read these futuristic books, however - they'll more likely experience them in full colour via a direct brain link, so you won't have to worry about grammar or translation to Mars-speak, you'll simply link your brain into one of the new Dream Machines so they can be downloaded on demand. In fact, single authors will be increasingly rare... more likely, you'll be part of a collaborative team, which includes the reader.

DECEMBER: Return of the Dark Ages ~ AD 10,000
Earth has forgotten the rest of the universe, and the rest of the universe has forgotten Earth. We have gone back to living in caves surrounded by ancient plastic artefacts, and ahead of us lies another long, dark month of January...

...or am I getting a bit too carried away? Perhaps digital publishing is merely a blip; 5G (and 6G and 7G) technology will prove to be as safe as house prices; and none of this matters very much anyway, since an as-yet-unidentified asteroid will hit the Earth and wipe out all human life at the end of August? I'd be interested to hear where you think the publishing industry is heading as the days shorten and the nights get longer again. Meanwhile, enjoy the summer solstice of publishing while you still can... and it's not too late to pack a Faraday cage along with your wellies if you're heading to Glastonbury this year!

(* with thanks to wikipedia for the Creative Commons images used above).

Katherine Roberts writes fantasy and historical fiction for young readers.
Her award-winning debut 'Song Quest' was published in 1999, and her bestselling digital title to date is an epic novel of Alexander the Great from the horse's mouth, currently available as ebook and print-on-demand paperback.

*** US special paperback offer just $4 today! ***

I am the Great Horse
(first published in 2006 by Chicken House/Scholastic).


Stroppy Author said…
Great fun! Though I fear your timescales are optimistic. Mine would put your 2050 date at 2020 and near annihilation by 2040. Reading and writing (on paper, clay, walls, whatever is available) will be the single most useful thing to preserve as otherwise the knowledge accumulated over millennia will be lost. Slow rebuild for the survivors if they can make it through the first century while the ecosystem starts to recover or adapt, but electronics in their current form long gone as everything relies on global connectivity and satellites with a shelf-life of 20 years at most.
Ann Turnbull said…
This is brilliant, Katherine! I'm not nearly as clever as you (or Stroppy) but I've been convinced for some time that all this electronic stuff we rely on will suddenly fail and we will be unable to contact each other or do or buy anything. In a way I think it will be a relief - and oldies like me might actually be better at knowing how to survive in a post-techie world than the young. As for book publishing - I've pretty much given up!
Enid Richemont said…
I was really impressed by this when I read it this morning, but just got on to Blogger and found it cluttered with ads, so followed your link. Yes, yes, and yes! Anyone watching "Years and Years" on BBC TV? A similar theme, and naught for your comfort. Ann T - will be in touch again soon.
Umberto Tosi said…
Thank you for the time travel book tour! You combine historical acumen with biting, futuristic satire, along with some surprises in very plausible, aserbically anotated timeline. I've lived and written through a good part of one publising month and into another. I'm glad I shall not live long enough to see what follows, if your projections hold true.
hydra said…
I really enjoyed this and felt the latter parts were depressingly likely. Oh, to have the golden age of publishing back again, with reasonable advances and authors being wined and dined, which can't happen on a cyber book tour, worse luck!
Funnily enough, Stroppy, I originally did have 2020 for digital and the crash happening much sooner, but thought that sounded a bit too close for comfort...
Hydra, I agree wining and dining is not half so much fun in cyberspace! I attended a virtual launch party for my most recent book where there was a lot of exotic food and drink on offer, but I couldn't taste a thing. I'd have liked to try the mead.

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