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The Rise of E-Books and Digital Publishing

The Rise of E-Books and Digital Publishing

In 1981, a co-author, Barbara McMullen and I, began work on a book on one of the newest technologies available to individuals, telecommunications. We developed the book using the latest technology at the time, a word processor on an Apple II, and even provided illustrations using an Apple Graphics Tablet. The use of these features allowed us to cut writing time dramatically from the previous "high-tech" tool, the typewriter. We could actually edit the document, making changes to sentences, moving paragraphs around, and inserting brand new text at various points in the manuscript - all capabilities that were not possible with typewriters.

Unfortunately, similar improvements had not yet come into the world of publishers in 1982 when we submitted the finished manuscript of "Microcomputer Communications: A Window on the World" to John Wiley and Sons. Some publishers were experimenting with programs that translate computer files into the formats required by their typesetting machines, while others were simply retyping submissions received in printed format. Our editor at Wiley would review the document, make changes that he thought corrected or improved the work, and verify the changes with us. Once the manuscript had passed final muster, a proof would be printed for final review and the book would be scheduled for production. The scheduling was not only based on the printing process but on the timing of the next Wiley catalog that would go to bookstores and distributors.

Our book finally reached production status in 1983, almost two years after we had begun the project and a year after we had first turned the manuscript over to Wiley. This did not seem to be a major problem to Wiley at the time, as it was used to this type of turnaround on projects, even those involving computer technology as new large ("mainframe") or smaller ("minicomputer") systems had long product cycles. It was, however, the kiss of death in the new personal computer reality. The book was well out-of-date before it reached the bookstores.

From Typewriter to E-Book: A Revolution in Publishing Begins

In those days, there were small bookstores scattered throughout all major cities. Most smaller towns had bookstores too, often near the town's railroad station. The big chains that we have since come to know did not really exist; Barnes & Noble was in business, but was known primarily as a seller of new and used textbooks.

During this time, publishers were working with consultants to link Apple IIs and IBM PCs directly to typesetters to eliminate the need for rekeying books. Although this was relatively easy to accomplish from a hardware standpoint, it required either the author or the editor to enter rather arcane codes to instruct the typesetter when to break page, what to print in bold or italics, etc. What the computer/publishing world was looking for was a WYSIWYG ("What You See Is What You Get") system, a system where what the writer saw on his or her computer screen was exactly what would appear on the printed page (including graphics, multi-columns, large fonts, etc.).

The production problem was solved with the advent of the Apple LaserWriter, the concurrent availability of PostScript - a Page Definition Language by Adobe that provided WYSIWG capabilities to the Macintosh when used with a printer/typesetter with a PostScript processor - and PageMaker from Aldus, a page layout program that allowed text and graphics, multicolumns, various fonts, and appearance - the features that we expect to see in a book, magazine, or newspaper. While the Apple LaserWriter was the first PostScript device, other high quality printers and typesetters soon followed; after PageMaker came Quark Express, and both were ported to the IBM PC when Windows 3 became commonplace on that platform. (To learn more about Apple's background, check out Creating the iWorld: A History of Apple.)

In subsequent years, all publishers began accepting manuscripts in digital format - by email or delivered on a disk or USB drive. As the methods of production changed, so did the makeup of the industry. Technological changes in billing and payment, such as electronic data interchange and electronic funds transfer, greatly reduced the need for clerical help, while improved distribution processes allowed firms to consolidate.

The distribution reductions were due to the growth of national chains of bookstores - Barnes & Noble, Borders, B. Dalton and Waldenbooks came to dominate the landscape, effectively leading to the demise of the vast majority of local bookstores. The chains had many more selections and could sell at discounted prices due to their purchasing power. The trend was accelerated when Barnes & Noble and Borders acquired B. Dalton and Waldenbooks, respectively, and built larger and larger box stores that incorporated cafes, and included music and children's sections.

In another development, books on tape, first on cassette tape and then compact disks, became hot items, allowing "readers" to enjoy books while walking or driving.

The Reading Public Takes Notice

The above changes, all spawned one way or another by technology, all went generally unnoticed by the reading public to this point. This changed in 1995 with the emergence of as a major online bookstore. Amazon allowed customers to shop from home and at the office, wherever a computer was available, while providing a huge inventory, reduced prices and in most cases, the absence of taxes. provided the final death knell to the local bookstore, which could neither compete with Barnes & Noble's ambiance nor Amazon's convenience and low prices.

With the digital revolution in full swing, the next step was the electronic book (e-book), which is aiming at replacing the printed book. There had been e-book readers around for a number of years, but they had had little success due to the limited inventory of books available in this format. A rather clunky method of getting books to the reader (e-books would be found on line via a PC connection, downloaded to the PC and, then transferred to the reader via a USB connection) also affected their popularity. This all changed in November 2007, when introduced the Kindle, a lightweight device that could download e-books directly from Amazon via a wireless connection. Kindle revolutionized the industry, and by July 2010, Amazon was selling more e-books than hardcover books, and had introduced a number of Kindle models. Amazon also released Kindle apps for the iPhone and iPad, as well as the Macintosh, and Windows operating systems, making it possible for users to purchase and read e-books on a broad range of devices, and to share e-books between these devices without having to download the same book multiple times. Barnes & Noble also introduced its version of an e-book reader, the NOOK, in 2009. This device allows direct downloads from Barnes & Noble's inventory. The company, in turn, began to divert its focus from big-box stores to becoming a provider of electronic books and devices. The rapid move to e-books by Amazon and Barnes & Noble - and the success both companies enjoyed in this area - proved too much for its prime competitor, Borders, which closed its doors in 2011.

The Emergence of Self-Publishing and Publishing on Demand

The digital revolution came back full circle to the production cycle with the advent of publishing on demand (POD) services. Throughout the history of publishing, there has been a niche called self-publishing, also referred to as vanity publishing, where an author pays a printing service to produce some number of books from a manuscript; the price of this process runs into the hundreds or thousands of dollars. Electronic interfaces refined this process, and firms sprung up to accept input from authors and prepare the necessities for the printing of books. Here the process diverges from self-publishing in that books are not printed until they are actually ordered by consumers, hence publishing on demand. The POD services offered some marketing support and editing services but the very basic plans usually cost only a few hundred dollars.

Once again, enter Amazon! Its subsidiary, CreateSpace, developed a basic POD that costs the author under $20 (with additional features available at higher costs) and the books are almost immediately available on Amazon. Customers purchase the books online through Amazon and the author receives monthly royalty checks. Major traditional publishers have also adopted the POD model for books whose initial demand has subsided. This allows the books to continue to sell, but eliminates the need for maintaining large inventories in warehouses.

The Future of Reading

There have been major changes in the last 30 years in the world of books, all of which are of benefit to consumers. However, there has been great disruption within the industry, much of which has occurred under consumers' radar. Gone are typesetters, workers in local book stores, warehouse workers, those involved in the distribution process, many publishing house executives, editors, salespersons, and clerical workers.

But then, that's technology. The world changes around us, and we are often forced to adapt. Sometimes, we recognize the changes as they happen. Most times we do not.

John F. McMullen
John F. McMullen lives with his wife, Barbara, in Jefferson Valley, New York, in a converted barn full of pets (dog, cats, and turtles) and books. He has been involved in technology for more than 40 years and has written more than 1,500 articles, columns and reviews about it for major publications. He is a professor at Purchase College and has previously taught at Monroe College, Marist College and the New School for Social Research. He is also a member of the American Academy of Poets, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Freelancer's Union, the Association for Computing Machinery, the American Academy for the Advancement of Science and the World Futurist Society.

His current non-technical writing includes a novel, "The Inwood Book" and "New & Collected Poems by johnmac the bard." Both are available on  Full Bio
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