A Brief History of Publishing
In the beginning, there was the Bible.
Wait, wait, wait; we need to go back a bit, to before publishing. Before the beginning there was oral history, and that’s how the Bible existed for a good (was it decades or centuries? Gosh, I can’t remember) time. Then, there were scribes, then there was canonization, then there was the collection of letters, psalms, and gospels, etc, we know as the Bible. And once it had a set form, it could be reproduced.
The common people couldn’t read, so the Bible had pretty pictures. The churches could read, the churches were rich, so only the churches–and the rich–owned Bible and could read them. In this time, publishing was elite.
Scribes wrote by hand. Only things worthy or being copied, were copied. Only people worthy of reading them, could read. Words were effort, words were beautiful, words were valuable.
Then, there was the printing press.
For that, you must thank Johannes Gutenberg, the Renaissance man who brought us the Printing Revolution in the Modern, Industrial age (insert more historical period terms here) even made his own, special, well-designed Bible. And then, God was in the hands of the people!
Words became cheaper, yes, but that allowed us peasants to afford them. We could all have Bibles, we could have many books. But publishing was elite. Typesetting was still a great effort. Writing was still a rich man’s leisure.
(Disclaimer: despite all my enthusiasm for the Bible’s contribution to the modern world, I’m not Christian. I’m Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, or Zoroastrian, take your pick :P)
Then, there was the vanity press.
In the Victorian Era, for example, a certain fellow by the name of Charles Dodgson wrote a story for a daughter of a friend and had it vanity printed. I mean, who would want to hear silly kid’s stories like that? It was full of personal references and in-jokes, and even parodies verses found in other (perhaps also vanity-published) works of the day.
But Lewis Carroll was still upper class enough to demonstrate that writing was a rich man’s hobby. Only rich men could pay for vanity presses anyway. What normal, sane man would spend his time reading books and trying to write them? That’s the work for folks in ivory towers. People like us are supposed to learn trades.
Then, there were typewriters.
And then we got people like Fitzgerald and Hemingway, men who hunkered over typewriters that they could carry on their movable feasts. They weren’t elite in many ways, but they were obviously insane. Words were how cheap? You’d have to look at the old serials to see, but off the top of my head, I think they got paid a nickel a word.
I’d like to think that this was the golden age of journalism, penny dreadfuls, comics, and all that nonsense. I tend to think that this is when all the big houses came to be. This era was my image of writer from birth until I tried to become one, this romantic image of traveling the world, being unique and valued, being a little poor at times but never too poor, of having something deep to say. This image of drinking and being tragic, of sending out full manuscripts to houses, who actually looked at them…eventually.
Then, there were word processors.
Words became cheaper. College students were expected to write theses. There were more books. Is this, maybe, when proposals and queries came to be? Perhaps the difference between commercial and literary fiction was also born here?
It’s not something I remember learning in literature classes: “We’re only prescribing you literature that’s old and worthy. Most of the books made today are so beneath us that we won’t even call it literature, just books. You aren’t supposed to like those, but everyone does.”
Even now I don’t understand all that this distinction entails. Does this mean I’m not expected to get involved in anything want? Have I mentioned that my only published credits are in literary mags, my main projects is commercial YA, and my interests/influences are animation, science, and philisophy? God, I’m in trouble now. I can’t find my pigeonhole. I’m in so much trouble….
Then, there were computers.
Wait, something went wrong here… I don’t mind things like the YA boom or the ubiquity of movie spin-offs, but something…
I mean, Jorge Luis Borges was a translator who gathered his references from reading work in other languages. A lot of writers I admire did that. They still do that, right? Translating? Yeah, we have the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Then why do I keep hearing that we don’t bring foreign books over here, that the US is too insular? I’m not sure if it’s always been like this, but something’s wrong.
I mean, was it always the case that you could be a author just by writing about women you (might have) killed or daughters you (might have) neglected? I know that ghostwriters are involved, but I don’t know… I used to believe in some things called ‘biographers’ and ‘journalists,’ people who’s jobs were to cover these things in ways that criminals, I mean, suspects couldn’t without a background in writing.
And I thought that said journalists or biographers would be valued for their work… no? Only their subjects are valued? That’s why their names aren’t on the books; that’s why they’re ghostwriters? Okay. Thanks for putting my hopes down.
Lastly, I thought that Nobel laureates went to books people read, things people talked about enough for me to know them, off the top of my head. And yet, I can’t find them unless I really try. Am I doing something wrong?
(Hmmm… In that case, I might have a better chance at being published if I were to kill someone than if I were to send out a query letter. Hmmm… I mean, I am too minority to get much airplay out of killing someone, unless I target a blonde girl. Everyone loves little blonde girls. And five is a very tragic age at wish to die. I might not even need to kill her, a very pleasant kidnapping could be just newsworthy enough, so hmmmm… Stockholm syndrome might be interesting to attempt, so hmmm…
I’ll have to keep this all in mind. But if I’m still lamenting about being unpublished at age 40, and a kindergartens goes missing in So-Cal… I’m only guilty if you’ll give me a book deal.)
So now where are we now?
Today, words are free. The Internet is here, it’s free. Anyone can write a book, and the people like it this way, the people like freedom. The publishers like it this way, as long as they make money. The small presses don’t care about money but that old prestigious kind of writing that school taught me to admire. By the way, I hope they aren’t still teaching kids that sort of stuff. Hopefully, they read current masterpieces and understand the market. …They don’t? Oh okay, thanks for correcting me.
Next, there will be the ebook.
Not only the ebook, the ereader, epublishing, the death of Borders (R.I.P :(), and the age of publish-then-filter as opposed to the filter-then-publish.
Physical books will return to being a rich man’s past-time. We peasants have something cheaper, easier. Vanity publishing will lose its name again. And literary fiction, perhaps, was just the strand of rich-man’s literature that has always existed and will always exist. Maybe, because I’m poor, I’m not supposed to read that stuff. I’m not supposed to care. It’s not for me. And I’m not supposed to care about books going out of business; that’s for people who have leisure time and ivory castles. I was supposed to learn a trade.
The big publishing house, should care about their own downfall, but more likely, they will not fall but adapt. I worry about people who are dedicated to translating Albanian novels with the understand that they won’t sell, but I see no need to worry about great corporations that get money from Steve Jobs’ death, Bristol Palin’s pregnancy, and Tina Fey’s career in comedy.
I still cling to my romantic delusions of writers, but I’m going to pull a Pollyanna and say that things are getting better. It’s like democracy in action, the current writing world. Sure, all democracies in this world are a bit corrupt, but they’re never as bad as monarchies… right?
If anyone can write, then even a nobody like me has a chance. And that’s immensely preferable to the times in which a poor, non-royal, non-celebrity like me couldn’t afford the presses of the day.
It’s like, hey, at least I can read.
(This History comes courtesy of someone who’s done little research. Take it with a dash of salt and feel free to correct me if I’m wrong.