Print books and e-books: two crucial moments in book publishing and society

Posted on June 17, 2011

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From clay tablets to e-books, methods of expressing the written word have undergone countless transformations since the invention of cuneiform in circa 3000 BC. Each new method the world has seen has been the direct result of the invention of a new media technology for the distribution and aggregation of information (Einstein 1979). Similarly, many of the social changes history has observed have been the direct result of new publishing processes (that is not to say however, that all of history’s changes have been reliant on modes of publishing). It is on this note that the subject of this essay arises—the impact of different modes of book production on social relationships. In the interest of specificity, this essay will not attempt to cover all modes of book production rather it will focus on two types, the traditional printed book and new-fangled e-book. A comparison of these publishing types will reveal that publication technologies possess a power far greater than the mere ability to mass produce, they posses power over social change and thus, the human condition.

The printing press and printed book will serve as the first point of analysis yet, in order to assess the changes wrought by the print revolution it is worthwhile to quickly discuss the conditions that prevailed before its advent. A brief history of the publication of the written word will therefore ensue.

As mentioned, Sumerian pictographs known as cuneiform were the first (or one of the first) forms of written expression.  These symbols were initially imprinted onto clay tokens and then clay tablets (e-book.com.au 2011). Soon after, the Egyptians invented papyrus rolls (scroll like objects), a printing technology that remained dominant from about 500 BC (e-book.com.au 2011 & Wikipedia 2011A). There is speculation that the codex—what we have come to know as the traditional book format—came into existence sometime during the reign of the papyrus roll (Wikipedia 2011B). While the invention of paper was significant, it was the codex that was/is considered to be one of the most significant innovations in regard to the dissemination of the written word (Martin & Febvre 1976). The publishing structure of the codex—pages bound together and covered—is not acknowledged by society to be a form of book, from modern society’s perception the codex, is a book. Significantly, the codex remained potent (if not became stronger) during the print revolution, it is only now with the advent of e-books that society’s perception of the book is changing.

Cuneiform writing was a system of pictographs. Source: Nationaal Archief, Flickr Commons

Before the printing press and therefore printed codex, the codex came in the form of an individually crafted manuscript. These manuscripts would take an incredibly long time to complete and, as a result, they were very valuable items that were only used for high scholarly purposes (cyberartsweb.org 2011). Unlike the printed codex, manuscripts were mostly display-only books that, due to their delicate nature, were not to be manhandled (Einstein 26). It would have been a rare occurrence for a member of the laity to see, let alone touch, a manuscript.

Monastic manuscripts were the main form of book production between the Fall of Rome and the 12th Century (Thomas 1958). Sourced from, National Library NZ Flickr Commons, http://www.flickr.com/photos/nationallibrarynz_commons/5344531754/

Significantly, due to the subjectivity involved in their creation process, manuscripts were not items that could be mass-produced (Einstein 1979: 36). Just as every human being is unique, each man-crafted manuscript was a stand-alone entity. Even manuscripts that were intended to be replicated additions had differing (perhaps even slightly) content, styles and illustrations (Einstein 1979: 36).

With this in mind, it is easier to comprehend why historians, sociologists, scientists, scholars and others alike universally affirm that the printing press revolutionized the world (Einstein 1979: 1 & Clegg 2001: 222). Introduced in circa 1440, the first Western printing press was created by Johannes Gutenberg (Bellis N.D). While Gutenberg’s (wooden and then metal) movable type printing press was ‘innovative’ for its era, the transformative effects of the technology were not fully appreciated until at least two centuries after the invention (Einstein 1979: 1-10). With years of retrospect in its arsenal, this essay will not suffer from the same myopia.

One of the printing press’s most revolutionary traits was its ability to mass-produce books in a standardized form. Indeed, the printed codex was a far cry from the coveted and artistic manuscript. Mass-produced books were a groundbreaking phenomenon. In one day, two experienced printers could produce the same amount of output it would have taken experienced scribes years to accomplish (Hart 07). Furthermore, unlike manuscripts, these works were identical to one another.  It did not matter that this general form of production was snubbed by the manuscript collecting, caviar eating elite, as the printing press broke through this audience and introduced books to wider demographics (Martin and Febvre 1976: 10-15). In other words, the printing press changed social relationships by breaking monopolies of knowledge. Information and the written word had, before the printing press, been the privilege of the highest cadres of society. As a faster and more efficient publishing technology, the printing press extracted books from what was, for all intents and purposes, a private sphere and placed them into a public one.

The Gutenberg Bible was the first book printed from a movable type printing press. Image source: National Library of Scotland, Flickr Commons.

The impacts of these transversal shifts are ubiquitous in the modern world. Literacy rates rose, as did the middle class. Most importantly, the elite and their ‘knowledge’ were to an extent demystified. According to, Walter Benjamin (1968), new technologies expose the process of making art and therefore change the role of art in society. As aforementioned, manuscripts were considered to be art due to their aesthetic and intellectual properties. By bringing at least one of these elements (the written word) to the public sphere the laity were able to directly interact with what was kept secret from them for so long. Brian Richardson (1999: 157) encapsulated the significance of the printed book best by writing,

 “The achievement of all those involved in print production- the makers, financers and sellers of books as well as those who wrote or edited the texts to be printed- was to provide a better opportunity for more people from a wider spectrum of society to enjoy the benefits of reading, by deriving form the written word their own personal usefulness and pleasure”.

Critical thinking across all levels of society began and thus, power structures began to shift.

The  Renaissance and Scientific Revolution are two historical events that changed social relationships and are credited, not undisputedly, to the printing press and concomitantly, the spread of reading (Einstein 1979; Clegg 2001; Febvre & Martin 1958: 10). As is common knowledge, the Renaissance was a time of monumental socio-cultural transformations induced by the growth and spread of knowledge. According to Elizabeth Einstein (1979), the Renaissance in Italy began with the recovery (and rediscovery), production and distribution of classical texts and then their humanist response to them (Clegg 2001: 225). With the mass production of books information began to trickle down through different societal caches causing educational reform and revolutionary thinking. As a result, the Renaissance was a time of several socio-political upheavals (Einstein 1979). This is an example of how publishing technologies possess power beyond technical productivity—when publishing changes so does society.

During the Scientific Revolution the printing press and printed book played a crucial role in aggregating scattered ideas and networks. Scientists from across Europe were brought into new social relationships via the formation of a scientific community (Febvre and Martin 1976: 10-11). Innovation became more productive as scientists had more information at their disposal and were able to converse more easily, mostly by way of written material, with their counterparts. The scientific community created during the Scientific Revolution is indicatory of how changes in the distribution and aggregation process created new relationships between individuals, society and culture. New media advocate, David Gauntlet (2010), asserts that the digital networks are empowering and posses a strong social element. Their participatory nature is leading us down a path of engaged citizenry and more potent democracy. Digital networks enable different distribution and aggregation processes just as the printing press and printed book did. By applying Gauntlet’s (2010) theories to the printing press and printed book it can be seen that as a ‘new technologies’ the printing press and printed book impacted social relationships and power structures.

As well as instigating change in the macro-world, the advent and dissemination of printed books also led to changes to micro level social relationships. Most notably, printed books changed the way people shared reading experiences. Before the printed book, “literary work was meant to be disseminated orally, but preserved in manuscript” (cyberartsweb.org 2011). The printed book therefore changed the way written works were communicated. Interaction with books became a solitary as well as a communal exercise. For example, before printed books people interacted with text from The Bible by listening to a priest during church sermons. When The Bible became available in print (it’s worth mentioning that The Bible was the first book to be printed) people could read the bible individually,  “deriving form the written word their own personal usefulness and pleasure” (Richardson 1999: 157). While this practice weakened the importance of communal reading it also opened up new opportunities for social interaction as people could discuss books with each other. An example of this practice from another era would be literary salons (which sprung up during The Enlightenment). Literati would meet at a designated location (usually at one of their own houses) to discuss different literary works and ideas. Literary salons were and still are an important part of culture and would not have been possible without the printed book.

Similar to the printing press and printed books, the Internet and e-books are changing social relationships by forging new information networks and new modes of distribution and aggregation. The Internet’s sharing and connecting ethos has facilitated an ‘information revolution’ on par with the Renaissance and Scientific Revolution (Gauntlet 2010). While the advantages and disadvantages (see Danah Boyd’s arguments for the contrary) of this revolution are still a topic of debate, the impact of the new modes of publishing the Internet is enabling are indicatory of the influence of this new medium. The e-book is one such technology.  Initially, e-books began as electronic versions of already existing books. However, books are increasingly becoming created in an exclusive e-book format. These books are digitally interactive and can have vastly different formats to traditional books. One of the most significant aspects of these new e-books is that they are interlinked with other data on the web linking the reader to comprehensive information networks. According to Michael Hart (2007), just as the printing press did, the Internet is making information more accessible to the laity and therefore placing more power at their disposal. By linking people to larger information networks, interactive e-books have the power to impact social relationships as they advocate engaged citizenry and social networks (Gauntlet 2010).

E-books can be read from tablet devices. Are these devices the new codex? Image source- ceslava.com from Flickr Commons

As digital e-books are connected to the interactive Internet they will inevitably transform book reading into a more public exercise.  If social networks are anything to go by, users will soon be able to see what their peers are reading, have discussions underneath specific pages/chapters, like certain books, sections and even sentences and engage in live chat while they read a book. Significantly, users could also link to sites such as Twitter and Facebook through their e-book platform. Furthermore, users could become privy to knowledge as to who else is reading a book at the same time as them (the SMH has this function on their new site), how many people have read the book in the past and the overall user-rated popularity of a book. These interactions will inevitably shift the social communities that evolve around books onto online platforms. While the effects of this new form of distribution and aggregation are uncertain they will certainly transform both the publishing industry and social relationships.

In conclusion, the type of impact both print books and e-books have had on social relationships has been similar. Both technologies have impacted power structures and the formation of social communities. As e-books rise in popularity, the future of print books is becoming increasingly obscure. However, as this essay reveals, print books and e-books may be produced from radically different technologies but their power to change society is the same if not similar.

If you interested in e-books give these articles a read:

> The Future of E-books by Kimberley Castro

>End of Book Publishing As We Know It by Michael Hyatt

Reference List-

v Benjamin, Walter (1968) ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ in Illuminations, translated by Harry Zohn, and edited by Hannah Arendt. New York: Harcourt Brace and World.

v Bellis, Mary (N.D), ‘Johannes Gutenberg – Printing Press’ in About.com Inventors, http://inventors.about.com/od/gstartinventors/a/Gutenberg.htm

v Clegg, Cyndia (2001), ‘Historyof theBook: An UndisciplineDdiscipline’ in Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. 54, no. 1, Spring, pp 221-245.

v cyberartsweb.org (2011), Print Scribal Culture, http://www.cyberartsweb.org/cpace/infotech/asg/ag11.html (accessed June 1, 2011).

v e-book.com.au (2011), Book History, http://www.e-book.com.au/bookhistory.htm (accessed June 3, 2011).

v Eisenstein, Elizabeth (1979), The Printing Press as an Agent of Change : Communications and Cultural Transformations in Early-Modern Europe, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

v Febvre, Lucien & Martin, Jean (1976), The coming of the book: the impact of printing 1450-1800, Verso: London.

v Hart, Michael (2007), ‘History Of Power From The Gutenberg Revolution To The Computer Revolution’ in Global Politician, http://www.globalpolitician.com/22876-history (accessed June 9, 2011).

v Gauntlett, David (2010) Making is Connecting, http://www.makingisconnecting.org/ (accessed June 2, 2011).

v Richardson, Brian (1999), Printing, Writers and Readers in Renaissance Italy, CambridgeUniversityPress.

v Thomas, Marcel (1958), ‘Manuscripts’ in Febvre, Lucien & Martin, Jean (1976), The coming of the book: the impact of printing 1450-1800, Verso: London.

v Wikipedia (2011A) ‘Papyrus’ in Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Papyrus (accessed May 20, 2011).

v Wikipedia 2011B, ‘Codex’ in Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Codex#History (accessed May 20, 2011).

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