The widespread literacy resulting from the European invention of movable type half a millennium ago humbled priests and tyrants, revived classical learning, spawned the Enlightenment, and inspired the modern world with all its wonders and woes. Yet the abrupt death of Gutenberg’s epochal technology midway through the final decade of the twentieth century was ignored as the world welcomed with great expectations its exponentially more powerful electronic successor.
New technologies change everything in their path, topple kings and empires, create new gods, new goods, and new ways of living in the world. They do not erase the past or change human nature, but they do replace previous forms of production. Like the technology of movable type from which the modern publishing business arose, many traditional publishing functions related to this abandoned technology are irrelevant to an electronic future.
Buying paper, setting type, making plates and ordering copies from a printer, storing books and managing inventories, shipping to wholesalers and retailers, taking returns of unsold copies, staging ever more elaborate and ritualized sales conferences to entice an ever more concentrated, diffident, and inefficient retail marketplace: these traditional book-publishing functions and their complex infrastructures, which absorb perhaps half or more of publishing revenues and thus represent an expense to readers and a burden upon the potential earnings of authors as well as upon the viability of publishers, will not abruptly vanish, as movable type itself has done. But they will become increasingly marginal to the extent that books are delivered electronically directly to readers by various means, some already at hand in primitive versions, others yet to be developed. Should digital publication become dominant, as I suspect it will within a decade or less, these traditional functions will increasingly be contracted out to specialized firms serving residual markets, while publishers concentrate on essential editorial, publicity, and promotional services, the financial support of work in progress, and the refinement of their website strategies.
These new technologies will alter the way books are transmitted, but the author’s task will remain essentially the same as when Homer sang the Odyssey and Dickens presented his novels, chapter by chapter, before enchanted listeners. So too will the experience of readers remain essentially the same as they flip their electronic pages or order their books from neighborhood kiosks where machines may soon print one copy at a time on demand, indistinguishable from a factory-made paperback book and not much more expensive to produce, as efficiently as ATM machines dispense cash today. The number of such readers, however, will increase greatly as new technologies deliver the contents of books instantaneously and at negligible transportation cost to remote corners of the earth, awakening the desire and imparting the skills to read them. The revolutionary technology of movable type opened the cloistered libraries of the fifteenth century to all of Europe and gave birth to a new world and its dream of reason. The far greater political and cultural consequences, for better and worse, of emerging electronic technologies as …