Whilst it sometimes feels as though books and the publishing industry have been around forever, it’s actually only the past 1000 to 1500 years that have seen the publication of books as we know them. Before that, ‘books’ tended to be artefacts such as beaten metal sheets fastened together, though there are a few exceptions to this rule.
The best preserved examples of early books that we have tend to be religious texts. These include the Celtic Psalter, from Scotland; a siddur or Jewish prayer book from the Middle Ages; the famous Books of Kells, from Ireland; and the St Cuthbert Gospel, from the Holy Island in Northumbria. All of these texts were copied by hand and some feature beautiful, intricate illustrations. The time, energy and expense required to produce such books meant that the practice was reserved for those who wished to glorify God through the process, and to spread the word of their particular religion to devotees of the surrounding area.
In 1450, the first commercially viable printing press, named the Gutenberg Press after its owner, became available for use. Whilst the Chinese had been using woodblocks to print text for several hundred years by this point, it was Gutenberg’s press that really kickstarted the worldwide revolution around the printed word. Suddenly, books didn’t have to be painstakingly copied out by hand – instead, they could be printed with the machine in much less time and at a reduced cost. The Gutenberg Press used metal letters as opposed to the traditional Chinese woodblocks, creating a uniform typeface with a European variant on moveable type. The first book printed was the Gutenberg Bible, of which 21 copies still remain in all their printed glory.
Throughout the years, books maintained their status as expensive and respected objects containing learning, wisdom and artwork. However, with the founding of Penguin Books came the first globally successful iteration of the modern paperback. This cheap, accessible and portable alternative to the heavy leather-bound tomes of old was in keeping with the faster modern pace of life. A paperback could be slipped into a coat pocket and easily read on the train or bus, or whilst sat in the park. It meant that books, and especially works of fiction, were now easily available to the general public and started to gain a wider audience of readers.
Around the same time period, audiobooks first emerged. They were originally formulated as a product by The American Foundation for the Blind and comprised of 15 minute recordings transferred onto vinyl records. Of course, they’ve come a long way since then, moving through vinyl to cassette tapes, to CDs, to mp3s, to the modern digital recordings we use now. Amazon’s Audible is perhaps the most famous audiobook provider in the world currently, and their dedication to providing well read, affordable and engaging audiobooks to the world is commendable. In addition to this, there are many smaller online stores for audiobook lovers such as Libro, Audiobooks and others.
Indeed, the birth of the internet introduced a whole host of new ways to publish text; from e-books, to blogging, to on demand publishing, once everyone was connected to the world wide web, there was no turning back for the humble book. Of course, these days we’re used to accessing all of our favourite entertainment options online. For the latest films and tv shows, we head to streaming sites like Netflix or Amazon Prime; for home gaming we might turn to Skyvegas, or for live playthroughs we might check out Twitch; and when we’re in the mood for music, we’re spoilt for choice with platforms like YouTube and Apple Music all offering something slightly different. So, it makes sense that we also turn to the internet for books and other publications.
E-books now make up a significant portion of book sales worldwide, with Amazon claiming their share as well over 60% of the market. Whilst naysayers originally thought that e-books would be a massive flop, their sustained popularity over the past decade or so has shown that they do have some staying power. Whether that’s because of their increased accessibility, portability or lower price point is up to the individual, but they are now a crucial part of the publishing landscape.
So, what does the future hold for books and the publishing world at large? Innovations continue to crop up, from the ever-improving e-reader, to audiobook apps for your phone or tablet, to the on-demand publishing model used by Amazon and others in order to champion new and emerging authors. It seems clear that people still love books and, despite a whole host of modern distractions, still want reading to be a part of their life. Beyond reading for leisure, there is also the matter of reading for education and research, with the publication and distribution of online journals a major bone of contention in both publishing and educational circles. It remains to be seen where we’ll go from here but one this is certain – books aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.