A History of the Publishing Industry

by Isabelle Paquette

The history of publishing around the world can be characterized by a close interplay between social change and innovation of technology. Publishing any material not only depends on the inventions of writing, paper, and printing, but also the spread of literacy over time in different societies. Publishing itself, which came from small beginnings, has grown into a monumental and complex industry that greatly impacts modern civilization by producing and distributing all forms of cultural content.

The concept of publishing began before the invention of the printing press, when scribes used to copy works by hand. Paper as we know it was first invented in China in 105 BCE, as was the first movable type in 1040 BCE. The Gutenberg press was the first movable type made with metal. Invented in the 1400s in Germany, the Gutenberg paved the way to publishing on a wider scale. Today, there are three primary forms of publishing you should know about: 

  • Traditional publishing as we know it began to emerge in the 1500s. In traditional publishing, authors sign over publishing rights to their work in exchange for one or two forms of payment: “advance only” or “advance + royalties.” An advance is a lump sum the author receives when they sign a contract with a publisher, and royalties are a percentage of the sales price or net revenue. Royalties typically fall between 10-20% of the sales price, but can be as low as 7%. In both payment formats, the publishing company won’t begin to pay royalties until they’ve recouped their investment in its entirety. In the advance + royalties format, the advance is included in that accounting.
  • Hybrid publishing is advertised as having the creative control of self-publishing with the creative and professional expertise and distribution of traditional publishing. However, in reality, hybrid publishing is a fee-for-service publishing model in which the author signs over their publishing rights in exchange for minimal profit. For example, an author will pay the publisher to publish their book and receive 30% of the royalties, which sounds similar to the traditional model. The main difference is that the up-front costs are usually higher, as the publisher often lists those costs at the retail price for the service, whereas if they were to publish the book traditionally, the costs would be reduced, or at the wholesale service price. Furthermore, while the author is responsible for the cost of production, the publisher takes the majority of the royalties (70%), and every aspect of publishing and/or marketing/distribution is paid for by the author. This doesn’t include hidden costs along the way, and there are often stipulations in authors’ contracts that can make it harder for them to receive royalties from their work, benefit from derivative work, or restore their publishing rights.
  • Self-publishing has been around for a while, but was only formalized in recent decades with the advent of Amazon and Createsapce (now owned by Amazon). Authors who were unable to get a publishing contract were now able to share their work with their audience (95% of submissions were rejected by publishers). However, in the early years, self-published work often wasn’t taken seriously in the publishing or literary industries. This is slowly changing, and in 2017, the annual number of self-published books grew by almost 30% to more than 1 million volumes. With the advent of the ebook, self-publishing without the need for printing is continually growing, and it is expected that the global pandemic will contribute to a significant bump in those numbers.

Today, the overall number of books being published has increased dramatically through traditional, hybrid, and self-publishing models, though the actual publishing numbers are difficult to obtain due to the nature of the industry. 

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