The History and Future of the Book

I have been reading a lot of articles lately about books, publishing, self-publishing, e-books, the history of the book, the future, bestsellers and so on and so forth.

What is a book?

A book is a data structure consisting of text and images. Text itself consists of strings that are made of multiple characters. These characters can be visible or invisible. Visible characters represent letters and digits.

Books are usually printed on paper, but in recent times they are also increasingly being distributed in an electronic format. The latter type of books are called e-books as opposed to print books. Print books can be bought in bookstores or on the Internet. E-books as far as I know can only be delivered via the Internet.


In ancient times before the invention of paper, texts were written on different kind of materials such as clay and papyrus. These materials, as you can imagine, were difficult to write on and not portable, with the exception of tablets and papyrus scrolls. Tablets – the precursors of iPads and their clones – were made of clay or wood planks covered with wax.

In the Middle Ages books were written manually by scribes. Most of the time the scribes were monks. There was some specialization analogous to the distinction between text editors and image editors today. Historians describe the work of the scribes as “totally not fun”. It is not known whether the scribes worked in cubicles or whether they applied Agile Methodologies. Judging from different historical records in all likelihood they used the waterfall approach and didn’t have anything resembling cubicles.

With the invention of the Gutenberg press and more modern printing presses later on, it went downhill from there for the scribes. They were out of a job rather quickly, but since it wasn’t a fun job anyhow, they probably didn’t complain much. Today, the publishing process is even more automated using specialized computer software. We even have various digital formats for electronic books also known as e-books.


Books have evolved through the millennia to be cheaper and more portable. It seems logical that this trend will continue, until books cost practically nothing and you can have thousands of them on your tablet or e-book reader. Personally I would love it if more audiovisual elements were added to books. If you have read the science fiction book “The Diamond Age” by Neal Stephenson you would be familiar with  the “Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer”. The Primer is an interactive educational software book and application created with nanotechnology. It uses advanced artificial intelligence and nanotechnology to give a poor girl exactly the education that she lacks due to her low economic status.

Granted this is science fiction, but after three or more decades (depending on when the Singularity occurs) the Primer should be possible and plausible, I think. For the time being it seems that people are focusing on eliminating the risk of book publishing and lowering the threshold for newcomers. The main new developments it appears are self-publishing, Lean Publishing and crowd funding.

Self-publishing is publishing without the help of an established publisher. An author then takes the risk of publishing and pays for printing, marketing and book distribution himself or herself. This is the “do it yourself” or “pay for it yourself” approach. The writer can of course, borrow the money from friends and family or choose for crowd funding. Crowd funding depends on a large group of people each contributing a small or medium amount of money to a large pool, which is used to finance a project, for instance a new book. The investors are rewarded with fixed interest on their investment.

Crowd funding and Lean Manufacturing form the perfect combination in my very humble opinion. Lean Manufacturing puts the customer in the center of all activities. When it comes to book publishing, you could for instance offer your crowd funding investors a copy of the book as part of the debt repayment. Since the investors, in that case, become customers of the book project as well, you could ask them frequently for feedback. Let’s say, after finishing a chapter draft. Your investors in this way help you edit and steer the book in the right direction. Later on the investors are likely to help with the book marketing too.

Publishing is a risky business with a growing number of competitors. The financial reward is disproportionately low. I read an article comparing publishing with stock investing, that recommended the diversification strategy. With other words trying to publish as many books as possible (with some quality checks of course) and hoping for the best. Success is rare, so either you get really lucky or you just have to rely on the Law of Large Numbers.

Disclaimer: this article was written from my perspective as avid reader and author of a couple of books. All statements and opinions given here are my own or my own interpretation and might be factually inaccurate.


Interesting Stuff on March 24, 2013

By the author of NumPy Beginner's Guide, NumPy Cookbook and Instant Pygame. If you enjoyed this post, please consider leaving a comment or subscribing to the RSS feed to have future articles delivered to your feed reader.
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