How Technology has Revolutionized Publishing

In the last two posts we discussed the downside of technology in publishing. There is of course much more on the positive side of the ledger. Few things have done more to enhance productivity in the book publishing industry than innovations in technology.

It didn’t start with Johannes Gutenberg (the first innovations in publishing took place in China much earlier), but his creation of the printing press and movable type circa 1450 forever transformed an industry (Drucker credits that invention for starting the “Third Information Revolution”).  One interesting aside: Drucker delivered a great “history of publishing lesson” during our day together,  explaining that the first novel ever published was Don Quixote, around 1600, a book that remains in print to this day (it’s a Penguin Classic).

Let’s flash forward about 400 years to discuss how technology has affected the publishing business in the modern era. The most obvious invention that had the most profound impact was obviously the computer.  Bill Gates believed that “there should be a computer on every office deskand in every home.” His prediction certainly came true in the publishing business, but in most every other business as well. Let’s focus in on some applications that have changed the way we do business in publishing.

First of all, before email, the only way for a prospective author to submit a proposal or manuscript was via hard copy through the mail. The unsolicited manuscripts without agents were put in what was commonly referred to as the “slush pile.” Today, at least in business book publishing, almost everything comes to us via email (no more slush piles). This is what makes my job possible. I work for Portfolio, a Penguin imprint, which is based in New York City (where most of the largest publishers reside). But I work out of my home office just outside of Chicago.

Most proposals are sent to New York, but the ones that are deemed most appropriate for me are emailed to me in seconds. If a big thought-leadership book comes to me and I want a diversity of opinions on that particular proposal, I can email it to the entire imprint team in seconds. Of course, this can also be done in other industries, but this technology is tailor made for us in publishing. I can almost not recall the last time I read a hard-copy proposal. I actually can review and read a proposal on-line faster—and digest more— than reading it in a hard-copy format.  

It’s not only submissions of proposals that have changed, but most every process as well. Manuscripts are edited and copy-edited online in the Microsoft edit program. They are emailed back to authors and they review and make changes and answer queries in the same program. The technology for typesetters has changed dramatically as well. Now anyone can be a publisher and tens of thousands of books are “self-published” by individuals and companies each year and used for many different purposes. It seems that not a week goes by without people sending us a good number of self-published books in search of an publisher. A good number of these are indeed published, or in these cases, “re-published” (that’s not a real word, I know). 

In fact, a decade ago we received a self-published book on day trading (the on-line buying and selling of stocks). That self-published manual went on to become the first day trading book, selling more than $2 million worth of copies (that’s more than 160,000 copies). That book sparked perhaps 50 more by publishers of all shapes and sizes.  The company I worked for then went from zero to $5 million in day trading books in a span of 24 months. That is, until NASDAQ came crashing down like a meteor out of control in 2000. But an industry was launched with a single self-piblished “manual.” Who knows what would have happened if we had not had the wisdom to publish that self-published book?

There are many other cases of technology enabling us to do things better, faster, and cheaper. Come back next week for more on this subject.       









Leave a Reply

  • Find It

  • Sign up!

    Enter your e-mail address to receive notifications in your inbox when there are new posts

  • The Unforced Error

      The Unforced Error

  • Sneak Peek - Chapter One!

    Source Notes