To understand the future of print books in the digital age, one must first understand the history of books in society.
400 – 1500 AD
In the Middle Ages, when printed text began to emerge, there were only religious and philosophical writings. The clergy created the material, and so they retained control over what was written and printed. Depending upon what religious sect had fashioned the text, only their view would be expressed, and only their belief was shared and openly accepted. As these works were exceptionally difficult, and elaborate to produce, they were usually only acquired by the wealthy. At that time, the wealthy consisted of the Church, the royalty, and the extremely successful merchant class. The average shopkeeper could never have afforded to own a book, and the lowly barmaid would never have been allowed to read one.
1453 – 1600
After the invention of the printing press, the reach of printed text extended further than the Church, not by much however. The manufacture of printed information was costly and time consuming. Therefore, the growth of book publication and production was funded by the popular politicians, the reigning royal family (and close friends), and the upper crust of society. It was still accepted and expected that what was considered popular reading material, be based upon the view, opinion, and preference of those who could afford to purchase the books. It was probably likely that writers, who wanted their work to be published, would write what they believed the readers wanted to read.
As more printing presses were employed, the printers themselves found methods to lower the cost and the effort needed to print greater numbers of books. As printing became more affordable, more writers could write and publish what they wanted to, and more people could afford to read what was being written. This factor began to encourage people to discover and form new opinions and beliefs, and gave them the ability and the willingness to share them with others. No longer were the elite or the church controlling what was read, allowing the people to learn freely.
1640 – 1800
The printed word comes to America. However, the common people of America were very limited in their reading material. The Bible and related writings were most common and popular, as religion and its infliction upon the masses were paramount to the first colonial settlers. Again, for a time, the churches held power over what the people read. In fact, boy children were taught to read and write in the first colonial schools, with primers that contained the alphabet, and passages of scripture. Girl children of the wealthy were taught basic reading and writing, and math skills at home by their governess. It was not acceptable until the late 1700's for girls to attend public school.
1800 – 1900
Printing was affordable, writing was open-minded and wide-ranging, reading was all the rage, and even women and children were encouraged to learn the skill. During this time, the invention of modern paper had significantly decreased the cost of the production of books and magazines. This met with the demand that the people had for more written material to read. To satisfy this demand, book publishers developed faster and more efficient, and more creative methods for the production of books, such as adding color illustrations, and using variations of typesetting.
The 1800s brought about a greater demand for specialized books and magazines as different professions were developed, and traditional professions advanced. This demand led to the conception of dedicated publishing houses. A few of the earliest established publishing houses are still recognizable in some form today, although they have merged, been taken over by other media corporations, and have transformed into different forms of media businesses. Nearly all American people had access to books by this time, except for the very poor and the completely uneducated, which made up a substantial part of the population.
The book publishing business began to grow and expand during the early and mid-1900's. During this time, specific category books became more popular, such as trade books and textbooks especially. Paperback fiction, mystery, and romance, were among the most widely read material during this time. The laid back later years of the 1900's brought about the arrival of the mail order and the book club readers. This assured that very few people were unable to find a book when they wanted one.
The late years of the last century, and the beginning of the new century, witnessed a surge in the number of and the types of bookstores available in the United States. The Internet made it possible and convenient to buy books online. There was even an experiment, (if you will) in what is known as the eBook. While it did not catch on as quickly as was expected, it is now a common aspect of the cyber community. Countless would-be authors are able to create and publish their own books in this form, and some of these eBooks are actually very popular. These eBooks are also a useful and cost efficient marketing tool for web entrepreneurs.
The book publishing industry of today and tomorrow is not that different from when it first began. The major difference being the amount of money spent and made in this industry, and the size of the publishing companies. From the very first published printed material, the intent was to spread enjoyment, enlightenment, and knowledge. I believe that the intent is still the same. However, the future of printed media is inevitably intertwined with the other forms of media communications of today, and the media that we have not yet imagined.
When the first book was published, no one could have imagined seeing that book come to life on a movie screen. When the first movie was made from a book, no one had yet imagined being able to watch that movie on a hand held screen. Printed media is encouraged to grow as our society grows, and printed media encourages the growth of the other media forms.
Imagination writes the books, and books fuel the imagination.
The future of print books is uncertain only because this media form faces many challenges in today's society and modern culture. The Internet is able to provide new directions from the traditional print book, but for many there will never be a replacement for curling up in a favorite chair with a favorite book.