The book now – creative destruction and the rebirth of an industry

Introduction – the book as archaeology

In 2001, the Smithsonian Institute mounted a display recording the history of the piano over the past 300 years. It considered the technical, social and cultural aspects of this instrument, and even the ways in which we have made fun of it. From the well tempered clavier of Bach’s time, to the honky tonk liberation of black jazz musicians and the proud kitsch of Liberace’s rhinestone covered grand, to today’s online keyboards, the evolution of this instrument traces much of recent human cultural and technological change.

A similar survey of the history of book publishing would cover more than 500 years, and even richer tapestries of context and meaning. The book is so much a part of our participation in our own civilisation that we might almost overlook it as a primary artefact of human history and culture. We are awash in other media and data delivery systems that distract us from such reflections. The increasing fragmentation of our daily lives is matched by the packets of information that arrive and demand our attention. Yet the book remains a central and revered focal point for knowledge and cultural continuity and diversity.

The role of the book was transformed by the invention of the printing press in the mid 15th century. But the explosion in the availability of books has also helped transform modern Europe. Eisenstein and others have documented the impacts and the interplay between technological innovation and the wider social, political and economic context. Then, the book industry was about to be born. Now, it is transforming in response to today’s context.

The emergence of the information society is again changing the role, presentation, and economics surrounding the book. As in the 15th century, opportunities will be seen and grasped by those who can. As ever, motivations and rewards will be diverse and somewhat unpredictable. What has changed is that the context in which individuals and groups can act is now global and literally and metaphorically electric. It is also infinitely more reflective. Five hundred years of mass-produced and carefully catalogued books are available to inform us. As with any other knowledge which bears fruit, this brings a responsibility to use it wisely. The decoding of the human genome illustrates this point dramatically: the interdependence of technology, knowledge and intention.

Overview – factors changing the role of the book

This chapter looks at the context for the book at the start of the 21st century. The history of the book and its function is an important part of human history. We now accept that the ‘industrial revolution’ was an historical turning point, where technology accelerated the pace of change, but the term did not come into popular use until at least 100 years later. Because today’s revolution is based on information, we are better placed to recognise the trends, although we may not be any better at influencing them. Now is a good time to look at the dominant factors affecting books and the ways we use them, especially if it helps us shape the direction of change. If we accept that the uses of technology are always socially determined, then understanding the environment of change for the industries and technologies surrounding writing, books, publishers and printers can help identify the opportunities and the pitfalls. The rate and scale of change brings with it a degree of ‘creative destruction’, as Schumpeter has described economic evolution.

The ensemble of factors leading to the eventual rebirth of the book industry includes:

These factors entwine, because the book industry has always reflected the way our civilisation produces, distributes and rewards both knowledge and culture. The book is a manifestation of the complexity and creativity that drives us as modern humans. It has not been supplanted as a central site for extended reasoning and detailed explication. In tandem with the music industry, the book industry is evolving into a new form that will allow these various currents to flow. Those with a fine sensitivity to today’s exciting but demanding zeitgeist will be best placed to influence and benefit from these transformations. These are likely to be people committed to the exploration of new technical and administrative business tools, and to innovation itself as an agent of change.

In the beginning was the Word

Today we are inclined to ask: what version? This phrase from John’s Gospel does indeed have a link to the popular software name, although it is fairly certain that in the beginning, there were no words. Logos, in Greek, stood not just for the word, but also for speech, reason, and the rational principles that govern and develop the universe. Language may indeed be what sets us apart, since we know now that genetics alone cannot explain our distinctiveness from other species. The origin of speech, and its early uses to articulate, share and create our world is largely speculative, but speech was no doubt a pre-condition for the emergence of structured social activities. The ability to exchange and eventually to store information also underpins our increasingly adventurous modifications of our environment.

This desire to store and revisit information led to rock painting, then more abstract representations on rock and clay tablets. The art of pictographic writing, followed by the invention of phonetic and alphabetic systems, was probably as important to the development of early societies as the printing press was in the 15th century. Unlike other particular forms of expression such as songs, plays and stories, the book has always been closely linked to its technological means of production. The Chinese ideogram for book evolved from the technology available at the time: a brush and a bamboo strip. These tools, incidentally, also led the Chinese to write vertically.

What is a book?

Although this chapter explores changes to the book and its role, it is also useful to consider what has not changed. In the eye-blink of evolution that represents our known history, the book has been as persistent as cities or war. For most people alive today, the word ‘book’ triggers an image of an object with solid covers and multiple pages with neat rows of print. This image may well change in ways that this and other chapters in this book will describe, however, the mental concept of a book has been less mutable over the centuries, and possibly over the millennia. A book is a voice, a sustained argument or perspective, a world unto itself, whether created through reason or fantasy. It is a gathering together of ideas, by one author or a small group, on a topic or issue or theme. In short, the book as a technology is somewhat different to the book as an intellectual endeavour.

We have known the book as a linear presentation, although our ability to access it in non-linear fashion is part of its charm and lasting appeal. Thus, although the pages may be numbered sequentially, we are free to flip or scan, return to or rip out, pass along or burn. New technologies and digital methods are simply making it easier to do what we have always done with books: quote or remember selectively, republish, even plagiarise. Today’s fast-paced, multi-layered, fragmented world encourages us to take information and repackage it, but this is just speeding up what humans have always done with all forms of representation. Although practical books, especially, may now have a shorter useful lifespan, the importance of a book as an extended and cohesive discourse has not diminished. Our pride in creating books, and our delight in consuming them, has not been totally replaced by the mental fast food of the media and the Internet. Without books as holistic repositories of distilled knowledge, we might lose our bearings. Like drawings in sand, words left unanchored to a form are easily washed away. Without a book to ground them, how would future generations distinguish ephemeral logorrhea from the defining voices of our time, or any time?

Technology as catalyst

Even in Guttenberg’s slower world, his invention spread with surprising speed, and had immense and unforeseeable impacts. By the start of the sixteenth century, the printing press was in use throughout Europe. Eisenstein’s book on the resulting social, economic and political transformations is fascinating and valuable for understanding the role of the book in today’s information society. She argues that the printing press helped to preserve the Renaissance revival of classical knowledge, encouraged the development of the scientific method, and facilitated the Reformation along with its cousin, liberalism. All of this was inherent in the existing society and conditions, but the printing press made their impact more explosive.

Eisenstein describes how the use of alphabetical order, consistent titles and indexing for books became widespread and regularised with the advent of the printed book. Even the collection of rags became regularised, as these scraps became a precious input for the production of paper. According to Beniger, the management and control of information is basic to human progress, and even natural evolution. This suite of technocratic features was necessary as part of the information revolution which preceded the industrial revolution. Since then, it has become less likely for books and knowledge to be lost forever: their replication as print gives them a life that velum and monks could not ensure.

Likewise, electronic books and digital technologies are fuelling the current information revolution. This is taking place in a more fragmented context, but also a larger one than the 15th century could imagine. As enormous as these changes are, they do not alter the human propensity to shape technology for their own ends. The social contingencies of technology, as Feenberg has described them, may equally reinforce the role of the book as a fixed point of knowledge.

The book as house and home

Bibliophiles know how it feel to fall in love with a book. Every now and then, an author speaks so clearly that we become entranced. This infatuation leads us to quote inappropriately, extrapolate unnecessarily and generally play the fool. A favoured writer, and their books, becomes a house we feel comfortable with, a place to visit and feel at home in, where we relish repeated feasts for the mind.

This of course does not stop us from wanting to chop up our dear author’s texts, copy them for friends or students, annotate and dismember them or even modify them for other purposes. Shakespeare led the way on the creative reuse of stories, but the non-existence of copyright and intellectual property laws clouded any indiscretions. The modern scholar is mostly honest and strenuously acknowledges all sources. But that is no reason to turn down the opportunity to search electronically for that word or section, or copy and paste it as needed.

If the word has represented authority, books offer a psychic home. No wonder the Internet use of ‘home’ pages has taken hold. The digital revolution that is bringing more information to the desktop will extend these uses, not supplant them. The book as home is acquiring new features, because we want them.

The following sections discuss three major aspects of today’s context for the evolution of the book, and how it is giving rise to creative destruction throughout all stages of book creation. From the first urge of expression to the final smile in a reader’s mind, books and book technology are evolving to suit our times.

Crowded by convergence

As one of the buzz-words of our time, convergence inevitably covers a wide territory. In a matching quiz, ‘digital’ would be a frequent choice. It is worth teasing out these terms, as both are critical to the technology and economics of book production.

The most widely discussed aspect of convergence is the coming together of media, computing and telecommunications. It is closely related to digitisation, because the conversion, storage and transmission of binary encoded data allows this convergence. A few decades ago, music could only be heard as analogue coding, on tapes or vinyl disks. CDs changed that. Likewise, the transmission of voice over phone lines is now less important, quantity wise, than the data sent through these wires in digital form via modems. This universal encoding lies at the heart of computer advances, and allows ever more devices to ‘speak’ to each other. Despite this cacophony, we return to familiar structures. Digital videos, for example, allow the viewer to look at the material by ‘chapter’.

Negroponte expounds on the vast difference digitisation makes, by talking about ‘atoms’ versus ‘bits’. While the book we wrap and give to a friend is all atoms, the reviews we download are just bits. Digitisation has the potential to eliminate the messy aspects of the real world, such as delivery vans and postage. While a chair consists of atoms and has to be physically shipped, the design of that chair is information and can be transmitted electronically. And a book about designing chairs is pure information.

On a less optimistic level, the convergence of ownership of these convergent media can inhibit the spread of new ideas. Herman and McChesney are just two of many who see dangers for democracy in the ‘dumbing down’ of mass media through all channels.

Other forms of convergence

The detailed technological impacts of convergence and digitisation on book production are considered by other authors in this collection. But there are other aspects of convergence that affect the ways we approach information and use its new formats.

Work and home

For an easy start, many busy people would agree that work and home life are converging. Our email, mobile phones and computer files seem to track us, and there is often a blur between these realms. Technology has allowed our work life to expand into the home, but it can also allow our home life into the workplace, as we pay bills online or check on our children via e-mail.

Work and play

Just as importantly, there is a convergence between work and play. Neither work nor home life is always fun, so there is a trend towards making utilitarian processes as attractive and convenient as possible. Web sites, advertisements, shopping malls and anything else that is optional are now being designed to hold our attention, often by amusing us. Free offers and free tidbits of information proliferate in cyberspace like lollipops, subduing our more serious side while we attend to business. Such enticements can lessen the appeal of a thoughtful read in an armchair after a busy day. Printed books that allow the reader to make choices and skip to different pathways are just the start. Perhaps we would like a book designed for our preferences, or incorporating a character we have keyed in. Romance novels could proliferate in personalised formats, or popular books could be modified to reveal the ‘editor’s version’.

Education and entertainment

Closely related is the convergence between education and entertainment. Teachers now need to ‘make lessons fun’. Infotainment is not just for kids, but affects the ways we approach new media. As video games and movies also converge, our hunger for interactivity increases. These techniques are increasingly being applied to online learning, and are creating pressures for educational materials to be more accessible, up-to-date, user-friendly and customised. As a result, the familiar dog-eared text book is more likely to be a work book with a CD or even a web site with links to resources, chat sessions and a faceless moderator. The ability to quickly re-formulate information for new and slightly different groups of learners is a profitable avenue for traditional educational publishers.

The collapse of time and space

As compartments in our lives blend together, our world speeds up and distances shrink. Time spans and geographic separations are less important in a virtual world. This is most observed in relation to globalisation, but it affects us even at the most local level. We can, and do, expect instant access to whatever new Big Thing has happened overseas. If what we seek is information, we require it in downloadable form, preferably annotated or customised to meet our needs. The generations now growing up with access to world wide information will expect to have even more information at their fingertips, even more quickly. They will also have no hesitation about consuming snippets of information or other media, in whatever way suits their fancy. Will the book as we know it continue to have a place in their world?

The end of e-business

All business is adopting electronic technologies so rapidly that it will soon be meaningless to talk of any other kind of business. The new business models seek to gain efficiencies by maximising the efficient flow of information, rather than building borders around it. They use the property of digital information that turns standard economics on its head: no extra costs for extra copies. The initial cost of creating, encoding, and storing information is only increased by the additional cost of transmitting each new copy. This is particularly important for the book industry, wherever smaller print runs are already becoming more feasible. The old economies of scale are collapsing, opening the door to all kinds of niche opportunities for adding value at minimal cost. Linking together electronically also encourages arrangements that are flexible and cooperative. Rather than cornering the market, these new models relish the unlimited supply of new markets, new products, and new partnerships. Competition derives from quickly developing partnerships and seizing the potential opportunities.

E-business often achieves success by disintermediation, or elimination of the intermediary. Just as often, however, there is a re-intermediation through the creation of new value-adding processes. Thus, online book stores can eliminate the retailer, but simultaneously open up the possibility for new players to offer such services as searching for out of print titles, or commercialising the reviewing process. Physical book stores in turn respond by providing what the virtual world cannot match: freshly brewed coffee and armchairs, launches with authors, and discussion groups for local writers and readers. The ultimate reintermediation is a system to link the author directly to the reader.

The seamless electronic flow of information between businesses drives this revolution. In the book industry, this could include not just billing and print specifications, but also management of copyright and distribution. The most advanced industry players are developing systems that integrate these elements, and also distinguish between digital, online publications and paper based books. It has been predicted that within ten years, all books will also be available in digital form.

And the start of e-books

The implications of e-books are profound. The potential for innovation expands to managing the rights to the digital version, paying for downloads to reloadable electronic books, and giving access or usage rights to parts of a text. Enormous flexibility is possible, all without the cumbersome weight and cost of physical books. Further integration of the book cycle, from creation to production, distribution and ongoing use of the text, is inevitable, partly because it would allocate resources more effectively. Consumer demand for fast and efficient access to information is consistent with the book industry’s need to avoid wastage at any part of the cycle. In an ideal system, there would be no remaindered books, and book remainderers would be disintermediated out of existence.

The book as house becomes a mobile home, joining the craze for portability and gratifying the need for speed. It mutates into a modern structure, with wings and extensions that match the needs of today’s book users. Through digitisation and online publication, the ways we talk about books, and the changes to the content, can become part of the edifice of how we produce and share the books themselves. An author may invite comments, or additions, or regularly update as needed. The old model of large print runs, heavily promoted, becomes a bit old hat. The new ways of doing business favour niche operators, but ironically it can now be a global niche.

We are globalisation

This is the remaining defining feature of this brief survey on the current context for the book. It is, of course, closely related to the other two, as convergence and new business models are also part of the defining features of globalisation. But here the focus is on the social and cultural aspects of globalisation. Again, many definitions exist. But we may agree that it involves the spread of standardised approaches and practices, emphasises business and profits, and above all has a strong tendency to smooth over differences between cultures in favour of a standard style, most often American. Along with the Internet, globalisation has been accused of washing over local cultures and languages with a brush that is one-size fits all western and English speaking.

This is the dilemma Friedman calls ‘the Lexus versus the olive tree’. Everyone wants prosperity, and given the choice, running water and electricity. But often this seems to come at the cost of local language, tradition and environment. There are no simple answers to this, as the problems are not just economic, but caught up with governance and the emerging trans-national structures that have some sway over monumental issues such as climate change. Ultimately, sustainability rests on human diversity as well as plants and animals. The application of new technologies to foster diversity and information sharing within localised communities is one way to think about how to provide a human dimension to globalisation.

It may be that the current revolution in electronic dissemination will fuel enormous diversity and strengthen smaller cultures by making specialised books and learning materials more available. This outcome cannot be assumed, however. The information revolution has little to offer people who lack water or food or medical care or literacy. Providing books to poorer nations is an old example of the difficulties of development, but one which has not gone away. But if the political will exists, making up to date materials available in native languages could become more affordable and accessible. The challenge is to provide business models that make such approaches win-win.

Globalisation is provoking enormous upheaval in relation to major issues such as intellectual property, taxation and copyright. A great deal of public attention has centered on the music industry and the recording industry’s outraged response to the unfettered and unpaid downloading of music from the Internet in the form of MP3 files. This has triggered discussion about the payments that artists get from the companies that produce their music. Although less widely discussed, similar problems exist in relation to authors, access to academic writing, and costs of databases in libraries. For example, who owns a book created, or updated, collaboratively or anonymously online?

How these issues get resolved, and in whose interest, has not yet been fully established. There is growing awareness of the need for approaches which incorporate a ‘triple bottom line’, of environmental sustainability and social benefit in addition to economic reward. All industries have the potential to respond to these concerns, but particularly those associated with information and its production using scarce resources such as paper.

For a whole range of groups, new models of publishing can help different voices to be heard. The creation and distribution of many kinds of knowledge, academic, scientific and cultural, can benefit from the break down and re-creation of what we understand publishing and books to be. In this sense, we are the place where globalisation begins and ends. Our choices, as creators and consumers of books, and readers and writers of books, will help to shape the global landscape.


This chapter has briefly tried to describe the changes surrounding the book industry and the role of the book at the start of the electronic information age. While predictions about the future are always dangerous, it may be safe to say that books, and how we use, them is an area of great change. This is caught up with other aspects of today’s changing technological, social and economic context.

The processes of convergence, new business models, and globalisation operate on many levels and affect many, if not most, aspects of modern life. The role and functionality of books is changing rapidly, as part of this rapid lurch into a brave new information world.


Beniger, James R. (1986). The Control Revolution – Technological and Economic Origins of the Information Society. Harvard Univeristy Press: Cambridge.

Eisenstein, Elizabeth L. (1980). The Printing Press as an Agent of Change: Communications and Cultural Transformations in Early-Modern Europe. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

Feenberg, Andrew. (1991). Critical Theory of Technology. Oxford University Press: New York and Oxford.

Friedman, Thomas. (2000) The Lexus and the Olive Tree: Understanding Globalization. Anchor Books: New York.

Herman, Edward S, & McChesney, Robert W. (1997). The Global Media – The New Missionaries of Global Capitalism. Cassell: London and Washington.

Negroponte, Nicholas. (1996). Being Digital. Hodder Headline Australia Pty Limited: Rydalmere, NSW.

Schumpeter, Joseph A. (1975). Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy. New York: Harper. [orig. pub. 1942]

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