The Past, Present, & Future of Publishing Technology

by CJ McDaniel // February 28  

New technologies have transformed industries across the world. But there are very few sectors that have been more impacted by technology than the publishing industry.

The internet has changed how we absorb information every day. As a result, many people are swapping traditional paper for the modern computer.

For this reason, we’re looking at how digital technology has and will continue to shape publishing technology. As well as where publishing has come from and where it is going in the years to come.

The History of Traditional Publishing Technology

The Diamond Sutra is the world’s oldest printed book and was published more than 1,100 years ago. A block printer was commissioned for Wang Jie on behalf of his parents. It was made to provide their son with a seven-page scroll of sacred Buddhist text. It is now a symbol of how far publishing technology has come since 863 AD.

tp028-letterpress.jpgBut it wasn’t until almost 600 years later in 1440 when the world’s first wooden printing press was invented by German Johann Gutenberg. While these wooden presses were able to finally mass produce books, the price of these books was cost prohibitive for the average reader.

This was the case until 1845 when Richard Hoe invented the rotary press and the first paperback book. This publishing technology allowed publishing houses to considerably boost their circulation. By the early 1900s, the rotary press had led the way to a massive book industry with 100s of millions of paperback books sold each year.

Yet, publishing houses couldn’t get too comfortable. The 1990s signaled the rise of a digital technology that would ultimately disrupt the entire publishing industry.

The Rise of the eBook

Kindle eBook publishingEveryone has heard of the eBook. It’s changed the game in publishing and offers many opportunities for budding authors.

The first hint that the eBook was changing publishing was back in 1993. Author Peter James published the thriller Host on two floppy disks.

This was viewed as the world’s first electronic novel, and it was the start of a major change for publishing.

The same year, BiblioBooks established a website to sell eBooks via the internet.

The likes of Stephen King also got behind the publication of books via the internet. In 1999, the author exclusively published the novel Bag of Bones on the free software Glassbook.

Users downloaded the book for $2.50 onto their computer, and 500,000 copies sold in 48 hours.

Yet, it was the joint venture of Amazon and Microsoft that brought customers the Amazon Kindle. The e-reader allows Amazon customers to download books they could access in an instant.

Some could argue that eBooks have made books much cheaper, too. This, combined with an instant download, are just two aspects that make the e-reader so popular. But the biggest benefit is that the 2gb Kindle can hold 1,100 books for you to enjoy. A feat that print publishers couldn’t possibly rival.

Self-Publishing Technology

The entire premise of the old publishing industry was built around the fact that an author should have the potential to sell many books to be able to recoup the overhead cost of printing, marketing and distribution.

Using profitability as their compass, publishers had to be highly selective. In the past, a writer would have to find an agent and send many manuscripts to different publishing houses. As any writer will tell you, this makes getting published very difficult.

eBooks were part of the answer to breaking down the barriers for everyday authors but the full solution was tapping into the long-held cash cow of print books that still makes up over  65% of sales for the 113 billion dollar annual book market.

In 1997 the first digital press or print-on-demand service was established to allow authors to print books in small quantities instead of  having to rely on multi-thousand copy print-runs. For the longest time the large publishers were the gatekeepers into bookstores around the world but that was about to change.

With print-on-demand services, authors can write a book without a large publishing contract and still have their physical books sold in bookstores and websites around the world. Companies like CreateSpace and Lightning Source offer the ability to print and sell books as well as offer wider distribution. Printing on demand has become so popular that some bookstores and libraries even have kiosks where you can purchase and print physical books even if the store does not have that book on the shelf.

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No longer does a writer have to wait for that prized acceptance letter. Now they can write a novel, start selling it on on the web and even in stores almost instantly. These two new methods of delivering books have seen more than a million new books authored every year that is 3 times the number of books written in any given year before 2004.

Not only does it provide an opportunity to become published, but it offers a chance to make money, too. The more books you sell, the more you earn. Authors such as John Locke have enjoyed superb success through self-publishing technology. The American novelist has published seven thriller novels on Amazon. Each has entered the Amazon/Kindle Top 20 bestseller list.

Catering to Their Strengths

eBooks have been an absolute game changer in the publishing industry. Yet with all the conveniences and price savings that they provide they still only make up 45% of book sales. This has led to both eBook and print producers working to capitalize on the things that make them unique.

For example, some print books have began to make their covers more and more elaborate from gold gilded edges, to special materials like metal , and even transparent overlays.


Likewise, ebooks have done the same, taking advantage of it’s digital medium to offer features like choose your own adventure storylines, animated and even interactive covers.

animated cover daylight saving

The Digital & Print Hybrid

It’s fair to say that digital technology is reshaping the publishing industry. Yet, it is consumer behavior that will dictate the survival of both digital and print technology. The revelation that the book market will be split between physical and digital books for a very long time has led to many hybrids and innovations in both realms. Below are just two of the many books that are figuring out ways to make the digital and print worlds interact with each other in order take advantage of both of their strengths.

The Future is Now is a book that embraces both print and digital trends in one very interesting delivery.

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Another example of this is the children’s book The Mouse and the Meadow which uses augmented reality. If you put your phone or tablet next to the illustrated pages, the characters begin to move and interact with each other.


The publishing industry has adapted to new technologies since 863 AD – and it will continue to do so.

New publishing technology has given the reader more choices than ever before. We can take a thousand books with us on vacation, or make a focal point out of our favorite novel in the home.

Technology forces both e-readers and print publishers to increase options and creativity – which is great for the reader.

How do you think digital publishing technology will change? We would love to hear your opinion. Please feel free to write a comment below.

About the Author

CJ grew up admiring books. His family owned a small bookstore throughout his early childhood, and he would spend weekends flipping through book after book, always sure to read the ones that looked the most interesting. Not much has changed since then, except now some of those interesting books he picks off the shelf were designed by his company!