What’s Happened Before – Publishing Then And Now

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This morning I read the latest post on the History Girls web site, which is about the village of Bermondsey, where two former Queens of England died at the abbey. The author mentions an Internet cafe on the high street and wonders what the monks would have thought. In its turn, that makes me think of a novel I read years ago, The Load Of Unicorn by Cynthia Harnett. The Unicorn of the title is a type of paper and the story is about the reaction of the scribes who made their money from hand writing to the new technology of printing, which is going to put them out of work. The young hero is tracking down the manuscript of Malory’s Morte D’Arthure which Caxton wants to print.

And that brought me to the present day, when there is so much argument over modern technology and the Internet, the current publishing industry and ebooks. Nothing really changes, does it? The entire culture of publication in Caxton’s time would have had to change from terribly expensive manuscripts which only the very rich could afford to printed books. Once the genie was out of the bottle it couldn’t be put back.

The culture now has had to change too. Publishers not only have to work out how to deal with sales – there’s the whole Digital Rights Management thing, where you can’t transfer your book from one gadget to another and the question of do you own your books anyway and can you leave them to your family – but the matter of who can publish.

Oh, there have always been self-published books. There have been the vanity presses which would take over all the usual jobs of a real publisher as long as you paid them, and were happy to publish any garbage, and there have been people who wanted to self-publish for a niche market that was worth their while and a few who self-published for their own reasons and ended up being taken on by publishing companies and becoming a huge success, such as Matthew Reilly and Christopher Paolini.

But now there’s an entire culture of self-publishing, known as “indie”, with entire web sites devoted to it. Some of these self-publishers would have paid a vanity press in the old days only a few years ago. Others simpy want complete control over their work. And you can do it! Anyone can do an ebook and it doesn’t even have to be a full book – you can publish a short story and sell it for 99c or offer it free for people to download. One of my students who bought a Kindle early this year is terribly excited by this, as he rarely has his nose out of a book ( and when he was in my English class last year, it was so hard for me, as his teacher-librarian, to say firmly,”Ali, please put that book down.”)

When I was writing and publishing fan fiction you had to print or photocopy your fanzine to distribute it. Now there are whole web sites dedicated to fan fiction based on every book, movie and TV series you can think of. Anyone can write it. I didn’t usually publish my own work, except reprints, but at least I could,as editor, filter out the truly awful stuff and edit the rest. Now anyone who wants to read fan fiction has to take a chance. There’s some fan fiction that’s so very good that the authors have gone on to make professional sales and some that’s horrible, but there’s no longer anyone to filter it out.

You can,anyway, develop a fandom whether or not you’re picked up by a publisher like Bloomsbury, as The Glass Throne was, after several years on-line, building up a fandom who, of course, bought the novel when it came out not long ago.

So, like the scribes of Cynthia Harnett’s fifteenth century England, we have seen a lot of changes in publishing.

Wonder what the monks would have thought?

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