What’s the future of print? Two recent books, plus recent events, shed some light.
It’s no secret that the Internet has changed things, and pundits love holding forth on the meaning of the Information Age. What William Sonn does in his 2006 book Paradigms Lost: The Life and Deaths of the Printed Word is provide the rich back story leading to the present changes.
From the time Homo sapiens evolved approximately 160,000 years ago, we’ve etched lines and images in dirt and stone. Scholars don’t all agree on this date or other details, but the big picture is illuminating.
The first of the epochal changes was the invention of writing—coded pictures of abstract signs. This was the brainchild of the Sumerians in ancient Mesopotamia (current-day Iraq) around 3100 B.C., and they used it to keep records of sheep and taxes as humankind was first grouping itself into civilization.
After the Sumerians’ clay tablets came the Egyptians’ papyrus, with the larger surfaces giving rise to more expansive writing about weightier topics such as religion, astronomy, and medicine. The Canaanites, Phoenicians, Greeks, and Romans all advanced the technology of knowledge and, in today’s lingo, the content itself. But it was across the world that the Chinese invented paper, around 300 B.C.
It wasn’t until the invention of the printing press by the German Johannes Gutenberg around 1440 that things really got going, allowing for the widespread dissemination of information and the democratization of literacy. The cost of producing the printed word became cheaper still around 1810 when the printing press first became steam-powered (which also occurred in Germany).
Other advances ensued until 1944 when the first large computer came into being in a basement at the University of Pennsylvania. It was the work of J. Presper Eckert and was designed to calculate artillery trajectories.
The Internet, made possible by computers, also had its genesis through war. In the early 1960s, the Rand Corporation’s Paul Baran warned the Pentagon that it should decentralize its computing and communications capabilities in the event of a nuclear war with the Soviets. By 1969, the same year man first walked on the Moon, we were communicating remotely by computer (all four of them).
Today, millions of us communicate, access information, and publish news and views with the help of the Internet. The relative cost of doing all this is so low that it’s toppling multibillion dollar old-media institutions and threatening the printed word itself.
Newspaper chains, for one, are under attack, forced to break up and sell off individual papers by investors who feel profit margins aren’t high enough. The venerable Knight Ridder, Inc., which had been the country’s second largest newspaper publisher, sold off all of its newspapers this year.
One positive side to this is that individual papers such as The Philadelphia Inquirer are returning to their roots, taking on local owners and vowing to better serve local readers. But the global village still connects us all. Unless newspaper news and opinion, which are still fee-based, differentiate themselves from Internet news and opinion, which are largely free, print readership will no doubt continue to decline.
Some print publications have already figured out how to survive and prosper in the Internet Age, leveraging their expertise and professionalism and providing the kind of quality information you can’t get elsewhere or can’t get as conveniently elsewhere. Readers, pressed for time, value publications that respect their time.
Despite the electronic onslaught, print retains some advantages. A magazine, book, or newspaper won’t crash or run out of battery power. It doesn’t require anything but itself to be useful. It’s easy.
Recognizing the utility of print, Aaron Shepard has just written and published, in print, a book about printing and publishing your own book. Perfect Pages: Book Design, Typography, and Microsoft Word, or How to Use MS Word for Typesetting and Page Layout in Formatting Your Books for Desktop Publishing, Self Publishing, and Print on Demand is the long title of a 138-page soft-cover book.
Available at Amazon.com and other places, the book covers such topics as page size, margins, headers and footers, fonts, lists, graphics, tables, text boxes, covers, and choosing and working with a printing service. The writing is clear and succinct. If you want to do it yourself, this book will hold your hand through the process.
Shepard is also a children’s book author. His company, Shepard Publications (http://www.shepardpub.com), primarily publishes his own work, in print. Paper may come from trees, but it’s not dead yet.
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or reidgold.com.