The digital age brings about big changes in the way media is distributed and consumed. We’ve seen new formats for the distribution of music, videos, films, images, and more recently, books. Starting with Gutenberg’s model for the printing press, the print book is a format that has remained largely unchanged until now. Today’s “eBooks” are digital versions of existing print material able to be read on computers and other compatible devices. Any number of books can be stored and viewed on handheld computers that are highly portable and convenient. Ebooks are just the next incarnation of the familiar print book for the modern age.
The lineage of the printed book begins with the first Chinese woodblock printing press. Before the press, books were copied literally by hand by religious leaders. Western printing was born in the early 1440’s when a German named Johannes Gutenberg invented the
modern printing press. This press had the capability of moveable type and was set and operated by hand. Gutenberg’s press was much more efficient and usable than the Chinese presses, allowing for quicker and cheaper printing of materials. The metal plates used in Gutenberg’s press also gave birth for the concept of typography and fonts.
The capabilities of Gutenberg’s press had enormous societal implications. Because it made printing cheap and fast, books could be more or less mass produced for the first time. This created an entire new industry, as printing became a profitable enterprise. The mass production of print material allowed for the first real interconnectedness between people, and was a major catalyst for revolution and reformation in Europe as revolutionary ideas could now be circulated to the masses.
“What the world is today, good and bad, it owes to Gutenberg.” -Mark Twain
The printed book made possible by Gutenberg’s press remained more or less unchanged for centuries. Not until 1971 when Michael Hart started Project Guttenberg by creating the first ebook, a copy of the Declaration of Independence. Project Gutenberg is an initiative to make digital copies of works of cultural significance. Since 1971, the development of the ebook has not been quite as straightforward or obvious as one might think.
“The mission of Project Gutenberg is simple: To encourage the creation and distribution of eBooks.” -Project Gutenberg Founder, Michael Hart
Ebooks Reach the Mainstream
Ebooks started as online content tailored to very specific users such as product manuals and how to guides. Also, when authors were turned down by publishing companies they sometimes posted their books online in an electronic format to attract an audience. Other available works were often unofficial or unlicensed. With the development of the PDF file format and the continuing efforts of Project Gutenberg, more legitimate versions of ebooks began to appear. Rare works were made available for download and publishing companies began offering official copies of books in electronic formats. Ebooks reached the mainstream with the introduction of dedicated ebook readers, or “E-readers” such as the Amazon Kindle.
The impact of ebooks as a mainstream media format has changed the publishing industry greatly. Existing publishing companies are now distributing electronic versions of previously printed works and regularly publishing ebooks alongside print materials. There are also new “e-publishing” companies that publish materials exclusively online. Besides E-readers, many more devices including phones, the iPad and game systems are being equipped with the ability to display ebooks. The growing ebook industry has made an enormous variety of material instantly available from nearly any internet capable device.
There are interesting similarities between ebooks and print books. Ebooks are currently modeled after the experience of reading a print book, they use numbered pages which are sometimes designed to look like actual paper. Many devices allow the reader to “turn” pages with a touch screen motion which causes the page to graphically
appear to turn, and many ebook readers are designed and sized similar to classic print books.
In an age where everything is digitized into a file rather than published on a physical object, it was only a matter of time before the long-standing paper print book format had to evolve as well. Tracing the evolution of the ebook from Gutenberg’s hand-set printing press to digital representations of nearly any published work shows us how one media form can evolve (even if slowly) when technology requires it to. The traditional book format needed to be updated to match how people consume media and live their lives. How much more prevalent will ebooks become than print books? How quickly will it happen? Subscribe and check back later for more of my research into the young concept of the ebook.