Back in the old days, when the literacy rate was low, the most reliable medium to share information was word-of-mouth. The three major inventions: writing, paper and printing – accompanied with one crucial social upheaval: the rise of literacy – gave birth to publishing.

Initially, the printing facility was utilised as means to avoid copying errors by scribes – people who would copy manuscripts by hand. The potential of the printing press for mass-producing reading material was not yet realised. 

With increasing literacy rates and rising standards of life, printed words were finally able to mark their formidable position as a means of influencing our minds and eventually our society.


The Birth of Modern Publishing

There were no prominent developments in the methods of book production from the mid-16th century to the 18th century. But with time, the organisation of trade did develop into its modern form. With the birth of modern publishing in the 19th century, the publishing business flourished. Numerous publishing houses were established during this time.

But, as they say, nothing is forever.

During the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, the publishing industry was heavily impacted. Many publishing houses had to shut their business, downsize or merge their business with other publishing houses. The industry which had around three dozen large publishers now only has five big players: Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, Macmillan Publishers, Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster.

The Rise of E-books

After the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, there was a proliferation of mobile digital devices. Publishers started paying heed to e-books. As they realised the tremendous potential of e-books, they started focusing their energy on this yet to be explored market. This exploration resulted in the creation of e-readers like the Amazon Kindle and Rakutan’s Kobo.

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By the early 2010s, there was a surge in e-book sales. Printed books began lagging behind e-books. The hands that were used to holding books can now be found scrolling their favourite texts on electronic gadgets.

To entice this new audience, publishers began publishing the classics in the digital format. The cost of producing an e-book is relatively less expensive for publishers. Moreover, e-books became a pocket-friendly option for voracious readers.

The advent of technology has given immense liberty to readers in terms of books’ variety and availability. Now they can browse thousands of books on platforms that are no less than grand digital libraries. Gone are the days when you would have to pay multiple visits to the stores or libraries to get your favourite book.

Technology has made it incredibly convenient to search and buy your favourite book with just a click of the finger.


The first e-book I read was Martian by Andy Weir. Perhaps many of you have watched the Oscar-nominated movie based on this book. Not only was the story unconventional, but also the way the book was published. Like numerous books these days, Andy Weir’s Martian was self-published. 


Self-publishing is a big change in the publishing business that owes its success to technological advancements. As readers are consuming books from different sources (irrespective of the publishers), authors have an autonomy that was never experienced in the traditional way of publishing.

Undoubtedly, the option of self-publishing requires time and effort from author’s side throughout the process. From manuscript assessment to post-publishing marketing, there are a wide range of services that authors can choose from.

With self-publishing, authors have to bear the expense of the services that they are availing of the publishers. Depending on their needs and vision, the authors can select the services they require. Even big names like Stephen King have harnessed the potential of self-publishing and are bypassing traditional publishers.

It is a known fact that traditional publishing is a long time-consuming process. Moreover, all big publishing houses are highly selective when choosing content. If an author doesn’t have an existing audience, it becomes even more difficult to crack a deal.

On the other hand, the option of self-publishing favours the author in many ways. The author has full authority to decide when to publish the book. He or she also retains all rights relating to the book.

And most importantly, the author receives 100 percent profit. There is no need to pay commission to the publishing house and the literary agent.

The Reader-Author Relationship

The reader is at the heart of the publishing process. No author or publisher can undermine the importance of readers and their opinions.

With social media in full swing, publishing houses are jumping on the bandwagon of the latest trends to build relationships with readers without missing out the chance while they are still popular.

With the ubiquity of the internet, even readers expect to be in touch with their favourite authors. A plethora of authors have Facebook groups, Instagram and Twitter accounts. They also communicate via mail chain. Authors have realised that building an audience is of paramount importance. It is advantageous to identify and engage with the audience.

The latest trends reveal that the readers also have a strong inclination towards audiobooks. Audiobooks have not replaced reading entirely. In fact, it allows people to explore books when they don’t have time to physically read. They listen to them while performing menial tasks like cleaning, walking, driving etc. As people finish more books while listening to them – as compared to reading them – publishers are also trying to harness this opportunity by releasing more audiobooks.

Technology has brought some never-thought-before changes to the way publishing functions as a business. Even though there have been plenty of upheavels in these recent years, one key factor remains unchanged. 

The storyline still remains the trail-blazer of the business. No amount of technology will ever replace the importance of a good narrative. 

About the Authors 

IMG_4767 2Dipa Sanatani is the Merchant of Stories. She delights in gazing out at the ocean and jumping in. She sees life as one great adventure and is an ardent student of the human experience. She is the author of The Little Light and the Founder of Mith Books. She works in a top secret day job.

Udita Mith books


Udita Nayak is a bibliophile who wants to explore the world and pen down all her adventures. She has an inclination towards things that have artistic significance. She strongly believes in the power of ripple effect and dreams of publishing her own book in future. During the day, she works in consulting.

7 thoughts on “A Snapshot of the History of Publishing: from illiteracy to e-readers

  1. This truly is a very informative post! In a world like the one we live in right now, we tend to take things as they are for granted without appreciating the journey that comes along with it.
    When intact, the history only increases value and appreciation.

  2. Wow, a very informative and interesting read. Loved the writing style to the core.
    Also, don’t you feel Audiobooks have just revived the tradition of oral storytelling?

    1. Yes, I think audiobooks are a return to the word-of-mouth style of storytelling!

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