The Digital Publishing Revolution Is in the Rearview Mirror
Amidst the Sturm und Drang of the present times, an infrequently remarked-upon fact has eluded us all, especially those of us focused on the so-called Future of Publishing. ("Future of X" is a term that seems to arise in human society largely when X's future is in doubt—after all, we rarely discuss the future of chairs.) This fact—that the digital revolution in publishing began a quarter-century ago, and transformed publishing before it reached music and video—was hard to see in many respects. It did not directly affect too many people (largely industry insiders), and not all at once. So it was understandably hard to see it happening in real-time.
But we have no excuse not to see it now, nor not to discuss it now, because it tells us a whole variety of things about this present juncture. Publishing 2.0 began in July 1985, when Aldus Pagemaker went on sale. Before that, self-publishing was an activity for the wealthy, self-indulgent. Book printing was a highly specialized activity, operated by what was effectively a guild with a complex and highly technical vocabulary known only to a small group, mostly employees of the printers and a handful of employees of publishing houses. Design, typesetting, prepress—these activities were complex and untranslatable to the layperson.
Even if you had the $4,000 needed to pay for printing 1,500 books, you needed thousands of dollars more to pay for all the services required to convert your typed manuscript to something printable. Moreover, very few people were available to provide those services on an ad-hoc basis. Getting a book printed was no easier than going to a construction firm with a painting of a bridge—without architects and civil engineers they could not possibly translate your vision into executable form.
Pagemaker (and its successors) changed all that, because it allowed a person to create a file, a PDF, that could be handed to a printer without the need for expensive/unavailable intermediaries, and because it was software, not a person, and was licensable—meaning that it was soon available in copy shops like Kinko's for $6/hour.