The history of publishing is the interplay between innovation and social change. Publishing depended on paper, writing and printing, and it also needed one special social event, and that was the ability of people to read. There were examples of early publishing from the Chinese, and the Germans were the first Europeans to really look at publishing books. The demand for printing grew as reading spread so that people who actually read increased. Prior to 1500 it was only the clergy who could read but it was now spreading into the middle classes especially amongst those in universities and politicians. As printing became more mechanised during the 19th century its popularity grew with increased literacy and rising levels of education. The popularity of printing also grew as newspapers and magazines started to be established.
During the 19th century industrialisation brought steam power to printing and this, with other innovations reduced costs. Paper was no longer made by hand so became cheaper, so books became even more accessible to the working classes. This was accentuated at the start of the 20th century with the introduction of a free-state education. Books were needed for schools and now the whole population of a country was being taught how to read. The MacMillan was one of the first publishing companies to have an education section just for school and college text books. In London, the Methuen were the first publishers who specialised in books for education.
The depression of the 1930’s had a negative effect on book sales but this time it was on both sides of the Atlantic. In an attempt to boost sales, the English publisher Harold Raymond introduced the book token. Although negatively received by the book sellers at first it became a success and was adopted in many other countries. The Second World War had a strange effect on publishing. The effects of war on other social activities meant that people were looking to books to occupy their time and for the writers there was so much material to write about. The downside for publishers was the problems with rising cost of raw materials, the shortage of paper and the disruption to the transport routes. After the war major advancements in printing techniques, especially the change from the letter press system to photocomposition resulted in quick mass production at cheap costs.
Some of the most successful publishers today have a rich history that reflect the changing face of the publishing industry. The Penguin books were established in 1935 and thrived as a result of its publishing of cheap paperbacks. It was bought out by the Pearson Longman in 1970 and in 2013 it joined forces with the Random House to form the Penguin Random House. Today the company employs 10,000 people around the world and in the UK, enjoys the status of being one of the largest publishers.
Some of the oldest publishers have failed to survive. John Murray founded in 1768 was swallowed up by the much larger Hodder Headline in 2002. It was regarded as the last survivor of the times when writers and publishers would sit down together to discuss potential projects. The firm remained in the family until it could no longer compete with in the fierce global industry. The costs became too much for this small firm to bear. Publishers are still thriving today even with e-books. In a world that is constantly desiring more information for publishers it doesn’t matter whether people get it from a book or an e-book. The work still has to be written and then sold through a publisher.