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The post-Gutenberg revolution

19 January 2009

'The primary goal of publishing general fiction and non-fiction was never profit-though profit was essential to stay in the game. Publishing is a vocation in which the work is its own reward, an insufficient goal for today's conglomerates.

The business as it exists cannot survive, but in the miraculous way such things happen, a shining future is at hand. The 500-year-old Gutenberg system in which copy is delivered to a printer who ships inventory to a publisher's warehouse from which it is consigned to bookshops is being displaced by the combined impact of digitization and the Internet, whose vast implications for the existing supply chain have yet to be fully exploited or perhaps grasped by today's industry.

In theory, every book ever published in whatever language can now be stored and delivered in digital form as cheaply and quickly as e-mail to be downloaded onto a variety of devices from dedicated readers, to more versatile handheld devices and to free standing machines that quickly and cheaply print and bind a selected title on demand wherever electricity and Internet connectivity exist...

Authors' complete works may be downloaded practically anywhere on Earth from appropriate websites, their property protected and royalties conveyed by secure software.

The effect of this post-Gutenberg Revolution will be to radically decentralize the marketplace for books and greatly reduce the cost of entry for would-be publishers... Meanwhile, through today's gloom we may discern a spectacularly bright future in which the rewards to writers and readers and even to publishers will be unprecedented as world-wide multilingual backlists expand online in a cultural revolution orders of magnitude greater than Gutenberg's world-changing technology generated five centuries ago.'

From An Autopsy of the Book Business by Jason Epstein, Chairman of On Demand Books, LLC, who was for many years editorial director of Random House US during a 50-year career and is the author of Book Business, now available in 10 translations.