The Impact of Digital Publishing: Part 4

Core Competencies

Every company must focus its time and resources on specific areas in order to be effective. Publishing is no different. Each publishing house can chose to how intensely to focus on each specific area but every publishing house must have resources to adequately acquire appropriate titles, edit, design, market, produce, and distribute books. As the distinct reduction in editorial staff shows, publishers are already suffering in their areas of core competency in an effort to be competitive. To expect a publisher to invest in areas far outside their education and experience is unrealistic; however, changing technologies, culture, and economic pressures have happened before and publishing has thrived. Analyzing publishing’s historical strategies can give us insight into how they will adapt to digital publishing’s demands.

Content Acquisition

When publishing began—back in the days immediately following Gutenberg and Fust—publishers had an enormous amount of high quality literature to publish. Mass production of the classics had been impossible up to that point but now, in addition to contemporary works by Luther or Erasmus; Homer, Ovid, and Virgil were available for print.[1] As publishing caught on, and it did quite quickly, publication became a desirable status symbol for authors and scholars. Publishers became overwhelmed with submissions. This led to two developments. First, publishers became specialized in genre or form. For example, scientific presses that published scholarly papers would not print poetry or literature. Second, the literary agent (first appearing on the scene in 1875) stepped in as intermediary. These agents acted as a filter for publishers to sift through the enormous slush piles of submitted work. Today many publishers—even small to mid-sized publishers—will not accept un-agented work.

During times of global financial recession, publishers have focused on titles that had a proven track record for success. Frivolous or discretionary titles, published out of an idealistic duty or artistic expression during times of financial success, are put on hold until economic conditions improve.


Publishing was a key factor in fixing the English language—codifying spelling and usage. Modern English is said to have originated around 1550, but even into the Industrial Revolution,[2] spelling and grammar were transient and subjective. At the turn of the 19th century, presses were standardizing within their houses and gradually a national consensus was established (American and British English have continued to diversify). The term lexicology was coined around 1820 with lexicographers and grammarians forging a formal area of study resulting in usage guides and manuals of style (e.g. The King’s English, 1906; Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, 1926).

As mentioned earlier, editing has recently suffered from economic conditions and financial pressures. Substantive and even meticulous levels of mechanical editing, once considered standard, are no longer financially viable. Many publishers have shifted the editorial responsibility toward the author, requiring them to submit books that are already edited and ready for printing.[3] According to Career Opportunities in the Publishing Industry, “cutbacks have led to more and more Copy Editor positions being phased out in favor of freelance Copy Editors.”[4] Outsourcing allows the publishing house to pay for the editing service without the additional cost of fulltime employees.


Before the printing press, monasteries and stationers touted illuminated manuscripts and hand-crafted books in their highest form of art. Calligraphy (and, arguably, even literacy) was a highly sought after and valuable skill. The invention of the printing press and movable type increased production levels significantly, but was still a very hands-on effort. Font characters were sculpted from copper and then cast with a special type metal alloy to withstand repeated use. Images were painstakingly carved from wood. Both font and image creation were time consuming and required a massive amount of skill and training. Advances in printing technology led to the rotary press in 1843 and finally to the Offset Press in 1903 (the printing technique most often used today). Photo offset printing allowed the chemical transfer of images to printing plates. Computers were too slow or too limited to be used for professional publishing until the 1980s. Computers enhanced printing technology by giving the printer precise control of ink placement. Now digitization and computerization has made many of the chemical processes and printing plates obsolete. As each new innovation in printing technology came along, book designers were quick to make use of it and push the limits of what could be done. Book designers have been consistently pushing the boundaries of technology since…pre-language cave drawings.

Economic forces have caused some publishing houses to outsource book design to freelance designers. From the data I have gathered design outsourcing has not been done at the same rate as editorial outsourcing. The looser rules, fewer hours required per book, the desire for artistic control, or the power of the book aesthetic may be the cause for this. My suspicion is that the book, as a tangible piece of visual art, is still very important to publishers—the medium is the message.

Production and Printing

Initially, publishing and printing were the same enterprise. An entrepreneur seeking to publish books first acquired a printing press. As printing became more complicated, requiring more attention, specialized skills, and manpower, publishing evolved in the same ways. A natural division of labor occurred and through economies of scale, publishing and printing became separate entities for all but artisan and niche presses. While printing does not remain a core competency of publishing houses, an understanding of the process and how to prepare a document for printing is required to successful produce the desired result.

Publishing saw a trend in the twentieth century that nearly all other manufacturing sectors also experienced. Printing and production was shifted overseas to Asian countries where cheaper labor could ensure a lower cost product. The cultural shift in the United States toward more sustainable, environmentally conscious business practices has recently begun to reverse this process. Paper pedigree, the carbon deficit of shipping, and the guarantee of nontoxic chemical processes are not available from most overseas production facilities. While they may catch up in terms of providing legitimate and verifiable paper sources and the use of less harmful chemicals, the fuel required for shipping books will be too high, by new sustainable standards, until alternative transportation options become available.


Getting the book off the printing press and into the hands of readers used to be as simple as that—taking it off the printing press and hand-selling it to the consumer. As books became a commodity, dedicated bookstores appeared. As their popularity spread and publishers could no longer physically meet with book sellers, another industry arose—the book distributor. These distributors have selling agents that deal directly with bookstores and function on the local, regional, national, and international level.

The Great Depression of the 1930s gave birth to one of the most infamous policies in bookselling: the Right to Return. This clause, contained in virtually all book distribution agreements, states that the bookseller may return a book to the publisher at any time and in any condition. Although the economics of the Great Depression righted themselves over time, this clause remains firmly lodged in the book distribution structure. As with printing, bookselling may largely be performed by a separate business, but it is vital to the health of the publisher that he understand how the Right to Return and the distribution process affects his cash flow and business model.

Marketing and Publicity

As competing titles and alternative media arose, publishing houses developed marketing divisions to increase revenue. Publicists dedicated to promoting authors and individual titles became viable both at a press level and on a freelance basis. In the wake of the recent recession, publishers reached out to these freelance publicists, not only in an effort to raise lagging sales, but also to reduce in-house staff.

Historical Precedent

The history of publishing and the responses to financial distress illuminate three major trends. First, publishing uses technology to its fullest extent in much the same way a gas will expand to fill whatever container it is in. Like a gas, as publishing feels the constraints of technology, pressure builds and can push the boundaries of technology with the demand for increased performance.

Second, publishing will yield to social and cultural forces.  History has proven that editing and profit margin will be sacrificed to a superior visual aesthetic, high production quality, and responsible environmental choices. The Right to Return remains in place for very complex reasons that involve not only the financial power of the bookseller but also consumer demand for variety.

Third, the production of a book—from the author’s pen to the reader’s hand—tends to fragment with complexity and economic stress. Publishing, printing, distribution, and selling once considered one-and-the-same, are now four distinct industries. Editing, design, marketing, and publicity have all been outsourced to freelancers on occasion.

[1] Vander Hook, Sue. Johannes Gutenberg: Printing Press Innovator. Edina, MN: Abdo Publishing Company, 2009.

[2] Historians disagree on the exact beginning and end of the Industrial Revolution. For this paper’s purposes we will assume it began in the mid-18th century and ended in the mid-19th century.

[3] Altbach, Philip. “Book Publishing.” World Information Report, United Nations Educational,  Scientific, and Cultural Organization (1997): 318-327.

[4] Yager, Fred, Jan Yager, and Laurel Touby. Career Opportunities in the Publishing Industry. 2nd ed. New York: Checkmark Books, 2010.