The earliest known books were the clay tablets of Mesopotamia and the papyrus rolls of Egypt. Examples of both date from about 3000 B.C. According to archeological findings, the Chinese developed books about 1300 B.C. Early Chinese books were made of wood or bamboo strips and bound together with cords.
With the spread of Greek culture and the Greek alphabet in the third century B.C., books became accessible to more people. For the first time the general public began to read on a wide range of topics. Up until that point books had been primarily produced for scholarly research or for use by royalty.
The Romans developed the book trade on a large scale. Ownership of private libraries became a mark of distinction, and each Roman ruler established his own library.
The precursor to the modern book was the codex, which consisted of pieces of parchment that were folded and bound to form pages that could be turned. The advantage of pages was that they made it possible to find a particular place in a document relatively easily; it was far less convenient to find a passage in a scroll, which had to be unrolled until the appropriate passage was found. The codex was developed independently by various peoples, including the Maya of South America and the Romans.
Some of the most important developments in publishing were the result of Chinese innovations and inventions. Among these were the invention of paper in 105 B.C., the invention of block printing in the sixth century, and the invention of movable type in the 11th century. The oldest dated, printed book known is a Chinese version of the Diamond Sutra, a Buddhist text, which, according to its colophon (production information printed at the end of a book), was completed on May 11, 868.
Although knowledge of paper was transmitted to Europe by the Arabs, the invention of printing was not. Block printing developed in Europe in about 1400, but it was Johannes Gutenberg who changed publishing forever by inventing a method of printing that utilized movable metal type. His method caught on fairly quickly, and within about 50 years it had spread throughout Europe. Gutenberg's invention was groundbreaking because it made possible the mass production of printed material.
The printing press revolutionized book publishing. The key to the printing press lay in its capacity to produce multiple copies of a book quickly and at a relatively low cost. Books became available to everyone who could read.
By the middle of the 15th century, printers were incorporating illustrations into the text. They made use of woodcut blocks and copper engravings. The copper engravings maintained a fine crisp line in the illustration, allowing printers to produce maps in quantity.
Although the number of books printed would continue to rise, few changes were made in the method of book production until the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. With the advent of the power motor, paper could be run through the presses by machine. Mechanical methods of typecasting and typesetting were developed that allowed the type to be produced and displayed faster. The cost of paper declined as the speed with which it could be made accelerated.
In the 20th century, offset printing and other technological advances enabled book publishing to reach all segments of society. Between 1900 and World War II, little portable presses sprang up, which popularized magazines and books that appealed to readers with specific interests, such as those for readers of mysteries. Running these presses required very little investment of capital and thus enabled people to print and sell about a thousand copies of a publication and still see a return on their investment. As paper and presses became more expensive, however, many of the smaller presses were forced to stop publishing.
Today desktop publishing offers some of the same benefits to small publishers as little presses did. Desktop publishing allows for the complete design and production of a publication, with relatively high-quality text and graphics, on a single computer system. Because it is fairly inexpensive, it allows for the publication of a small number of books, newsletters, or magazines at a relatively low cost. It also poses stiff competition to major publishing houses that may also produce and sell a small number of higher-quality publications, but at a greater cost.
In recent years, book publishing has expanded to include the publication of e-books, or books in electronic formats that can be read on computers, or on handheld devices such as the Kindle, the iPad, the Nook, or applications for other handheld devices. Although these formats and devices are relatively new in respect to the long history of the printed book, they have changed the publishing industry in fundamental ways. Readers are now accustomed to anytime, anywhere access to book purchases that can be stored and carried on a single device, in addition to having enhanced features for the text, such as the ability to electronically annotate text. In many segments of the market, e-books have replaced once common formats such as mass market paperbacks.
Technology has also enabled a growing trend toward self-publishing among new and established authors. Digital formats and social media allow some authors to sidestep traditional publishers, sometimes even employing their own editors, designers, and publicists, and present their work directly to readers in digital or print-on-demand formats. The long-term success and effects of this trend remain to be seen.