From carved clay tablets to papyrus scrolls and moveable type to film typesetting, the history of the print industry has been one of constancy punctuated by sudden, drastic changes. However, the speed and scale of these many changes has been eclipsed by the arrival of word processing on desktop computers and the emergence of the Internet, leading to an information age without parallel in our history.
Back in the 1960s, there were many pessimists in the print industry who claimed that, with increased viewing of television, there would be very few books printed in the near future. In fact, they were only partly correct. Today, print is the third largest industry in the US as well as being a major industry worldwide, with more titles produced year on year than ever before. And although television viewing and channel choice have also grown dramatically, there is only one part of the modern TV set that directly impacts on the printing industry: the screen. For it is here via keyboard and mouse, that people mainly get to interact with the Internet.
Is this young, still-emerging technology going to deal the death blow to the print industry, as was predicted because of television several decades earlier? Best-guessing the future is a highly risky business and the evidence so far means the jury must be out. To begin with, desktop publishing via computers has succeeded in radically reducing production costs in the printing industry. In the not-so-distant days of hot metal printing, there were hundreds and even thousands of highly paid production workers on the average daily newspaper, all of whom have been replaced by desktop publishing systems that take no holidays or meal breaks. The Internet itself has also been both a threat and an opportunity to the print industry. Emails or directly input copy sent on the Internet have largely replaced late night phone calls by journalists or tele-typed messages, and late news can more easily reach the front page shortly before going to press.
On the flip side, many newspapers, such as the Seattle Post Intelligencer very recently, are faced with falling sales and reduced advertising, causing them to close down. The Internet has been blamed, not least by competing for advertising, yet even here it has created new opportunities. The most obvious has been to provide most major newspapers with a presence on the web, though whether these digital versions complement or kill off the printed newspaper is still open to question. Another cause of the reduction in advertising is the current economic recession, which may have impacted badly on the newsprint industry much more than the internet has.
Then there is the mass-produced printed book, an old companion that has been with us since Gutenberg first ran a Bible off his press in the mid-15th century. Has the Internet threatened books and the print industry with extinction? So far, seemingly not as the vast volume of printed material keeps on increasing. Word processing and sophisticated digital publishing systems have brought down the cost of print production. For instance, colour printing is now about twice the cost of black and white, while a decade ago it would have been around ten times more. Also, the extra cost of adding illustrations today is mainly the better-quality paper, while the Internet enables publishers to use freelance editors from around the world rather than a commuting distance away and having to provide an office, etc.
However, the positive impact of the Internet on the print industry is not restricted to mere production technologies such as word processing and digital transmission of data. Much though many traditional bookshop browsers might regret the fact, websites such as Amazon are becoming the main marketplace for the sale of printed books today. Even the allure of freshly ground coffee and American-style muffins in the modern high street bookshop is not enough to stem the inexorable rise of internet book sales.
Perhaps the only puzzle is why readers today still stick with the printed word on paper. Certainly, a lot of trees would be spared from the pulping mill and equally precious fuel saved in book distribution. The likely answer is yet again the good old TV screen. To date, digital material viewed on screen simply isn't as clear to read as print on paper for extensive portions of text, and in spite of small-screen hand-held devices for reading books this format is generally not as portable either.