Shifting Economies of Book Production

Shifting Economies of Book Production

Today we live in what Bolter (2001) describes as the late age of print, where many texts will never be printed, and will only exist in digital form. However, there was a time when the printed book was the most highly valued form of writing. Print was an expression of knowledge and books organized and presented scientific and academic content in ways that allowed for more knowledge to be mobilized faster.

When thinking about the mobilization of knowledge through book production, we must first consider a brief history of the evolution of books. Before the invention of the printing press, the ancients used papyrus roll to keep important texts. These texts were mostly read aloud due to the size of the rolls. However, throughout time, the papyrus role became too short to be an effective format to transmit knowledge of historians, poets, and philosophers. The development of the codex followed, and set new possibilities for readers and writers by providing a space that could hold a significant more amount of text than a roll (Bolter 2001). This was an important development, which led to a major shift in the distribution of literacy and education in Europe, North America, and eventually the rest of the world.

As individual study became more important throughout the Middle Ages, the original book began to dominate popularity because of its physical presence. Furthermore, writers and readers were encouraged to identify with texts, and began to partake in silent reading as a common practice by the later Middle Ages (Bolter, 2001). However it is important to note that before the invention of the printing press, literacy was a privilege for only the upper class. The Church controlled not only what was read, but who was allowed to read it. Texts were produced for either church or court. Writers would circulate their works personally, making their way from person to person, allowing elitists to copy their favorite works into what were called commonplace books (Keep et al., 1995). This was the beginning of the mobilization of knowledge through book production. Readers would choose texts that were important to them personally, and create their own bound volumes. As literacy gained popularity, knowledge spread; initially a practice exclusive to the upper class.

The initial introduction of the printing press did not constitute for greater public access to knowledge because the upper class held major concerns that public knowledge would empower people, and furthermore, lead towards a revolution. As printed books became more available, they modified the ways in which readers related to text. People initially saw printed works as pure knowledge-or absolute truths- rather than personal opinion (Keep et al., 1995) as we view literature today. Mass literacy was empowering groups of people in new ways.

The Industrial Revolution in Britain allowed the country to become a world leader in book production and circulation. Advances in technology allowed books to be produced more cost effectively and transported further and faster (Eliot et al., 2008). Books and texts were an important aspect of intellectual domination within the English-speaking colonies and other nations soon followed. After World War ӀӀ, international book publishing expanded (Eliot et al., 2008) and this was a key factor in the movement towards mass literacy and the mobilization of knowledge around various parts of the world; other countries quickly attempted to follow suit of the world leaders of book production. The increase in production continued through the 18th and 19th century, and as other countries became industrialized, the general public’s desire to consume materials of the printing press continued to increase (Eliot et al., 2008).

Within the field of academic literature, the mass production of daily, weekly, monthly, and quarterly journals became popular. The, “lucrative education market” (Eliot, 2008, 334) was dominated by English and Scottish firms. It was driven by profit more than pursuit of mass education; however it led to an increased public desire for literacy (and books) to be an important component of education. While other countries adopted Europe’s printing and distribution methods, their audiences were significantly fragmented by language, region, and race (Eliot et al., 2008). This impacted education, knowledge, and literacy within these nations as books were not available to everyone and caused major inequity and division within these countries.

During the eighteenth century, the middle classes became more important as readers in the United States, France, and England. However, the lower classes remained largely illiterate and had very limited access to education. Many thought that educating the lower classes through reading would present a threat to the structure of society. Furthermore, the knowledge that reading could bring could empower the lower classes and lead to the destruction of the hierarchical social structures. The nineteenth century was particularly interesting because of the development of a mass readership, a mass market for books, and a new, more prominent status of reading (Aliaga-Buchenau, 2003). The new mass readership included a large variety of people from different social classes, regions, and with various opinions. Mass publication of newspapers, magazines, and novels led to new audiences. This made readership less predictable for publishers. In addition, books became more affordable for the lower class, thus making education through readership more affordable. Previously, only members of the upper class and religious and political elites in urban cities had access to literacy and reading material. As members of the middle class became more prominent as readers, the mass market expanded, reaching rural areas as well as the lower classes (Aliaga-Buchenau, 2003). With books reaching more people, education expanded across Europe and North America particularly. People gained information about health and science, medicine, skilled labour and trades, and politics. Public knowledge expanded and became more reliable, thus improving the lives of many.

Another important change occurred in the nineteenth century- the access of the lower classes to schooling and literacy. In France, in the United States and in Britain, laws regarding mandatory primary schooling led to higher literacy rates. Whereas for centuries, literacy had been the privilege of a small elite, it now began to reach the mass population (Aliaga-Buchenau, 2003) in more structured ways. However, this did not mean that all people could read well. Nevertheless, there were more people than ever interacting with books because schooling was provided more consistently (Aliaga-Buchenau, 2003). Therefore, literacy for the public increased and the production of books continued to play an important role in the development of culture and society.

In conclusion, mass literacy was impacted significantly with the increase in book production, and furthermore the shift from elitist reading to general public reading. This threatened the institution of the church and society because as the lower class gained knowledge. Literacy empowered people with arguments that could prompt social movements. This is why the idea of mass literacy was frightening to many in the nineteenth century. Leaders erred on the side of caution, and tried to limit what the general public read. But with industrialization, people were making better wages and mass book production allowed for greater public access and affordability to books. People began to place greater value on education, and literacy became important to many people. Books became an important part of education, and while students were not by any means attaining our definition of ‘literate,’ it was an important movement towards a new society, culture, and economy. The rise in the production and availability of books met the growing desire for inquiry and knowledge acquisition. As more books became available, the general public began to be able to choose what they wanted to read and even developed opinions on texts. The invention of Guttenberg’s printing press allowed for the shift in book production to occur. Industrialization also played an important role as technology advanced and allowed for greater distribution of books across further distances, eventually leading to international trade and production of books. As for education, with the mass production of books came a shift in educational practices and an importance on developing a literate society.

As books are refashioned through culture and time, we see a diminishing sense of closure which belonged to the codex and original forms of print. As electronic devices become hybrid books in the late age of print, we are able to read, write, and process information much differently. This has increased the availability of education all over the world. The classic ‘book’ is being replaced by the Ebook, which is a new mode of print. There is no closed, or definite ending to a book, but rather a series of never ending hypertexts which connects one text with the growing world of materials available online. Unlike the printed book, which can contain only one fixed text, the eBook is a portal leading readers into cyberspace and an endless amount of texts on any subject. This works against the separate identity of books and their existence as closed structures. With pages hyperlinked on the World Wide Web, there is an endless amount of information available to readers, and it is not limited to what fits inside a book (Bolter 2001). This is a new shift in book production. From a market that relied exclusively on physical presence of individual texts, to a new form of production that exists primarily in cyberspace. Understanding the shift in book production before digital technologies helps us see how society and culture are impacted by literacy, and that books continue to play an important role in our lives, regardless of their format.


Aliaga-Buchenau, Ana-Isabel. (2003). “Dangerous” Potential of Reading, The: Readers and the Negotiation of Power in Nineteenth–century Narratives. Taylor & Francis. Retrieved 25 October 2013, from

Bolter, J. D. (2001). Writing space: Computers, hypertext, and the remediation of print. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

Eliot, Simon & Rose, Jonathan. (2008). A Companion to the History of the Book. Wiley-Blackwell. Retrieved 24 October 2013, from

Keep, C., McLaughlin, T., & Parmar, R. (1995). The electronic labyrinth. Retrieved 12 October 2013, from

About Amanda Bourdon

I am originally from Toronto, Canada. I currently live and teach in Guatemala and love to spend my free time exploring the outdoors.
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