Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The transformation of publishing

Robert McCrum remembers a time when everyone thought the old world of publishing would go on for ever, and then e-books came along
eBook being used by lady
'This golden age of reading – a greater consumption of the written word in more formats, from tweets to de luxe hardbacks, than ever before – must yield a dividend.' Photograph: dbphots/Alamy

When I was a teenager, dreaming of life and literature, the technological ceiling to my self-expression – black on white, ink on paper – was my sky-blue Olympia portable typewriter with the wonky Q. As editor of my school magazine, the next step on the perilous road to the printed page was to take assorted bundles of copy to the local typesetter, a magic kingdom of quires, formes and fonts, scented with the heady aroma of printers' ink.

Writing was physical – all those crossings-out and crumpled folios – and so was the aptly named "composing room". This was the sanctum sanctorum where the collage of manuscript was finally shaped into the harmonious narrative of galley-proofs. More corrections followed, every mark and every revision was a commercial as well as an artistic decision. In the days of hot metal – literally, type cast from molten ore – it might be £1 a line for a new setting. A good compositor, "minding his Ps and Qs", could lay out a line of type, upside down, and backwards, in a matter of seconds, as quick as Caxton.

Every would-be journalist and writer came to know this well-mapped territory. Here were the factory gates of Palatino, Caslon and Bodoni, here the grimy industrial suburb of serifs. On that banal high street lived the booksellers. This Georgian square was home to publishing grandees. In those twisting back streets, you could expect to find literary agents working the margins with the injured innocence of pickpockets at a synod. It was a fully integrated, mutually dependent eco-system whose elaborate charts declared one thing: this is the known world.

On the highways through that landscape the tariffs were fixed and time-honoured. Royalties started at 10%, and might rise to 15% or, occasionally, 20%. Literary agents charged 10%, and exceptionally, 15%. The world of copyright in the English language was divided just two ways. There was our bit (Britain and the Commonwealth) and their bit (the US and its dependencies, including the Philippines). If there was a terra incognita it was the continent of Europe, the home of foreign languages.
In that lost world, whose coordinates have long been scattered to the four winds, custom and practice accumulated in literary life like the saffron-yellow back numbers of old magazines. Writers were dodgy, hard to pin down, but sometimes brilliant. Publishers were toffs, booksellers trade, and printers the artisan champions of liberty. Like the class-system, we thought, nothing would change. Everything would go on for ever. The most urgent deadline was lunch. How wrong we were.

When cultural historians eventually come to describe the years 1990 to 2012, they will be hard put to resist phrases such as "paradigm shift", "literary upheaval", and "IT revolution". No question: my generation has seen a transformation in the world of letters unequalled since the days of Gutenberg. What's more, it has happened at warp speed. When I joined the Observer in 1996, the literary world was in limbo between hot metal and cool word processing, but it would have been recognisable to many past contributors, from George Orwell to Anthony Burgess. This was a society of ink and paper; of cigarettes, coffee and strong drink. The Observer's distinguished critic George Steiner used to submit his copy in annotated typescript. Somehow, we never persuaded him to master the new-fangled fax.

McCrum's full piece at The Guardian

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