A Brief History of Book Publishing – How Story Telling Has Evolved

history of book publishing

When you think of publishing, do you think of printing presses and ink flying around the room?

Most of us forget that the concept of publishing began long before the invention of the printing press. At the heart of it, the story of publishing is really about the human need and love of storytelling.

Storytelling is as old as humanity

Since the dawn of time, Indigenous Australians have been keeping their culture alive by passing down their stories from one generation to the next. Dreamtime stories are like oral textbooks of the Australian Aboriginals’ accumulated knowledge, spirituality, and wisdom.

Prior to colonisation, the only visual form of storytelling was rock painting, and the written word was unknown. The role of the storyteller was not just to entertain but to preserve culture and educate the next generation of children and young adults in the history, traditional values and lore of the people.

Every culture has their own unique way of passing down and sharing knowledge, and in this ever-evolving world, these techniques are constantly changing.

Publishing: where it all began

Publishing as we know it today can be traced back to the invention of writing, when scribes would write and copy all works by hand. This was a painstaking process and meant that written works were primarily for the wealthy. It was not until the printing press came along that the written word became more accessible to everyday people.

The inventor Bi Sheng is credited with inventing the first movable-type technology, made from clay pottery, in China around 1045. Other Chinese inventors improved on this, using wood and bronze to refine the process.

The printing revolution

Around 1450,German inventor Johannes Gutenberg introduced his own version of mechanical, movable-type printing press. This started a printing revolution across Europe.

As the technology spread, books became more widely available. Suddenly:

  • copies of books could be created much faster
  • greater numbers of copies could be produced
  • the cost of production reduced significantly.

Before Gutenberg, books in Europe numbered in the thousands. After 50 years of printing, there were estimated to be more than 9 million books in circulation.

The impact of the printing press

history of book publishingThe impact of the printing press was far and wide. It allowed common citizens to afford books – and have access to unrestricted and sometimes revolutionary ideas.

It changed the way people learnt and, significantly, led to an increase in people learning to read. Printing presses not only accurately reproduced words, but could also accurately reproduce diagrams, mathematical equations, and architectural works, meaning academics could expand their knowledge and share ideas.

In the early 1800s, two publishing models emerged:

  1. An author could sell their copyright to a publisher and receive a one-time payment.
  2. A work could be commissioned; an author would receive an advance for costs, and the publisher would keep all profits until the advance had been recouped. After that, the publisher would retain 10% and the author would keep the rest.

Traditional publishing as we know it

Over the next century, these two models merged into what we now consider the traditional publishing model.

Many authors will receive an advance (the size of which depends on who the author is and how popular the publisher thinks they might be), and sign away the rights to their book. Often publishers will keep all the profits from book sales until the cost of production and the advance has been recouped, and it is only then that the author will receive any royalties. This will vary, but author royalties are generally somewhere between 10 to 20%.

The publisher undertakes all aspects of the publishing journey from editing and design, right through to distribution. Depending on the size of the publishers, they may do all the work in-house or work with suppliers like Post Pre-press on different aspects.

How self-publishing began

You might think self-publishing is a new concept, but it has quite a long history. You might also be surprised to know that some truly great authors originally self-published their works. Beatrix Potter, Mark Twain, Jane Austin – they all had great successes with self-publishing. However, it was after the internet became popular in the 1990s that self-publishing as we know it really exploded.

Many people used to think self-publishing was not a credible option, seen as something an author only undertook if they hadn’t been commissioned by a traditional publisher.

Pros and cons of self-publishing

This is no longer the case: the benefits of self-publishing can far outweigh the benefits of working with a traditional publisher who holds all the control.

This can certainly be true for non-fiction business authors who may wish to turn their book into workbooks and online courses. Having complete control and rights to the content allows the author to make these choices without needing to gain permission from the publisher.

The benefit of having complete control can also be a disadvantage as self-publishing authors are responsible for things like:

  • Cover design
  • Internal design
  • Editing and proofreading
  • Typesetting and layout
  • Printing
  • Marketing
  • Distribution

Self-publishing companies like Independent Ink provide services to authors who want guidance or professional assistance with these steps. Other authors prefer to undertake all steps themselves.

Non-fiction business books

Self-publishing has given business owners another amazing tool to market themselves and their businesses.

Often, small business owners have a wealth of knowledge and experience but have no idea how to share that with the world. New authors work with writing coaches and publishing professionals to get the ideas out of their heads and shared with the world.

How technology is changing publishing

history of book publishingWe all like to consume our content differently, and advances in technology have allowed us greater choice in how we read.


Digital technology has seen the rise of the ebook, and they have some huge advantages. A reader can download a book at anytime, anywhere they have internet access and read their book from a digital device.

Ebooks are also comparatively cheaper than a printed book, and much more portable. However, there can be limitations in their formatting which may affect their readability, and they do not have the ‘thud’ value of a printed book.


We mostly think of audiobooks as being a new format, but way back in 1931, the American Foundation for the Blind and the Library of Congress Book for the Blind Project established the Talking Book Program.

Over the decades the industry has evolved and by 1985,there were 21 audiobook publishers in the market. The popularity of audiobooks has been on the rise since then.

In 2020, the annual publication of audiobooks had increased to more than 71,000 texts, and listeners/readers love the flexibility of audio.

Has publishing come full circle?

Publishing began life as storytelling and passing down wisdom around the campfire. Have audiobooks engaged that innate need to share stories and connect with others, through the power of the voice?

What is the future of publishing?

Five years ago, publishing had seen some decline, and there were even rumours that print books would soon be dead. However, largely due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a global increase in demand for books once again. It seems we still love a physical book and the comfort of a good story.

How we consume books and stories will continue to evolve, and how we bring them to market will be refined.

But storytelling is still at the heart of many people’s lives – we are invested in learning and growing and have an appetite to expand our horizons.

What story do you want to share with the world?

If you’d like help sharing your story with the world in the form of a book, get in touch and we’ll have a chat and see which of the options for publishing would be best for you.