Books Invented Everything

In 1968, Andy Warhol prophesied that, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” The era of Pop Art and pop music saw the erosion of boundaries between high and low art, as well as the collapse of hierarchy in general. Warhol cannily recognized that technology and mass media would work together as the great levelers.

Democratization came to books and journals decisively in the 1980s, when desktop publishing began to replace physical plants and industrial machinery. Digital media master Richard Nash says the digital revolution took many by surprise in the book world because it was a change in disguise. At first blush, nothing seemed to have changed at all.

Richard Nash

Today, though, we see change in every direction. An open network has replaced a closed supply chain of warehouses and bookstores; the bond that writers share with their readers is now the paramount relationship; and everyone is a creator. As Nash tells CCC’s Chris Kenneally, printed books may have given birth to industrialism, yet digital publishing is returning society to a pre-modern phase.

“Effectively, when you look back, you realize books invented everything. Books invented the Industrial Revolution. For the first time, we were capable of mass-producing a perfect facsimile. Textiles, furniture were all pretty much hand-reproduced, and they varied. You couldn’t make perfect facsimiles. Books were the first time you could make perfect facsimiles.

“Books were also our first mass-produced object, and they were our first retailed object, in the sense in which we currently understand retail. The norm around selling things up until the invention of modern retail is you showed up at a counter and asked for two dozen eggs, five pounds of flour, two pounds of cornmeal, and you waited there, and somebody brought them out in a bag, handed them to you, and off you went.

“When printers started binding books beautifully and putting them on shelves in the front of their operation, people were allowed to browse them. You could actually pick up something before you bought it and inspect it. That had never been done before. In a certain sense, it was the invention of the consumer, because it was the first time that the consumer really had some sense of choice in a transaction between you and the producer.

“Before industrialization, we all lived in a village, and that was our identity. In a certain sense, we were all creators. We all told stories and retold stories and heard songs and sang them. Cultural and civic life took place in that very closed environment.

“With the Industrial Revolution, we all moved to the city. Our identities changed. They shifted from small, tribal identities to much broader national entities. In the city, we had these more data-intensive identities, but largely as consumers. As creators, we were cogs in a machine at best. What the various technologies, especially the Internet, have allowed in the last number of years is for us going back to having more small-scale identities to go along with our national identity and for us to be able to create as easily and cheaply as we can consume.”

As journalist Chip Rossetti noted in a recent Publishing Perspectives feature, Richard Nash thinks a great deal about the past of publishing as well as its future. He recently led partnerships and content at the culture discovery startup Small Demons and the story app aggregator Byliner. Previously, Richard Nash ran the iconic indie publisher Soft Skull Press, for which work he was awarded the Association of American Publishers Award for Creativity in Independent Publishing in 2005. In 2010, the UTNE Reader named Richard Nash one of 50 visionaries changing your world. And in 2013, the UK’s Bookseller magazine picked him as one of the five most inspiring people in digital publishing.

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