From mental_floss: Half a century before e-books turned publishing upside down, a different format threatened to destroy the industry.

The next time you find yourself tangled up in one of those endlessly frustrating conversations about how e-books and e-readers and the digital culture in general are threatening to destroy the publishing industry as we know it, you’d better believe you’re going to wish you had a photocopied version of Andrew Shaffer’s latest mental_floss feature on hand.

Why? Simple: Because instead of huffing and puffing and arguing yourself hoarse, you could instead simply hand the photocopied article to whomever you happen to be engaged in conversation with, and then, without saying so much as a single word, simply turn around and walk away. (With a knowing grin on your face and an intellectually superior spirit in your heart, of course.)

Not to put too fine a point on it, but Shaffer’s article, “How Paperbacks Transformed the Way Americans Read,” is a near-perfect example of the old chestnut that “those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it.” To be a bit more specific, you could probably even say that “those who know nothing whatsoever about the history of the publishing business probably shouldn’t go around prognosticating about it’s forthcoming demise, lest they make complete asses of themselves.”

But regardless of all that, Shaffer’s article does a wonderful job of reminding us that as recently as 1939,  the American paperback book was a newfangled invention that many publishing industry insiders assumed would destroy the business as they knew it. At the very least, it was widely assumed that readers everywhere would abandon the hardcover book in favor of the significantly cheaper paperback. (Sound familiar?)

Some seven decades on, of course, we all know what happened: Hardcover books are still very much being produced today, although most readers regard them as something of a luxury or niche item. American companies that once produced nothing but hardcovers eventually branched out into paperbacks, and all was well with the world.

In fact, the history of the hardcover book is not entirely unlike that of the vinyl record. The cassette tape, after all, didn’t destroy the record, nor did the CD, and nor will the MP3 or whatever might arrive next. The vinyl record has simply become an enthusiast’s item, and indeed, the music industry somehow manages to march on. Today, musicians make money primarily by touring and selling merchandise. And in another 50 years, the model will almost certainly have reinvented itself once again.

If you happen to have a spare 30 minutes, click over to Shaffer’s article and give it a good, slow read. (And don’t forget to forget to print out a few extra copies. I suspect they’ll come in handy before you know it.)





  1. Hmm, perspective is interesting.

    I’m enjoying the experience of the ebook wars – now I’m wondering if a take on The Hunger Games would work (The ebook games; a war of DRM and geographic restrictions). But I am optimistic that it will all work out in the end. Of course that working out might not be to everyone’s satisfaction.

  2. Cory Doctorow had a nice lecture once about the history of IP protection.
    He talked about:
    – how publishers of the sheet music fought against record companies – Those PIRATES!, How come they can come and ruin our nice and established business of selling sheet music. They will ruin music and culture for everyone. Who is going to learn to play the piano to perform for the family if they can simply put a record on a gramophone?
    – how records makers fought against radio. Those PIRATES!, How do they dare to broadcast music for free. Who is going to buy our singles whey they can just switch on the radio receiver an listen to the newest fad for free?
    – How broadcasters and records companies fought against makers of cassette recorders. Those PIRATES!, How do they dare to sell devices that lets people record *OUR* stuff at home?

  3. Thanks for the comment, Anonymous. I’m a fan of Cory’s, but wasn’t aware of this lecture. Do you happen to know if it’s available anywhere online? And if so, could you possibly post a link here in the comments section, or send it to me at: deldridge at I’d love to update this post and include it.

    And incidentally, does anyone remember that brief period when the music industry was all worked up over blank cassette tapes, which they also thought would ruin the music industry? This dates me a bit, but the Dead Kennedys put out a cassette once with the music on one side only, leaving the other blank for anyone who wanted to record something on it.

  4. I seem to remember that there was a big push by the music industry to impose a tax on blank cassette tapes, supposedly to compensate the artists who were all going to be ripped off. And wasn’t something similar proposed for blank DVDs?

  5. Dan – Great article. I had read some of this history but will read this Andrew Shaffer one and save it.

    Also excellent and thought provoking comment from Mr Name (required).

    I would be fascinated if a major university Psychology department took this up as a study project and looked at how and why the Publishing industry has been so blind to history, even it’s own history.

  6. Good article Dan, I just think there is one difference with the ebook and the paperback that I consider quite relevant. Vinyls, tapes and CDs were produced and distributed by the same companies and sold in the same shops.

    Ebooks on the other hand are more than just a new format for books, they have also change the production/distribution chain.

    Just think about the evolution of Amazon, B&N and Apple. They provide the format, the device, the shop and the customer. And I think this is what publishers are afraid of.

    Thanks for sharing Andrew Shaffer’s post

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