Before the invention of the printing press, most of the world existed in an information vacuum. News primarily relied on human narrators, and it could take many days, months, and even years until the latest information was delivered to remote towns and villages. But of course, by that time, it was no longer “the latest.”
The situation changed when a German goldsmith Johannes Gutenberg came up with a movable type printing press in 1436. He wasn’t the first to come up with the idea–the first movable type printing had been used in Asia hundreds of years earlier. But Gutenberg’s invention had an advantage thanks to the proximity to major shipping hubs of that time. Particularly Venice.
In the 15th century, Venice was one of the driving forces of the Italian Renaissance and the central shipping hub of the Mediterranean. Local printers sold four-page news pamphlets to sailors, who would take them to distant parts of the world, where they were copied and delivered to even more distant villages, where people would read them in public.
Several factors made the printing press such a great invention–cost-efficiency, time to produce, and freedom of church monopoly on books.
Before the printing press, the church was the only book-making authority that provided scribes, materials, and distribution networks. Making a book was a costly process that involved long hours and multiple people working just on a single copy of a book. So it’s no wonder books were a luxury only few could afford, and libraries were something one could see only in a big monastery or on royal premises.
Gutenberg’s invention allowed bookmakers to cut the cost and time of book production from months to days–the first print-run of the Bible, for example, required around one month to make five copies–unimaginable speed for that time.
As a result, books became more affordable, making their way to libraries of medium-sized towns and private collections, contributing to the information exchange and literacy of the general population. And because bookmaking was no longer under the control of the church, more authors were able to reach their readers, preparing the revolution in science, religion, philosophy, politics, and entertainment.
Now, some five hundred years after the invention of the printing press, it feels like we’re standing at the door of another technological revolution that might radically change the information exchange.
However, the world we live in is more complex and advanced than the one Gutenberg lived and worked in. Advancements in AI, blockchain and the entertainment world will probably play a significant role in the next iteration of publishing (the last one being book publishers adopting digital format).
There are many factors at play, and trying to predict where the next revolution in publishing will come from is difficult. However, several trends can define the future of publishing, becoming the next “printing press.” These trends are social media, AI-assisted writing, data-driven publishing, and crypto content creation.
There is no doubt that social media has changed how information is exchanged and published. In the same way, as the printing press put an end to the church’s monopoly on knowledge sharing, social media has eliminated the go-between from the publishing process, making it possible for every voice to be heard.
Thanks to the widespread use of mobile devices and the Internet, social media has become the primary source of news online (with Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Snapchat, and Instagram topping the list) instead of traditional media. They democratized the publishing process and made it possible to share information with billions of people in just a couple of clicks.
Social media comes at a cost, however. From privacy issues to unprecedented levels of misinformation to online rage to information overload, social media companies receive heavy criticism, making many people quit them altogether. But despite all the negativity, they still provide a powerful platform for people to connect and share important news and information.
Social media are on their rise now, and they will develop, favoring faster and simpler sharing mechanisms, involving more and more people into the never-ending circle of content creation. So, it is very likely that they earn the “Next Printing Press” badge or play a crucial role in its making.
Rapid changes in artificial intelligence research have introduced the world to various technologies that automate many mechanic tasks. From image recognition and classification to abusive language detection, machine learning algorithms reduce human labor and human error, reducing the cost in the long run.
One of the most groundbreaking products involving deep learning and natural language processing is GPT-3, presented in spring 2020. Trained on more than 175 billion parameters, GPT-3 is the most prominent language model to date capable of generating texts that are indistinguishable from human-written copy.
Many companies offer access to the GPT-3 engine through writing assistants that, employing the engine’s API, generate texts on a given topic for a given domain. Using AI writing assistants can drastically reduce the time from the idea to publishing, thus providing an edge to its users over competitors who don’t use this technology.
The output generated by AI writing tools is still not perfect and heavily depends on the quality of user input. Besides, these tools are pretty bad when it comes to fact-checking. So, perhaps, in the next couple of years, the technology will most likely be used by copyeditors whose texts are not fact-heavy.
Regardless, AI writing assistants will shape the publishing industry’s future in the coming years because they offer incredible value to authors (e.g., removing writer’s block and generating ideas) for a reasonable price, which is likely to go down.
Just like many content creation companies opt-in for AI writing assistants, more and more publishing companies are starting to explore the concept of data-driven publishing (DDP). The main difference between data-driven publishing and AI writing assistants is that while the latter aims to automate the entire process, the former focuses on reaching the optimal message to the audience.
At its core, data-driven publishing is concerned with a better understanding of how readers interact with the stories they read. For example, where readers spend the most time, which text snippets they share with friends, or how far they go before giving up on a book.
Attaching readers’ stats to each published piece, be it an article or a novel, may help publishers adapt their content marketing strategies and uncover the hidden gems and the next best-selling authors.
Some companies, like Inkitt, already use machine learning methods to find the potential bestsellers in a pool of pre-published novels that everyone can read. Books that receive the highest engagement from the readers in the reading app get published and marketed. Medium, an online publishing platform, employs a similar approach recommending stories with the highest reader engagement to other readers, helping writers gain a following and earn income.
Perhaps, the most significant difference between AI writing assistants and data-driven publishing is that DDP offers real value to the readers, allowing them to see more high-quality content and less low-quality content. This may not revolutionize the way we consume stories, but it can change the game for many creators who could not find their readers via traditional publishers.
Blockchain and cryptocurrency are on the rise. The hype around NFTs and Web 3.0 is at its highest, and it doesn’t look like it will go away any time soon, especially given recent speculation about Metaverse. Elon Musk has already called Web3 a “bs”, and Jack Dorsey, a former Twitter CEO, expressed his concerns that Web3 will be under the control of the VC industry.
Both Musk and Dorsey may be right. But it doesn’t mean that the changes the next iteration of the Web will bring won’t offer any value. We have already seen how independent (and well-known) artists profited from NFTs, and many believe that NFTs will change the way we produce, share, and profit from art forever.
The same way artists get recognition for their work and receive royalty fees every time their art is sold, indie authors and small publishers could benefit from NFTs by fingerprinting their work, crowdsourcing the patronage, and removing an intermediary from the publication process.
One example of such an approach to content sharing is Mirror, aiming to change the way authors connect with their audience. The platform built on Ethereum has already received investment at a $100 million valuation and is now open to everyone this year. Mirror allows authors to create original content and mint it as an NFT that later can be sold.
It is still early to say how exactly Web3 and crypto content creation will change publishing. However, some indie authors and small publishers will likely benefit from it. In any case, given the trajectory of blockchain development, we will probably learn more about this recent trend in 2022.
The printing press did not change the world overnight. It took years for the technology to take over the world and lay a foundation for the publishing industry, which, although changed operationally, hasn’t changed conceptually. The fix is the same: an authority with a printing press decides what this machine will print and where the print-outs will go.
The Internet has driven a wedge into this formula, with self-publishing giving a possibility for everyone to find their audience. But these changes cannot cancel the fact that even self-publishing is subject to a middleman’s consent and a fee, be it Amazon or any other online publisher.
Blockchain technology development could be the most disruptive trend to change this power dynamic, giving indie authors a platform to take complete control of their content, both in finance and ownership.
However, it is unlikely that these changes will render traditional publishing obsolete. When the first e-books appeared, many people thought that paper books would disappear in the next twenty years. Yet, printed books are still there; they just no longer exist in a paper format only.
As such, we can expect a mixture of the above-listed trends from future publishing, with both traditional and indie publishers co-existing in shared Internet space, be it Metaverse, cyberspace, or Web3, and using as many tools for promoting their work as possible. This will include social media, data-driven publishing, AI assistants, and blockchain backing. So, in this sense, the next printing press will most likely be a combination of several trends and technologies.
And even though we can’t say for sure how exactly the publishing industry will look like in twenty years, one thing is certain–it will be damn complicated.