China, where the future is already the past

I have tried to stay off the subject of how the internet will change the world, since there is enough of that on the internet already. I was struck by this piece, (Via Sullivan)  which gushes about the wonderfulness of self-publishing, specifically the idea that Joshua Marshall is hiring a publisher.

The sheer joy of the idea that the creators should have the whip hand and “publishers” just be errand boys who handle making the copies  (think of a university without administrators) is likely to cloud the mind, but there is more to this than just happy visions of publishers tending the gardens of the Forbidden City. What would the world look like without publishers? Without music company executives?

Happily, China had a thriving printing culture for a good thousand years before the introduction of western-style printing machinery in the late 19th century created a modern publishing industry, so we know something about this.  The Chinese reluctance to adopt movable type  is even now sometimes presented as a puzzling example of the anti-technological bias of those silly people, but actually there was no great need for it. Woodblock printing had already begun revolutionizing Chinese culture by at least the Song dynasty, and movable type did not add much. One of the big advantages of woodblock printing was that it cheaper and required less capital. To print a book with movable type need a set of type with many copies of each letter (expensive in the West, more so in China) and literate typesetters. Since the type is broken up up after printing a page you need to have the capital to buy enough paper (usually a major expense) and to wait for the things to sell or to swallow the loss if they don’t. With Chinese block printing you needed a literate author to write the book, but then you could paste the paper on a woodblock and have an illiterate (and cheap) carver cut it out. Storing all the woodblocks could be a pain, but since you did not break them up you could print as many copies as you needed (print on demand!) and then keep the blocks. At least some literati would leave their woodblocks in their wills. (I know Yuan Mei did, and I would guess others did too.) There was far less need for the work publishers do and the capital they provide.

China certainly had publishers going back at least to the Ming. Cynthia Brokaw has written about the small-scale publishing houses that churned out and distributed cheap books for the masses. The commanding heights of Chinese publishing, however, were occupied by the literati-publishers who were better known as writers, editors, and collators than as publishers.  If a person had a reputation that would sell books they did not need a lot of capital to go into business for themselves. China did not have much by the way of copyright law back then, but they were somewhat protected by the fact that they had already made up the printing blocks for their famous works. This would not help the small publishers making cheap copies of the Four Books, of course, so they lived in a cutthroat low-margin market while the more elite writers floated above that.

This seems to be sort of what technology is creating today. Publishers still exist, and if you want to publish “Chicken Soup for a Goldfish’s Soul” you will need a publisher to advertise it and make sure that stacks of it are piled up at the local gas station. If you are famous enough and not really wanting to go after Stephen King’s sales records self-publishing is getting easier and easier. We may end up with a two-tier system like China had.

Oddly, the one place where new publishing trends are not really taking hold is academia. You would think that given all the authors who sell dozens of books on their own reputations rather than marketing hype, and the fact that getting it out there rather than getting rich is the goal, scholars would go in for self or electronic publishing. Journals certainly have, but academic books of course serve a purpose other than being read, which is proving that you are a scholar by coming out in hardback with the name of a publisher on the spine so that you can keep your job. The cultural importance of publishers is still there, and it will be interesting to see how long they can resist the technological trends that are moving away from them.

There is a lot of scholarship on this, although I would not blame any of the people below for the errors above.

Brokaw, Cynthia J. Commerce in Culture: The Sibao Book Trade in the Qing and Republican Periods. Harvard University Asia Center, 2007.

Brokaw, Cynthia J., and Kai-Wing Chow. Printing and Book Culture in Late Imperial China. 1st ed. University of California Press, 2005.

Rawski, Evelyn. Education and Popular Literacy in Ch’ing China. University of Michigan Press, 1979.

Reed, Christopher A. Gutenberg in Shanghai: Chinese Print Capitalism, 1876-1937. University of Hawaii Press, 2004. 


  1. Nicely balanced thoughts — but hold on!

    Publishers don’t just print things up. They weed out, organize, and edit (or at least they used to). Think of all the thousand page dissertations out there. Who knows which ones even exist, much less want to read the raw version. If you think it’s hard to keep up with the writing in your sub-sub-field now, just wait until everything everybody writes is washing up on your computer screen. How would general scholarly journals know what to review? The review process is bad enough as it is, but without it you look only at what you already know about, which will make it even harder for new people and new ideas.

    Publishing texts and scholarship with limited and well defined audiences is now easy, which is wonderful, but we need to keep all sides in mind.

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