Throughout the twentieth century, the publishing industry underwent major changes. One of these was undoubtedly the birth of offset printing, which would lead to the gradual disappearance of hot type and negatives, and the arrival of a new army of typists. These new changes paved the way for a sea change in publishing, from the creation of photographic texts to the early use of computers. This change alone unsettled many publishers, and early naysayers began to talk about the book’s demise. As we all know, that did not happen. Books continued to be published and readers continued to enjoy leafing through their printed pages, even if they no longer carried the impressions left by the lead fonts of the linotype machine. That did not matter; the book was still alive.
Around 1993, an editor and businessman speaking at the Frankfurt Book Fair conference pulled out a strange device the size of a cigar box from his coat pocket, and claimed to have all the main works of English literature stored in what he called its “memory”. He warned the dumbfounded audience that the days of printed books were numbered. This time the threat felt real. Now, in addition to worrying about the dwindling number of readers and an increasing trend toward illustrated books that was pushing readers further away from the classics, publishers would have to deal with a moribund creature that was slipping away between their ink and printing presses.
Someone at a meeting of alarmed publishers and printers, said: "Gentlemen, this is serious, but it will take a long time. Some of us here will not live to see it; it won’t happen until the 21st century. And that century, ushered in with fireworks all over the planet, is now here. The last ten years have brought such great changes that the phrase coined by Marshall McLuhan, about the medium being the message, has exceeded all expectations.
In developed countries, readers attracted by electronic media and the web began to drift away from traditional print media – newspapers and magazines – and the Internet began capturing visual and printed texts to the largest extent possible.
Now, as we enter the second decade of the twenty-first century, people are beginning to turn their backs on newsstands. Somehow, print media helped bring about its own abandonment. In major cities around the world, print publications are closing and print runs are being reduced, giving rise to the proliferation of electronic pages.
This situation has led to growing speculation. At any meeting between two or more publishers, the main topic is always the impending demise of books and periodicals. Paradoxically, the world as a whole – even taking into account the reading gap between rich and poor countries – is at its peak in terms of number of publications and book print runs.
Moreover, this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair highlighted the digital book as its special guest. So, the dilemma is not whether to read or not to read. The choice, both today and in the future, will revolve around which medium will be used for reading by this and future generations born amidst the media revolution of the late 20th century. The industry will undergo major changes, publishers and publicists will have to adapt to changing times, and the change is inevitable. As Einstein said, the future comes soon enough, but there is no need to worry: No man dies before his time.
Jaime Bali is Managing Editor of Relatos e historias en México magazine.