How books became unbound in the new era of e-publishing

The new era of e-publishing marks the decline of the printed book and the rise of a new mode of knowledge management

As a lonGutenberg's Pressg-time committed author and editor, I find two inter-related ideas which make e-publishing attractive and which will take us beyond the era of the printed book.

First, there is the speed at which an e-book can be produced, giving it an immediacy that cannot be matched through traditional publishing channels.

Secondly, there is scope for a far richer interaction with readers, through operating as a portal between the world of the internet, and the worlds of experience of author and reader.

To explain what I mean, I would like to trace briefly the distinguished history of the printed word, and one of its longest-standing products, the monograph. This helps me explain the way I turned the problem of retrieving information from a thousand blog posts on leadership into a new interactive approach to teaching and researching the subject.

Before and after the Gutenberg revolution

A milestone in human civilization was reached through the efforts of a fifteenth century German goldsmith skilled in the craft of metal working and manufacture of coins for the archiepiscopal mint of his home town of Mainz.  His name was Johannes Gutenberg and he is known today for a brilliant insight or transfer of technology. He applied his skills in creating moulds for making coins to the invention of the moveable type process.  His new press  punched out not coins but the obverse letters or types from which pages of a document could be mass produced. We retain the word type in various usages which may be traced to the original meaning in printing

The invention created the profession of craft printer, and with repeated improvements was to survive over 700 years to recent times.

Marshall McLuhan, in the 1960s, anticipated a world of mass communications. He saw how Gutenberg’s innovation accelerated the shift from pre-modern to modern societies, and indirectly to the Renaissance and the age of information.

Who ‘wrote’ this book?

Pre-Gutenberg, short ‘books’ were collected and bound together. The volume was ‘written’ by the mediaeval scribe who copied and bound together the contributions of the original authors.

Gutenberg enabled the process to reach far wider audiences. It had many consequences such as the e rise to the printed political pamphlet, with acknowledgment to its original author. Knowledge become more freely transmitted to any person schooled enough to read or willing enough to listen to its message.

The first books were serious pieces of work devoted to capturing thoroughly and in depth the interests of a monastic or scholarly calling. Printed monographs long after the invention of the printing press retained the legacy of their scholarly ancestry as universities took over the duties of the monastic scribes. Then, the great innovation of the printed word received its first serious challenge from the so-called electronic revolution.

New forms for a new age

I had become familiar with the potential for a new more interactive form of teaching through combining e-material into my work with business executives. I noted how students were interacting more in class through their own connectedness with the internet through their PCs, and then through their tablets and smart phones.

One obvious point was that the textbook was no longer the focus of learning. Instead it was more like a portal through which tutors and students interacted with the wider world on the internet.

The Leaders We Deserve e-experiment

I began to see opportunities in exploring a space between the scholarly style of the traditional textbook and the dynamism of the e-format. I was increasingly teaching and writing as a member of a learning community interacting with colleagues and readers.

Specifically I saw that I could not hope to explore adequately the thousand posts and counting that hadwritten partly for my executive audiences. I couldn’t, but the community of learning could.

The experiment means that I could try new ‘voices’ to communicate that would have been inappropriate for the traditional textbook. The experiences of the community were becoming living cases, non-linear at least partly unbounded by an author’s teaching aims and objectives.

Where will the experiment lead?

I’m still not sure. But I am sure it will be one of many such experiments at the dawn of a 21st century revolution will take us beyond The Gutenberg Galaxy, the legacy bequeathed us by a 15th Century German goldsmith.  As times change, words take on different meanings. Why should we expect a book to have the same features today when it is no longer bound (no pun intended) between hard covers, and no longer is produced by skilled crafts workers working with molten metal and moveable type?


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