Publishing was shaped by writing, paper, and printing. Literacy fueled the consumption of books, and made the publishing industry an ubiquitous part of our lives.


Modern paper’s early ancestors

The Sumerians, probably, invented writing in the 4 BC, and used it as a means to secure royal decrees, religious texts, social codes and other such important matters. While writing began mostly as letters, it soon evolved to longer forms, mostly that of books.

General consensus defines a book as a written (or printed) message of considerable length. Such messages are meant for public consumption, and recorded on materials that are readily portable.

Source: The King List, recording the names of the rulers of Mesopotamia.

Source: The King List, SumerianShakespeare.com

The origin of books is relatively unknown, as the first books may not have survived. Evidence suggests that the ancient Sumerians, Assyrians, Hittities, and Babylonians, all used clay tablets. Writers from these societies, had remarkably advanced methods of maintaining tablets for larger text. Such methods included using numbers, and catchwords and is very typical to how modern book publishing typically references pages. The use of tablets continued for the next 2000 years, before the Egyptians started invented papyrus.

It all reads like Greek

With the Greeks adopting papyrus, its usage became widespread. The Greeks also made a valuable contribution to adapting and stabilizing the alphabets – the alphabet became an instrument of communication than just a decoration. With Alexander’s reign, the Greeks, who once preferred oral communication, took to writing and maintaining books. Part of the reason, was to enable communication across far flung cities and annexed territories.

The written form became so prevalent, that libraries were a regular feature and present across multiple cities. Greeks were prolific book writers and readers, but ,sadly, only a minority of their books survive.

Source: Figure nine from Clark's 'The Care of Books,' depicting a Roman reader with his scroll.

Source: Figure nine from Clark’s ‘The Care of Books,’ depicting a Roman reader with his scroll.

The Romans, and their book publishing trade

Apart from using Latin, Roman books were remarkably similar to those of the Greek.  Where the longevity of Greek texts depended on copying by succeeding generations of authors and students, the Romans were probably more instrumental in developing a ‘book trade’ – and at a fairly large scale!

Source: Madrid, Biblioteca de San Lorenzo de El Escorial (14th century).

Source: Madrid, Biblioteca de San Lorenzo de El Escorial (14th century).

Roman texts mention of book shops, and large ‘scriptorias’ or places of writing. Such scriptorias were constantly churning out (primarily by using educated slave labour) books for sale. This made books cheaper and allowed for people from lower classes to read them as well. In some cases, books have been narrated by a reader, and written by up to 30 slave copyists at one time!

This ingenuity doesn’t stop here. Roman publishers, in all probability,  were probably the first to commission works. Roman publishers selected manuscripts to be ‘published’, and paid advances  to authors for rights. And, like most modern publishers,the publishers would determine the format, size, price and develop markets for them. The Romans had established the beginnings of the book publishing industry.