From Clay To Kindle: How Publishing Evolved Through History




From Clay to Kindle: How Publishing Evolved Through History

Books have come a long way since publishing began thousands of years ago. But while bibliophiles continue the “print vs. digital” debate and authors losing sleep over whether traditional or self-publishing is better, we’ll be talking about the fun fact that books literally went from tablets to...well, tablets! (You’re probably even reading this on your tablet right now.)

Let There Be Paper

When others think about the "old" book format, what probably comes to mind is ashy paper with heavy-leather jacket cover. But did you know that the use of that kind of paper for book publishing didn't come to light until around 3600 years later?

At the very beginning, in 3500 BC, books came in clay tablets used by the Sumerians who concocted the cuneiform writing style. Then came the papyrus rolls in 2400 BC, a material made from the center of a stem of a papyrus plant. First used by Egyptians, then the Greeks. The center stem is cut into strips, glued, and then dried. The Egyptians be trippin’, right?

Parchment was then invented sometime around 500 to 200 BC. History tells us that Herodotus pioneered the use of this thin material, made from calves or goat skin. It was the mainstream writing tool of that century until the Chinese invented the paper leaves around 105 AD, using tree bark, mulberries, hemp, and so on. Cords and strings were then used to bind the ink-blotted paper leaves. Around 300 years and several quality developments later, paper was able to withstand colors and paints so that illustrations were added to enhance stories and texts. 

The crystal clear white paper, which we use for paperback books today, was found in 1744 by Carl Wilhelm Scheele, a Swedish chemist who used chlorine to bleach the darkness out.

The Printing Revolution

Until 868 AD, books were all handwritten. The most widely reproduced book in Europe that time was (you guessed it!) the Bible, and monks spent lifetimes in monasteries handwriting copies. The publishing and distribution process was pretty straightforward. But then a technique known as block printing was found in 220 AD for printing on clothes and was slowly adapted to print books. Blocks made of wood had letters and symbols that could be printed on paper. Then came the moveable typewriters in early 1040 AD, which was invented by the Chinese and later developed by Europeans in 1439. 

But it wasn’t until after 1500 AD that the printing press, invented by German goldsmith Johannes Gutenburg, jump started the printing revolution. The speed of book publishing rose to an unprecedented scale as the cost of printing was significantly reduced. Books were more affordable and various printables, like newspapers, novels, etc. were published. This resulted to rapid spread of knowledge and literacy in the human race. Hooray!



Traditional Publishing and Self-Publishing

Arguably the oldest publishing house is the Cambridge University Press, founded by Henry VIII of England in 1534. They released the first print book in 1584, and, thereafter, more publishing houses flourished in Europe, USA, and the whole world. It was during this era that traditional publishing, as we know it today, was born as an industry. In this model, the company buys the copyrights to an author’s work. They then handle the printing, distribution, book sales and marketing, and royalties are negotiated between the company and authors.

On the other hand, Self-Publishing works differently: The author pays the publishing house a service fee to print, distribute, and market the book on his/her behalf, making it possible for anyone to publish a book. Self-publishing is the trending and most efficient publishing model today.

Online Publishing

With the reign of the digital era, the eBook now conquers the world of publishing. Because the process is so quick and hassle-free, many authors now prefer to publish their work online as eBooks in Kindle devices—a tablet for reading invented by Jason Merkoski for Amazon (not the rainforest) in 2007 AD. This makes the evolution of books a “revolution”—literally going full circle from clay tablets to kindle tablets. History really is doomed to repeat itself. Crazy right?


It’s amazing how the face of publishing evolved through history. Today, audiobooks and eBooks are a lifestyle. However, some people still crave the scent of perfume in old paperbacks, the pleasure of fiddling the pages with your finger, and the weight of a heavy classic novel between one’s hands. So which reader are you? The tech-savvy or the quintessentialist? Tell us in the comments!