ABDVol.33 No.3

The Future of Books and Printing
Nakanishi Hidehiko

From Movable Type to Computerized Typesetting

 Five centuries ago, Gutenberg, a German inventor, developed the printing press. Through this invention, books, which up to that time had been handwritten manuscripts circulated only within the Church, became available to the general public. They were to serve as sources of knowledge and culture, as well as pleasure, for the next five hundred years. The typography also gave birth to newspapers and the mass media, raising the cultural level of the masses and ushering in modern society.
 In all that time, however, the method of printing, which consisted of arranging individual lead movable type in a separate base, remained virtually unchanged. Near the end of the twentieth century, however, the introduction of computer printing precipitated a revolution in the printing industry. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, the majority of printed matter was being produced by computer and letterpress printing had become all but obsolete, at least in the more technologically advanced nations.
  Despite these changes, however, the computerization of printing in the twentieth century did not change the concept of the "book." Computers merely replaced the letterpress in book production. Or, to be more precise, the computer replaced typesetting in making the original plate. Yet readers regard even this change as dramatic, hailing it as a revolution in books and printing. Personally, I believe that this is just a prelude to a much greater revolution to come.

Print on Demand (POD)

  With computerization, printing technology has continued to advance. If the twentieth century computer printing revolution affected only the pre-press stage of typesetting, in the twenty-first century, it is transforming the printing machine. Various printing methods are now emerging, but the one receiving the most attention is Print on Demand (POD).
  As the name suggests, POD means we can print what we want when we want it. In contrast, modern printing technology did not permit short print runs. Twentieth-century civilization was founded on the principles of speed and volume, but the pursuit of these demanded certain sacrifices. In the printing field, the emphasis on high speed and large volume made it highly inconvenient to produce a small quantity of books. Although several million copies of a newspaper could be printed in a single night, the technology was not suited to producing one hundred copies of a poetry collection at a reasonable price. POD makes it possible to produce small quantities of diverse products, something overlooked in the publishing world during the twentieth century.
  The technical basis of POD is the computer printer. It might be described as a super high-speed printer combined with a bookbinding system. Accordingly, all typesetting data is computer-generated, which is why the development of this process has closely followed the growth and development of the computer.
  Recently, numerous books are being produced by POD with very successful results. In Europe, it is used to publish works in such minority languages as Celt and Swedish. Unlike English, which is widely used, publications in these languages naturally tend to be small in volume and therefore they are not suited to conventional printing systems that are geared towards mass production. This is true for many Asian languages as well. For many years, people have been unable to publish the books they wanted because short print runs were too costly. POD has made the publication of minority languages possible.
  Although it is still in the experimental stages, POD publishing has already begun in Japan. The famous Japanese author, Komatsu Sakyo, for example, sells his complete works in a POD version. He need only print the exact number of copies requested whenever there is an order. The risks involved in long-term inventory management are thus avoided and he is able to deliver his entire collection to readers at any time. There are also Richiesta(requester libraries) and other systems in which a conscientious publisher will publish books that it believes are worth publishing despite possibly limited demand.

Towards Paperless Publishing
  Even POD, however, is still bound to paper. Around 1990, publishers began experimenting with CD-ROM encyclopedias. A variety of multimedia software combining both audio and visual data, including images and text, have since been produced. The inclusion of sound and moving images in multimedia encyclopedias was a landmark in publishing. If you look up a particular type of bird, for example, rather than merely reading an explanation of it, you can see the bird fly or hear its call.
  A CD-ROM entitled 100 Titles from the Shincho Bunko (library), a collection of literary works by famous authors from Japan and elsewhere published on CD-ROM in 1995, attracted much attention and sales were very successful. As the publication focused on the written word rather than on the novelty of sound and visual effects, its popularity proved that multimedia could rival conventional books comprised entirely of text.
  At the same time, however, multimedia in the physical form of CD-ROMs has the same drawback as books: information is restricted to the original content. In an encyclopedia in paper form, missing data will always be missing. An encyclopedia published in 2001, whether it is a book or a CD-ROM, can never provide a list of Nobel Prize winners in 2002. This is just commonsense. It is the nature of "books." Or it was until the advent of the Internet, a revolution that overturned generally accepted views.

The Internet

  The Internet has become so widely accepted that it requires no explanation. Just a few years ago, however, it was a new and marvelous invention and it spread with phenomenal speed. The Internet offers information, whether text, pictures, sound or moving images, on CD-ROM in multimedia format over a network of computers. It surpasses the "book" because its networking function allows the constant updating of information. We can now find the names of the latest Nobel Prize winners instantaneously on our screens. If the information we desire is in any of the millions of computers connected via the Internet, that data can be called up immediately on our own computer. This is the age we are living in.
  Much of the myriad data available on the Internet are actually the contents of conventional books. Among these are Project Gutenberg in the United States and Aozora Bunko in Japan, both of which offer unlimited access, free-of-charge, to famous works on which the copyright has expired. Even out-of-print editions, previously only available in collections of literature for prohibitive prices or for viewing at libraries, can now be read via the Internet, and there is no waiting list.
  Some recent authors have been making their works available over the Internet for a fee, marking a transition towards reading novels not only in paper form but also on our computer screens.

PDA and Electronic Paper

  Literature distributed over the Internet, however, does not have such a broad readership. People know that it is available but not many feel the desire to read it on their computer. Computer screens are simply not suited to reading long texts. People rarely read books while sitting at a desk. They read them while relaxing, lying down, sitting in the train or even while walking. Although the latest notebook computers are certainly light and portable, they are no substitute for books. Books have evolved through many stages to become a highly convenient format for reading and carrying, a perfect match for the human hand. A computer screen cannot compete.
  The complaint that you cannot read a computer while lying down, however, may soon be past history. Remarkable developments in compact, portable displays such as the Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) are being made into products that provide the same sensation as reading books. Many of them feature wireless Internet access so that books can easily be purchased over the Internet and read on a cell phone screen. In other words, books can be bought wherever there is an Internet connection.
  A related product called electronic paper is currently being developed that promises to further transform the "book." Like ordinary computers, electronic paper displays text on a screen but it is thinner and lighter than mainstream liquid crystal displays and can be bent and folded. Combined with wireless Internet, it may replace paper books entirely.

The Future of Online Journals and Books

  Although electronic forms of publishing are currently in the experimental stage, the shift from paper to Internet distribution has already been completed in the field of academic journals. Online journals provide the entire contents of the original journal online allowing readers to view it on their computer screens instead of reading it in paper form. The search function was the main impetus for the early development of online publishing in the academic field, a feature especially useful for English documents. English has become an international language and the resultant abundance of English language materials has made it extremely difficult to find a required document or piece of information. The Internet makes it possible to pinpoint and identify the material you want. In addition, because books can be accessed in a non-material form, the data does not clutter up your bookshelves.
  In the end, I believe that books will become a combination of POD and online journals. People will search for information over the Internet, save what they want in their local disks and use POD for actual reading. The form of a book will depend on its function. Of course, publishing solely on the Internet and solely in the conventional form of books will not entirely disappear. The definition of "book" will simply be diversified.
(translated by Cathy Hirano)


Nakanishi Hidehiko
Vice President, Nakanishi Printing Co., Ltd., Ogawa Higashi-iru, Shimodatiuri-dori-agaru, Kamigyo-ku, Kyoto, 602-8048, e-mail: hiden@nacos.com, URL: http://www.nacos.com/
Born in Kyoto in 1956. He graduated from the Faculty of Letters at Kyoto University and in 1985, joined Nakanishi Printing Co., Ltd. a family business with a 140-year history. His main task was computerization. He is currently serving as Vice President. He has authored numerous books including Katsuji ga Kieta Hi (The Day the Hot Type Disappeared).