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The Communications Circuit Revisited

By Adriaan van der Weel (paper delivered at the SHARP conference, Mainz, July 2000)

As we enter the twenty-first century, the spread of internet has already conclusively shown that digital transmission of texts is here to stay. Indeed, its significance is only set to rise. Darnton's Communications circuit (Robert Darnton, "What Is the History of Books?", Daedalus, Summer 1982, pp. 65-83; repr. in Robert Darnton, The Kiss of Lamourette: Reflections in Cultural History, pp. 107-35, at p. 112) is very useful model to study the interaction between the many agents involved in the transmission of texts through society. As Darnton has suggested, "With minor adjustments, it should apply to all periods in the history of the printed book" (The Kiss of Lamourette, p. 111-13). It will be instructive to see how the model is equipped to deal with a period that its maker had not intended the model to serve. For one thing, when Darnton first proposed his model the internet had not yet established itself as the popular medium it has since become. For another, it is by no means a foregone conclusion that book historians should want to study the internet as another means of textual transmission. In this paper I should like to do just that, and to use Darnton's communications circuit as a model, to avoid an exploration of analogies degenerating into an incoherent list of chance observations.

Scheme A. I would like to use the basic idea of Darnton's model, but instead of making adjustments to his rendition, I'd like to start from scratch and sketch a version that schematises some of the economic conditions that prevailed when the printing press first became established as the chief instrument for textual transmission. Scheme A shows a number of challenges that presented themselves to printers:

Communications Circuit Scheme A

Scheme B. Over time, the situation changes. Looking at the second half of the twentieth century, we find that the effects of the existing challenges have been mitigated in various ways:

Communications Circuit Scheme B

This results in the representation of Scheme B.

Scheme C. While some existing challenges have been mitigated, at the same time new challenges present themselves, and other developments magnify existing challenges:

Communications Circuit Scheme C

All this results in the situation represented in Scheme C.

Of course we can decide that the printer of the incunable period in many respects resembles what we now call a publisher, and we may call him one. If we do so, we can see that while some of the challenges facing the publisher have changed dramatically, there are some that have essentially remained the same from early days when he was still primarily a printer .

Let us begin to attempt a definition of a publisher. Here Glaister's Glossary of the Book is remarkably unhelpful:

: a person or a company in business to issue for sale to the public through booksellers books, periodicals, music, maps, etc. In the 16th century London trade the licence to print a work was assigned to a printer who was, by implication, the publisher of it, though sometimes in association with sponsors. Later in the same century bookseller&shy;publishers became more influential and commissioned printers to work for them. Publishing as a business separate from bookselling dates from the early 19th century. See F. A. Mumby & I. Norrie, "Publishing and bookselling", 5th ed., Cape, 1974; and Sir Stanley Unwin, 'The truth about publishing', 8th ed., George Allen & Unwin, 1976.

Taking our cue from the constants in our discussion so far, I should think that the publisher's concern with investment in the production of books needs to be added: publishing always involves tying up money in a less liquid form. Secondly, in order to recoup his investment, the publisher is responsible for selling the books, whether this is to the reader/buyer or to booksellers. So distribution for sale is an ongoing concern, which in turn implies the need for marketing.

Certainly today's publisher would still regard these three concerns as central‹though I think the definition will bear further elaboration. Notably, the publisher's relationship to the author has not received any attention yet.

In order to clarify that relationship I think it will be helpful if we first look at what the internet as a medium for the dissemination of text is capable of offering by way of a solution to the challenges that these concerns, which we have identified as the core of publishing, present to publishers.

Electronic text has the amazing characteristics that the original can be multiplied without limit, without loss of quality and at negligible cost. If an electronic text is available on a network of linked computers (such as the internet), such multiplication can, in addition, take place over any distance at the same negligible cost. Just to look at a text being made available somewhere on the internet is to make a faithful and instant electronic copy at no cost to speak of. In terms of the publisher's concerns which we just discussed internet thus offers both multiplication and distribution at negligible cost.

Scheme D. A communication circuit for the internet era could be schematically presented as follows:

Communications Circuit Scheme D

In contrast with the production of printed books, digital production for publication on the internet does not involve multiplication, but only the editorial and formatting tasks. Multiplication is done by the client&shy;reader. If the costs of what in the print media we have called production and distribution can in the case of the internet both be minimised, this reduces investment to a much lower level than in the case of print. (We are left with sales, to which we shall return.)

Having studied the implications of this scheme, we may at this point recall George Bernhard Shaw's diatribe against publishers:

I object to publishers: the one service they have done me is to teach me to do without them. They combine commercial rascality with artistic touchiness and pettishness, without being either good business men or fine judges of literature. All that is necessary in the production of a book is an author and a bookseller, without any intermediate parasite.(Bernard Shaw, in a letter of 1895 [quoted in Author! Author!, ed. Richard Findlater, London, 1984, p. 104])

Shaw, as is well known, became a self-publisher, like some other Victorian authors, notably Ruskin. But now that we have the internet the Shaws of this world can do even better. Since anyone who joins an ISP to gain access to the internet is almost automatically presented with a sufficient quota of disk space to host the equivalent of a number of Bibles, nothing is easier for an author than to circumvent both the publisher and the bookseller, a possibility that results in the following variation on the communications circuit:

Scheme E.

Communications Circuit Scheme E

This is much more than G.B. Shaw could have hoped for. Using the internet, today's author can circumvent the publisher, the printer, the distributor and the bookseller, as Stephen King has convincingly shown.

The internet is thus capable of "democratising"‹in the true sense of bringing to ordinary people‹the distribution of recorded text (and further democratising production) by its low cost and easy access. It is perhaps useful to place this democratising characteristic of the internet as a medium in a longer perspective. Looking at the Production &shy; Distribution &shy; Consumption chain, I think we can identify two earlier major democratising developments:

  1. In the field of consumption: the tremendous increase in literacy joined with much lower production costs in the nineteenth century when books came within reach of everyone
  2. In the field of production: the widespread use of offset lithography from the 1960s, which spelled the end of the monopoly of the typesetting and printing trades and enabled everyone to create camera-ready copy with the crudest of means (it was followed twenty years later by the sophistication of desktop publishing (DTP)).

This simplified communications circuit is not only a possible scenario, but for a great number of texts it is already in operation: Project Gutenberg, out-of-copyright texts (and‹illegally‹quite a number of copyright texts).

However, we are in these cases talking not so much about books but about texts. They have no physical being. The reader can print them out, but a printout hardly deserves to be called a book. The use of this sort of texts is for finding passages, for computer manipulation (indexing, concordancing, matching, cutting and pasting text for quotation, etc). (There is also the possibility of using such texts in an ebook, as we shall see.) Along with the physical book we have lost in electronic texts the identical copy with identical pages in unchanging form that we have come to rely on for scholalry use. Whatever its advantages may be, etexts are unstable, in form, in content, and even in existence. They may vanish without warning from one moment to the next.

Not only are there these drawbacks, but there are also numerous texts for which the communications circle without a publisher is an unlikely scenario. This applies to most texts within copyright, and many if not most new texts being written. Let's look at two examples of texts written by people who wish to live off the proceeds of their labour, such as people with literary and scholarly aspirations. For them, the shortened communication circuit (the term "short-circuit" presents itself) is not feasible.

Not that it is not possible for a young poet to place his texts on the internet and wait for readers to come and find his poetry, and even to set up a system that could charge the prospective reader for the pleasure of reading it. The crucial question is, though, why would a prospective reader pay for a volume of poetry by an unknown author? (We have now come back to sales as promised.) The answer is, not because he is a promising and deserving young man, but because a publisher has decided to invest a sum of money in it. (If Stephen King was still an unknown young author, he could not have pulled off his recent self-publishing stunt.)

In a sense it would be even easier for a scholar to place his monograph on thirteenth-century French regional stained glass (the example is from Robert Darnton's account on his four-year term on the editorial board of Princeton University Press, "Publishing: A Survival Strategy for Academic Authors", in The Kiss of Lamourette, pp.94-103) on the internet, and consider it published. After all, though he is interested in his monograph being read, he is not interested in selling copies, so he can dispense with the charging system. He earns his money from his tenure. The crucial question here is, why would the university pay his tenure? The answer is, not because his book can be read on the internet, but because it was good enough for it to have been published by a reputable publisher.

In both cases the answer comes down to the fact that a publisher performs the essential task of selecting. Uncanonical texts have yet to be filtered. This important task of the publisher, I would suggest, comes close to defining his relationship to the author, which we agreed to defer earlier.

In retrospect, it is possible to recognise that the role of the publisher has been edging in that direction for a long time. Especially since the nineteenth century the publisher's role as a gatekeeper, to guarantee quality, has gained increasing significance. Not that the publisher necessarily performs that role consciously: for him selection is primarily connected with the decision what to invest his name and money in; selection is merely the unintended corollary.

Through the selection task of publisher (and bookseller), paradoxically the accessibility of texts is increased as well as diminished. As well as selecting on saleability (both publisher and bookseller will choose what they think a sufficient number of people would actually like to read, or at least buy), they create order in what is published, for example through the nature of their imprint.

Scheme D. So for the benefit of such cases as poets and scholars we bring the publisher back in, and return to scheme D:

Communications Circuit Scheme D

But even though we have found that the publisher is indispensable for these categories of text, what remains in this scenario are the possible advantages of low-cost production and distribution‹if, that is, we can solve the problems associated with the electronic form of the book.

The internet is a new medium, and it is difficult to predict how its economy will develop, but we can make a few informed guesses at how these possible advantages may be exploited by publishers.

I would suggest that there are two avenues that publishers might pursue. One is the ebook direction, and the other printing on demand. Both are, incidentally, already practised in a limited way.

The ebook option entails an all-electronic solution, whereby the buyer downloads a text from the publisher's site to his ebook. Some of the problems inherent in electronic texts will be solved, for example by the fact that the publisher maintains a database on the internet that safeguards the continued existence of the text. In this case the reader buys a little gadget to read the book, which cannot hold the proverbial candle to a real book yet, but that will get better.

The printing on demand option could entail the electronic download of the text of a book from the publisher's internet site to a local printing machine, which could be the equivalent of today's bookshop, or of a copyshop, or it could be located in a supermarket, where a fully fledged printed book, complete with full-colour cover, could be picked up. This scenario offers decentralised and production tailored to the exact demand, obviating distribution costs and bringing investment levels down to the proportions of the manuscript period. It also solves all of the problems inherent in electronic texts listed above, for the buyer will own an old-fashioned book.

Both scenarios hold out the promise of lower investment in production and thus cheaper books. (Though the reality so far is that electronic books sell for the same price as ordinary books.) And significantly, the two scenarios are fully compatible: the same electronic text can be downloaded to an ebook device or downloaded to a remote printer. [In addition, meta information will greatly aid the task of matching supply with demand, greatly facilitating publishers' marketing efforts‹if not necessarily sales.]

Once these internet scenarios are implemented on any significant scale they could place very different emphasis in our definition of what a publisher does. They would place a great deal less emphasis on investment, and must therefore place proportionally more emphasis on gatekeeping‹selection. But we have already said that the publisher carries out his selection function not as a conscious task in its own right, but as the natural consequence of the investment he makes. And if the investment is minimised, what basis remains for his selection task?

There is something strange, for example about the possibility to keep making limitless copies without loss of quality and at so little cost. Conventional economic thinking has taught us that without scarcity, things have no value. The "old economy" has always concentrated on making more units per product at a lower unit cost than the competition: the achievement of economies of scale. In the "new economy" the emphasis lies elsewhere: for example on innovation and new ideas. In the case of text, electronic transmission (esp. via the internet) has largely obviated the concept of scarcity. Something is either accessible, in which case it can be multiplied without limit, without loss of quality and at negligible cost, or it is not accessible. Scarcity consists solely in limited accessibility, not in the finite availability of produced items. So: at the very least the nature of scarcity is changing, but perhaps the economic rules themselves will need to change.

We have drawn a fairly sharp distinction for publication on the internet between texts in the public domain on the one hand and texts designed for the exploitation of the intellectual property rights that reside in them. We can now look back and observe in retrospect the strong parallels with the incunable period. Most of the earliest printings in the period 1450 1500 concerned books that might be said to have been in the public domain. And it took time for the new medium to foment a more speculative entrepreneurial spirit. The printers first turned editor, for example publishing more popular editions of classic texts, or prose translations, etc (eg Gheraert Leeu's prose edition of Reinaert de Vos). Then they also began to write books (eg Thomas van der Noot; Pley). It took even longer for the new medium and contemporary living authors to find each other, though once they did, it resulted in some ventures that succeeded in making a spectacularly adroit use of the new medium.

We can also observe that the impetus for developing the new medium came from the "owners", the printer&shy;publishers. Similarly, we can see that the original "owners" of the internet, which after the military was the scholarly community, have grasped the new medium to do precisely the same: they made available cheap (free) editions of everything that was in the public domain: the canon. Where the comparison breaks down is in the fact that contemporary scholars did not have to do so in an entrepreneurial spirit, because they made their money in tenured positions at the universities. This focuses on the very different economy that the internet is still subject to today. The internet has its roots in a not-for profit environment, usually succinctly paraphrased by the "Information wants to be free" slogan. We do not know for how much longer. It is only recently that commerce has begun to take a firm grip on the internet, and the way its economy might develop is in the lap of the gods.

The print medium has often, for shorter or longer periods in its history, harboured exciting possibilities, such as stereotyping, which was first developed in the early eighteenth century by Johann Müller, a German pastor living in the Netherlands (See Philip Gaskell, A New Introduction to Bibliography, Oxford, 1985, p. 201), but which was not economically feasible until the twentieth century. Or take offset printing, which was technically feasible by the late nineteenth century, as soon as the invention of lithography was joined by photography and the cylinder press, but did not become the dominant printing method till the late 1960s. For all I know it still harbours possibilities that no one has yet realised. But one of these possibilities was also the speculative entrepreneurial exploitation of the medium, which needed to be developed by the early printers in the course of half a century. Another was the professional author, whose success could be made in his own lifetime as a result of the selection practised by the publisher.

One of these professional authors was G.B. Shaw, who later in his life was a great deal milder about publishers than he was when he wrote the passage quoted above, writing "the wonder is that the publishers do so much to keep up the prestige of literature ... at their own cost when trash would pay them better" (quoted in Author! Author!, p. 40). And he had ample occasion to be grateful to them, despite the sixty or so publishers who had in turn rejected his novels (See Hesketh Pearson, Bernhard Shaw: A Biography, London, 1987, p. 59). When Swan Sonnenschein (whose list later became part of Allen & Unwin) after publishing a novel by Shaw suggested "the author would do better to write plays" (Mumby's Publishing and Bookselling in the Twentieth Century, p. 51) we can see that crucial role of selection at work.

However, if the function of the publisher has been narrowed down to that of a gatekeeper, is it not possible that that is a too narrow basis? If it requires so little investment, would it not be easy to take over that function? Take the case of scholarly publishing. The real gatekeepers there are not the publishers, but the scholar's peers, who already perform their task free of charge. Not only that, but the mechanism through which scholars benefit from being published is not that they get paid royalties, but that they get promoted. In other words, the gatekeeping function in scholarly publishing could be one-way: keeping bad scholarship out of the door, while readers could be let in free of charge‹the more the merrier. In these circumstances, what would stop a group of scholars setting up their own publishing house?

This would provide yet another parallel with the early days of print, when the "owners" of the medium became the first entrepreneurs by writing new kinds of books for a new reading public. The answer to the question what would stop a group of scholars setting up their own publishing house is: nothing, at least in principle, and it is actually happening. In practice, the slow adjustment to the new economy and the new way of thinking it necessitates is still a barrier. But this is certainly going to change.

Conclusions: "The influence of Joyce on Sterne"
As will have become clear, it is my belief that in order to try and understand the media revolution that we are witnessing at this moment, there are many exciting ways in which we can delve deeply into the history of the book to study the changes that various inventions in the field of book production have wrought. Conversely, I hope I have illustrated that observing the phenomena that are occurrring in front of our eyes at this very moment can help us gain a fresh perspective on many historical phenomena.

McKenzie regards bibliography as a discipline that "studies texts as recorded forms, and the processes of their transmission, including their production and reception". In the first of his Panizzi lectures he states that he defines "'texts' to include verbal, visual, oral and numeric data, in the form of maps, prints, and music, of archives of recorded sound, of films, videos, and any computer-stored information, everything in fact from epigraphy to the latest forms of discography." And he goes on to say that "There is no evading the challenge which those new forms have created" (D.F. McKenzie, "The Book as an Expressive Form", in his Bibliography and the Sociology of Texts, The Panizzi Lectures 1985, London, 1986, pp. 4-5). That is a challenge indeed and we may prefer not to have to widen our discipline quite so far as that. But he rightly intimates that electronic developments in textual transmission must be regarded as a natural extension of book history.

I would concur with him and make a plea for considering the history of the book as a continuum from manuscript to electronic textual transmission, in an intellectual history context. Just as Darnton suggests (The Kiss of Lamourette, p. 111) that book history should be interdisciplinary in order for the "parts" of individual research to "take on their full significance", a case can (must) be made for book history in the narrow sense to be placed in the wider context of the history of textual transmission. Such an inclusive notion of book history, stretching from the earliest to the most recent written communication would enable contrastive diachronic approaches which could generate greater insights into the nature of phenomena occurring at any of the periods.

A.H. van der Weel; Tel. 071-5272141; E-mail
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