A Quick History of Self-Publishing

A Quick History of Self-Publishing

Self-publishing is a rising force in the publishing industry now, and because of this a large number of writers have delved into self-publishing. It is defined as the practice of publishing without the help or assistance of a traditional publishing company. But what very few people know is  the fact that self-publishing has been around for a very long time and in truth self-publishing can even be considered to be older than traditional publishing.

Self-publishing in truth goes back as far as the creation of one of the very first forms of writing. The very first books were created by the Egyptians who made them out of papyrus and used hieroglyphics as their writing system. This in many ways is the very first form of self-publishing. This is followed by other cultures such as the Greeks and Romans who spread knowledge and culture all over the ancient world.  The creation of books during this time though was a very painstaking process, and one book took hundreds or even thousands of hours of meticulous work to create. It is only at the invention of the printing press that the history of self-publishing truly changed.


Bì Shēng (990 – 1051 AD) invented Chinese movable type during the Song Dynasty (1041 – 1048 AD). His movable type was made from ceramics, a Chinese specialty. As described by the Chinese scholar Shen Kuo (1031 – 1095)

The origins of self-publishing is tied with the invention of movable ink. It can be traced back to the eleventh century, wherein a Chinese commoner named Bi Sheng invented the very first movable ink type. The instrument was made out of earthenware but due to its lack of durability was improved upon to wood until it ultimately evolved to metal in the fourteenth century.

In western civilization the first European movable ink was created by a former stonecutter and goldsmith named Johannes Gutenberg who devised an alloy of lead, tin and antimony that would melt at low temperature, cast well in the die, and be durable in the press. It was then possible to use and reuse the separate pieces of type, as long as the metal in which they were cast did not wear down, simply by arranging them in the desired order. This device is the very first step in the creation of the modern printing press. This is followed many years later in 1780, when James Watt invented the letter press machine, one of the most important inventions in history. The creation of this incredible machine allowed for the rapid mass production of literature.


James Watt invented this document copier to relieve him of the tedium of making copies of his plans and drawings. The press copies a written document by pressure onto thin, translucent, unsized paper, producing a reversed copy from the back. (Image by BBC)

Centuries later, during the 1990’s the idea of the online vanity press came to being. These are websites wherein a writer can download books on a print on demand basis, and should the client wish to use the marketing tools supplied by the press, the client must pay a fee. Although this was considered to be unusual at the time, it was a way for one’s book to be read.

Today self-publishing has become more commonplace, and literally thousands of self-published books are being released every year. This is due to the fact that there are a multitude of self-publishing companies that have sprung up due to the commercial success of self-publishing. What’s more self-publishing has evolved to the extent that just about anyone can publish their work without the help of big publishing companies.

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