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Once text could be put in digital form, and dissemination made easy by the Internet, electronic publishing became an exciting prospect. Word processing programs appeared in the middle 1980s, and few offices were without them by 1990. Launched commercially in 1993, the Internet had linked a million machines a year later and has now penetrated most American homes and businesses. Hardware and software continue to improve. The 1998 Rocket Book and the Soft book readers were bought by Gemstar in 2001, who re-engineered them as REB 1100 and REB 1200 machines. Some of today's e-book readers will play music as well, and models under development will be more versatile and comfortable to use.

Everyone agrees that e-publishing is here to stay, and will revolutionize the industry. Dozens of electronic publishers already exist, and many of the larger booksellers already have an e-book department — Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Random House, etc. One small e-reader can relieve students of their heavy burden of textbooks, and vast areas of the developing world will gain access to information and educational opportunities that was unthinkable before.

The advantages of electronic publishing are obvious: lower production costs, smaller print-runs, shorter times to market, greater power and profits to authors and adventurous publishers. But there are still many problems — association with vanity publishing, expensive e-book readers, proliferating standards, limited range of titles, fewer quality filters in the production line.

It is clearly absurd to pretend to be able to review the history of the book in a few sentences - and I am no authority on the subject. I cannot even pretend to the wit of the theatre group in the UK that performs all of Shakespeare's plays in about one and a half hours!

However: credit for the development of the codex form of book is disputed, but China is generally credited, as it is for the first moveable type and the first paper. In Europe, however, moveable type was developed in 1452 by Gutenberg These developments over the next 400 years took the text from the world of the monastery and the church to the market place of commercial publishing, and from, in a sense, public use in public reading in church or as the monks dined in the refectory, to private use, first still reading aloud, and subsequently reading silently (which is just as well - imagine the noise on the public transport system if we still read aloud!)

The years since Gutenberg have seen an incredible growth in the number of books published and the growth seems to continue today. Scholarship, of course, is part of the reason - it can be argued, for example, that it was the pressure of the foundation of the universities in Europe in the 12th and 13th centuries that led to Gutenberg's efforts to find ways of creating more reliable texts than could be achieved by copying manuscripts. However, the rise of secularism, following the Protestant Reformation and the subsequent use of vernacular languages for worship also played a part, as did the wider publication of the Greek classics and the publication of accounts of the great discoveries of the 16th century.

Add to these developments those of the paperback book, book clubs, circulating libraries and the public library and the book has become a mass-audience, cultural artifact, rather than one restricted to a religious elite.

The networks, although modern, are not entirely new (except perhaps in the timescale over which we consider the development of printing and publishing) - the first hosts on ARPANET, the forerunner of the Internet were created almost thirty years ago in 1969 by researchers at the University of California Los Angeles, University of California Santa Barbara, Stanford Research Institute and the University of Utah. Since then, of course, development has been extremely rapid, to the point at which it is in fact difficult to get completely reliable statistics of how many hosts there are on the Internet and how much "publishing" is going on.

However, even in the early days of the Internet some publishing was taking place through e-mail mailing lists and the circulation of working papers to limited groups of people in various fields. Publication really took off, however, following the invention of the World Wide Web software by Tim Berners-Lee in 1991 and the invention of the Mosaic Web-browser in 1993. In 1993 the impact of these developments was immediate: traffic on the Internet expanded at an annual growth rate of 341,634%. In January 1997, according to Network Wizards (1997) there were estimated to be 16,146,000 Internet "hosts" and 650,000 Web sites (up from 130 in 1993). (There were, incidentally, 2,761 hosts with the first suffix for Lithuania.)

Clearly, only a small proportion of these sites are used for anything comparable with book publishing: the true proportions of different kinds of use are difficult to establish, but we know that Web sites are devoted to: personal pages presenting information about the "publisher" and his or her hobbies, interests, favourite sites on the Web, etc.; business pages used by industry and business to present public relations information, help sites for customers, electronic sales outlets, and so forth; organization pages designed by or for charities, government departments, interest groups, scientific societies, etc.; news pages created by newspapers and TV news agencies; magazines produced by all kinds of organizations from fan clubs to major publications such as Time, and new publications from the computing sector, such as Slate and Salon; and other categories too numerous to mention.

The last two of the categories above bring us close to publishing in the normally understood sense of the term, and some sites are also devoted to books. Most commonly, publishers have sites at which they present information on new books, including in some cases extended information about the author and the book and/or an extract from the book, sometimes an entire chapter. All of this, of course, is intended to encourage the "surfer" to buy the book, rather than to replace it. Some publishers have gone a little further and have updates to technical books in the form of Web pages: appropriately enough, the one that comes to mind is the HTML Sourcebook by Ian Graham (1996), which has updates and examples at the author's site at the University of Toronto - and a pointer to this site at the publisher's Web page.

There is also the emerging category of hypertext fiction, such as the collaborative work Dark Lethe, by Leo Winson and various associates; Madame de Lafayette Book of Hours, described as a project directed by Christy Sheffield Sanford and the Monique Hypertext Docuverse ( Bookbinder, n.d.) at the New York State University, Albany. The originator of the idea is David Bookbinder, but another seven authors are also listed. [December 2002 update: this site appears to have disappeared from the Web.] In fact, the tendency appears to be to use the collaborative working features of the Internet to produce, if not a new kind of work, then a type of work that has been less common. The Internet and the World Wide Web take away the limitations on collaboration that previously existed because of differences in time and space and we may expect the idea of collaborative hypertext fiction to emerge as a new literary art form in the future.

Electronic journals are also growing in number very rapidly, particularly as the established print publishers begin to transfer their journals to the Internet. Here, again, there is a variety of publications, from those just mentioned to fan magazines and creative writing journals - usually free (unlike those from the established publishers!) Many of the latter are highly experimental and may not survive on the 'Net longer than a few issues, but they often show a great deal of imagination in their production. Examples include: Sparks ( 1993), a journal of fiction, poetry and other artistic concerns; Mindgate ( n.d.), publishing stories, poems and images, mostly with a science fiction orientation [But now defunct - December 2002]; Jazzchord ( 1997) a newsletter on the Australian jazz scene [But appears to have died with the July/August 1998 issue - December 2002]; Webnoise ( 1997) devoted to music on the World Wide Web; Rootsworld ( 1997) - an on-line magazine of world music and The Electronic Visual Arts Journal ( 1995). [December 2002 - this journal also appears to be 'dead'.]

All of these examples come from the archive of the electronic mailing list NewJour, (1993) which reports new journals and which, at the time of writing (August 1997) had an archive of 4332 items [12,158 items in December 2002]. In other words there is ample evidence that electronic publishing is now being used for a very wide range of creative activities, many of which were formally the province of the book, the magazine, or the scholarly journal.