E-books, cheaper than even paperbacks, are quintessential "literature for millions". Both erstwhile reprint libraries and current e-book publishers specialize in inexpensive books in public domain (i.e., whose copyright expired). John Bell (competing with Dr. Johnson) put out "The Poets of Great Britain" in 1777-83. Each of 109 volumes cost six shillings (compared to usual guinea or more). The Railway Library of novels (1,300 volumes) costs 1 shilling apiece only eight decades later. The price proceeded to dive throughout next century and a half. E-books and POD resume this trend.
The plunge in book prices, lowering of barriers to entry aided by new technologies and plentiful credit, proliferation of publishers, and cutthroat competition among booksellers was such that price regulation (cartel) had to be introduced. Net publisher prices, trade discounts, and list prices are all anti-competitive practices of 19th century Europe. Still, this lamentable period also gave rise to trade associations, publishers organizations, literary agents, author contracts, royalties agreements, mass marketing, and standardized copyrights.
The Internet is often perceived to be nothing more than a glorified - though digitized - mail order catalogue. But e-books are different. Legislators and courts have yet to establish if e-books are books at all. Existing contracts between authors and publishers may not cover electronic rendition of texts. E-books also offer serious price competition to more traditional forms of publishing and are, thus, likely to provoke a realignment of entire industry.
Rights may have to be re-assigned, revenues re-distributed, contractual relationships reconsidered. Hitherto, e-books amounted to little more that re-formatted renditions of print editions. But authors are increasingly publishing their books primarily or exclusively as e-books thus undermining both hardcovers and paperbacks.
Luddite printers and publishers resisted - often violently - every phase in evolution of trade: stereotyping, iron press, application of steam power, mechanical typecasting and typesetting, new methods of reproducing illustrations, cloth bindings, machine-made paper, ready-bound books, paperbacks, book clubs, and book tokens.
Without exception, they eventually relented and embraced new technologies to considerable commercial advantage. Similarly, publishers were initially hesitant and reluctant to adopt Internet, POD, and e-publishing. It is not surprising that they came around.
Printed books in 17th and 18th centuries were derided by their contemporaries as inferior to their laboriously hand-made antecedents and to incunabula. These complaints are reminiscent of current criticisms of new media (Internet, e-books): shoddy workmanship, shabby appearance, and rampant piracy.
The first decades following invention of printing press, were, as Encyclopedia Britannica puts it "a restless, highly competitive free for all ... (with) enormous vitality and variety (often leading to) careless work". There were egregious acts of piracy - for instance, illicit copying of Aldine Latin "pocket books", or all-pervasive book-bootlegging in England in 17th century, a direct outcome of over-regulation and coercive copyright monopolies.
Shakespeare's work was repeatedly replicated by infringers of emerging intellectual property rights. Later, American colonies became world's centre of industrialized and systematic book piracy. Confronted with abundant and cheap pirated foreign books, local authors resorted to freelancing in magazines and lecture tours in a vain effort to make ends meet.
Pirates and unlicensed - and, therefore, subversive - publishers were prosecuted under a variety of monopoly and libel laws and, later, under national security and obscenity laws. Both royal and "democratic" governments acted ruthlessly to preserve their control of publishing.
John Milton wrote his passionate plea against censorship, Areopagitica, in response to 1643 licensing ordinance passed by British Parliament. The revolutionary Copyright Act of 1709 in England decreed that authors and publishers are entitled to exclusively reap commercial benefits of their endeavors, though only for a prescribed period of time.