David Bellos’s new book about Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables demonstrates the degree to which the Internet has changed the role of the publishing industry in the dissemination of literature. The Novel of the Century: The Extraordinary Adventure of “Les Miserables,” has been favorably reviewed in the New York Times and the Washington Post, among other publications.
Bellos, a professor of comparative literature at Princeton University, describes the enormous efforts of the publisher, Albert Lacroix, to bring the 1,500-page novel to press in 1862. Victor Hugo wrote the novel while in exile on the island of Guernsey in the English Channel, so Lacroix had to arrange for the rapid transportation of thousands of pages of proofs and corrections by ship and coach between Brussels and Guernsey to meet the publication deadline. More significantly, Lacroix borrowed large sums from the Oppenheim bank to purchase the 22 tons of lead he needed to print the novel on steam-powered presses.
The Internet has substantially diminished these costs. A 21st century author can transmit her drafts instantaneously to her editor via email. Digital technology has cut the cost of printing by eliminating the need for typesetting, and printing costs can be avoided altogether through electronic publishing. Indeed, the Internet allows the author to bypass the publisher completely and reach a global audience through platforms such as Amazon or even her own website. These platforms increasingly offer print-on-demand options for consumers still interested in physical books.