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Writing was originally regarded not as a means of disseminating information but as a way to fix religious formulations or to secure codes of law, genealogies, and other socially important matters, which had previously been committed to memory.

Publishing could begin only after the monopoly of letters, often held by a priestly caste, had been broken, probably in connection with the development of the value of writing in commerce.

History of publishing, an account of the selection, preparation, and marketing of printed matter from its origins in ancient times to the present.The activity has grown from small beginnings into a vast and complex industry responsible for the dissemination of all manner of cultural material; its impact upon civilization is impossible to calculate.Scripts of various kinds came to be used throughout most of the ancient world for proclamations, correspondence, transactions, and records; but book production was confined largely to religious centres of learning, as it would be again later in medieval Europe.Only in Hellenistic Greece, in Rome, and in China, where there were essentially nontheocratic societies, does there seem to have been any publishing in the modern sense—Arabs but not, it seems, printing.Freedom of the press was pursued and attacked for the next three centuries; but by the end of the 18th century a large measure of freedom had been won in western Europe and North America, and a wide range of printed matter was in circulation.

The mechanization of printing in the 19th century and its further development in the 20th, which went hand in hand with increasing literacy and rising standards of education, finally brought the printed word to its powerful position as a means of influencing minds and, hence, societies.

Most modern Western publishers purchase printing services in the open market, solicit manuscripts from authors, and distribute their wares to purchasers through shops, mail order, or direct sales.

Published matter falls into two main categories, periodical and nonperiodical; publications that appear at more or less regular intervals and are members of a series and those that appear on single occasions (except for reissues of essentially the same material).

The dissemination of published material via electronic media is treated in information processing.

For a discussion of reference-book publishing, see the articles encyclopaedia; dictionary.

The functions peculiar to the publisher— selecting, editing, and designing the material; arranging its production and distribution; and bearing the financial risk or the responsibility for the whole operation—often merged in the past with those of the author, the printer, or the bookseller.