Saturday, September 18, 2010

The market for books (right after the invention of printing)

Printed books didn't replace hand lettered books and scrolls overnight.

The Boston Globe interviews Andrew Pettegree, a professor of modern history at the University of St. Andrews and author of “The Book in the Renaissance,” the story of the birth of print: The first printed books came with a question: What do you do with these things?

"Inventing the printing press was not the same thing as inventing the publishing business. Technologically, craftsmen were ready to follow Gutenberg’s example, opening presses across Europe. But they could only guess at what to print, and the public saw no particular need to buy books. The books they knew, manuscript texts, were valuable items and were copied to order. The habit of spending money to read something a printer had decided to publish was an alien one.
Nor was print clearly destined to replace manuscript, from the point of view of the book owners of the day. A few fussy color-printing experiments aside, the new books were monochrome, dull in comparison to illuminated manuscripts. Many books left blank spaces for adding hand decoration, and collectors frequently bound printed pages together with manuscript ones.
"As in our own Internet era, culture and commerce went through upheaval as Europe tried to figure out what to make of the new medium and its possibilities. Should it serve to spread familiar Latin texts, or to promote new ideas, written in the vernacular? Was print a vessel for great and serious works, or for quick and sloppy ones? As with the iPad (or the Newton before it), who would want to buy a printed book, and why?
"What made print viable, Pettegree found, was not the earth-shaking impact of mighty tomes, but the rustle of countless little pages: almanacs, calendars, municipal announcements. Indulgence certificates, the documents showing that sinners had paid the Catholic church for reduced time in purgatory, were especially popular. These ephemeral jobs were what made printing a viable business through the long decades while book publishers — and the public — struggled to find what else this new technology might be good for.
"PETTEGREE: What you’ve got to do once you’ve got 300 identical copies of a book is you’ve got to sell it to people who don’t even yet know they want it. And that’s a very, very different way of selling.
And whereas the printers were taking advice from 15th-century humanist scholars, who said, “Wouldn’t it be good to have this? Wouldn’t it be good to have that?” they weren’t in any position to give them any advice on how to dispose of these 300 copies. And in due course they found that the only way to do this is to create a market which is trans-European.
It’s this classic example of how you get technological innovation without people really being aware of the commercial implications, of how you can make money from it. There’s quite a little similarity in the first generation of print with the dot-com boom and bust of the ’90s, where people have this fantastic new innovation, a lot of creative energy is put into it, a lot of development capital is put into it, and then people say, “Well, yeah, but how are we going to make money from the Internet?” And that takes another 10 years to work out.
IDEAS: The one thing that most early printers seemed to do was to go out of business.
PETTEGREE: And the ones who didn’t were the ones who tended to have a close relationship with official customers. And this really I think is the new part of the story that we’ve been able to put together.
Most narratives of print have relied on looking at the most eye-catching products — whether it’s Gutenberg’s Bible or Copernicus or the polyglot Bible of Plantin — these are the ones which seem to push civilization forward. In fact, these are very untypical productions of the 16th-century press.
I’ve done a specific study of the Low Countries, and there, something like 40 percent of all the books published before 1600 would have taken less than two days to print. That’s a phenomenal market, and it’s a very productive one for the printers. These are the sort of books they want to produce, tiny books. Very often they’re not even trying to sell them retail. They’re a commissioned book for a particular customer, who might be the town council or a local church, and they get paid for the whole edition. And those are the people who tended to stay in business in the first age of print."

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