The First Age of Print

There’s a remarkable article over at the Boston Globe titled Cover Story, that documents the first couple of decades following the invention of the printing press:

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.

Go read the article in its entirety – it’s well worth it, because there are strong parallels to the current, digital age of print.

I’d like to point out several interesting bits from the piece: Andrew Pettegree, Professor of Modern History at St. Andrews, found that the earliest printers made more money selling almanacs, and calendars, and municipal announcements than they did selling books. The very idea of buying a book off a shelf was alien to a public used to thinking of books as these expensive, made-to-order goods! And that sounds familiar, doesn’t it? And even cooler: it took the first generation of publishers 10 years to figure out how to make money off this new technology. No wonder it’s taking time to figure out how to sell digital things, today.

(Digression: it’s hard to imagine people being confused by the book; perhaps they wondered at the invention of ‘turning the page’? And I can’t help but grin at that – it reminds me of this crazy skit.)

This is all exciting, of course. But what really strikes me is how chaotic it all seemed. Nobody knew what to do with the book, and so the current model of publishing – as a solution to the distribution of ideas and stories and such – wasn’t the result of deliberate creation at all. It was a gradual evolution of a reading public, and a bunch of publishers that sort-of, well, accidentally created that group. And that seems obvious now, with Pettegree’s research complete, but the degree of randomness is still very surprising to me.

I suppose I should stop turning up my nose at multimedian books, even if most current attempts really do suck. If what we have today arose out of total chaos, then it doesn’t seem too far off to suggest that the chaos today is a good thing. A sign of a working industry in the horizon, perhaps.

Anyway, I’m acting all confused and rambly now, so I’ll just leave you with this awesome concept video from IDEO:

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Category: Publishing
  • Jan Oda

    Somewhat related remark. In archaeological typologies, it is very peculiar that when a new material is discovered, people don’t use it how it’s best used, but like the material they were familiar with. For example, the first bronze axes were exact copies of silex axes, instead of the hollow axes that followed later, which were sharper and cost way less effort and material. Not because they didn’t knew how to make them, but because they weren’t familiar.

    The same is happening with books and ebooks now. The Ipad has a turning page animation (my biggest dissapointment with it really, so conservative), while ebooks and digital reading don’t need pages at all.

    So if it takes time for people to take enough distance from the idea that this is how an axe should look, I assume that it would take even longer for people to leave behind the notion of what is a book, because it has value on many more levels (emotional and cultural and material and social).

  • Eli James

    I wonder, you know – if we’re used to reading on devices (that is – reading without pages) how would that affect the way we see and use paper books? Would that change, you think?

  • L

    Alice appears to put techtards like me right back in the same place we are in now. Now we go to publishers who print, bind and distribute books. Alice means we take our text to tech savvy people to have its layers and tricks and happy hijinx programmed in. :((

  • Eli James

    It’s likely that the tech-savvy people you speak of would become the publishers of the future, no? Well, not become per se – but I can imagine a future where publishers hire these people to create Alice-like books.