Wednesday, 1 September 2010

The rise of printing, the birth of publishing

Printing and publishing has become a real interest of mine, what with my role at Newspaper Club , the blogpaper (see sidebar) and the novel. I find this story particularly interesting as it concerns the linkage between the birth of printing and the Reformation, which first intrigued me when I was a swotty schoolboy.

Extensive research has been done into what actually got printed rather than in what we now remember as being printed. It establishes a significant distinction between innovation and marketing:
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.

Food for thought there concerning the development of Newspaper Club: not least the potential importance of demonstrating how it can be used. We may need to make a market by selling the end-product as much as the service, by being a publisher as much as a printer.

Interesting to note, too, where the market lay initially:
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.

How early printing was supported by the bread-and-butter jobs often printed for official, functional and routine reasons rather than the prestige ones that we now remember is underlined in the accompanying interview:
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.

As an aside, I was under the impression that the Protestant demand for scripture had fuelled the rise of printing. But it turns out that Luther's impact was initially a net negative for printers - before transforming the industry:
PETTEGREE: It’s really not been remarked before, that when Luther was attacking indulgences, he was actually attacking a mainstay of the press. But he really was. I mean, the quantities that were published of these indulgences is quite phenomenal and often in very large editions. And this is the absolute dream commission for a printer, when they’re asked to produce a very large quantity of a single sheet item, a broadsheet, printed on only one side, which is what an indulgence is.
But the speed with which Luther’s works take off as a popular phenomenon is quite extraordinary. It’s fair to say that by 1530, 1540, Wittenberg was essentially a one-industry town. If you put together the printing that was going out and the students who were coming in to study in the university there, drawn by Luther, it has a phenomenal impact on Wittenberg.
Have you ever been to Wittenberg? It’s wonderful. I was there again last week. You can still visit all of the stages of his life, you can make the walk that he did up the street from his house at one end of the city to the Schloss at the other so as to post the 95 Theses. It is a very deeply atmospheric place.
But you can see how the people who lived off Luther spent their loot. Lucas Cranach, the famous painter, also had a monopoly on woodcuts for these Reformation [religious pamphlets]. And you can stand in front of the town hall and see the two houses he built with the money he made.

Lucas Cranach a media mogul? Who'd have thought.


Sean said...

The "Money Shot" was kept till last then Garth? Its strange how porn is written out of our history, I suppose an upmarket blog like yours would call it "erotica"?

Another one down the memory hole, a bit like when Henry had Richard II murdered in Pontefract castle in 1400, and the end an end to the Angevin Line. Yorkshire was a good place for Norman Rule to end, poetic justice indeed.

The power of words to try and control past history in order the shape the future, is another use.

worm said...

has anyone actually written a big clever book on the subject of pornography as the dominant pioneer of new media? If not, they should.

Gaw said...

I have no idea why you're talking about Yorkshire in the year 1400, Sean. But I'd just like to point out that that is the most ineffective bit of gauze I've ever seen.

Worm: It seems Cranach made his money from non-porno woodcuts (as far as we know - perhaps there was an under-the-counter trade). He kept the porno - sorry, erotica - for his paintings. I'm not sure how much he made out of this part of his multimedia empire.

I'm beginning to think a bio of Cranach the Elder (with added made-up bits) might be a winner.

Bunny Smedley said...

The whole business of calculating profit and loss in the Cranach multimedia empire is tricky, to put it mildly. Not least, under the vigorous management of the painter's sons Hans and Lucas the Younger, "Cranach" paintings continued to be produed well into the 1580s, undeterred by the painter's death some three decades earlier. The result? There are something like 1,000 painted "Cranachs" out there today - compared with about 270 painted works by the famously prolific Titian. And that's before we even start talking about multiples. Erotica flirting behind an unconvincing gauze veil of theology / mythology / allegory was a staple - but then, so were portraits of Luther. Take that, Richard Desmond! More to the point, though, you're absolutely right about the novelistic potential here. Played right, you get not only Luther and that rather absent-minded lass with the veil, but also the Peasants' Wars, Urs Graf's far more haunting horrors, various waves of Reformation and the whole 'what went wrong with Germany' trope. In short, go for it! Not least, you've got the cover sorted out already ...

Gaw said...

I'm afraid that that fantastic comment puts you, Bunny, in pole position to write a Mantelesque novel with LC Snr as the main character.

Bunny Smedley said...

Gosh, no, Gareth! There are plenty of things I can do perfectly well (err, that would be ironing, pedantry, transcending that weird thing some people have for concision, etc) but I am as capable of writing fiction as, well, one of my cats would be. And my cats aren't good at fiction, either, in case you were wondering.

No, you write it! I'll send you some links, though, and of course use any drafts as an excuse for getting rid of obscure art-historical factoids - and then if I ever get to write my non-fiction book about art and warfare, as popular with publishers as garlic is with vampires, then you can reciprocate by trying to help me make the wretched thing readable.

Gaw said...

All a bit daunting, I'm afraid (the first bit - the second would be easy). Sounds like a lifetime's worth of work to do it well. Anyway, I look forward to receiving your manuscript...

malty said...

Funny story, Gutenbergs and the Maintz museum well worth an afternoon, his story reads like the late twentieth centuries history of manufacturing, it's the rich wot gets the pleasure, the poor wot gets the pain. Man invents widget, can't afford the start up, borrows the loot, the money man waits until the product is off the ground steps in and takes over, inventor clears off, spends rest of life shopping in Poundstretcher.

Ditto the Cranach tribe, funny lot, different reason, more burdz sans pubics, the old man gives contract to sixteen year old sprog who creates a masterpiece, the portrait of Johann Georg, son of prince Joachim of Brandenburg, now resides in the Wallraf. Meanwhile carries on painting head scratchers, this resides in Edinburgh's National and for years I have tried to work out the melancholic bit, as yet with little success. Burd watches kids playing on floor with mutt, woodworking tools also on floor, classic backdrop, upper left contains bunch of wimmen with tits like croissants riding beasties, all blowing in on cloud, Hefner would smile, me? just puzzled.

Gaw said...

Crumbs, Malty, that is a peculiar painting. I suppose melancholy is produced by whittling your life away whilst watching the usual unedifying human spectacle.

But burdz with croissant tits mounted on farmyard animals? No idea.