Awash in the World of the Book

March 30, 2019 9:26 a.m.

When I was away my main goal was to relax and bury myself in books. In particular I returned to a long time interest: the origins of the business of movable type printing and its transformative effect not only on the way people consumed information and also the way they formed their collective identity – an amorphous thing that is highly tied to communities of people both consuming the same information and being collectively aware that they are exposed to or consuming the same information. I have long been interested in this period – the late 15th and early 16th centuries – because a cluster of epochally consequential events happen over no more than two or three generations. The significance of some are more clear than others. But over time they will interweave into and catalyze each other, magnifying the significance of each by their interactions.

Consider some key examples. (In some cases I use approximate dates when the precise event is murky, amorphous or incremental.)

1441: Beginning of the African-Atlantic slave trade.
1453: Fall of Constantinople
1455: Invention of Movable Type Printing
1492: Discovery and Conquest of the Americas
1499: Opening of sea-faring route between Europe and Asia
1492-1500: Expulsion and forced conversion of Jews and Muslims of Spain
1517: Protestant Reformation

Every era has its argument for special significance. But this is a remarkable confluence of events over a very short period of time. Even from the most casual look you can see how one or more of these events are critical predicates to others.

The European conquest and colonization of the Americas is very hard to imagine without the existence of an already significantly matured African slave trade by the early 16th century. The Reformation is almost inconceivable without an already robust print trade. Other confluences are more amorphous and uncertain but no less real. Take the relationship between the invention of the printing press and dawn of European colonial expansion.

In the past it was taken often taken for granted how and why Europeans created a global hegemony starting in the 16th century and growing seemingly inexorably into the middle of the 20th century. In the past Europeans ascribed this variously to racial or cultural or religious superiority. More recently historians focused on critical technological advantages – sea-faring innovations, military tactics, artillery capacity and so on.

But in the last couple decades the picture has begun to seem less clear. In the first two-plus centuries after the voyages of Columbus and da Gama, Europe’s technological advantages aren’t nearly so clear and many societies in Asia were vastly more wealthy. (See Empires of the Weak: The Real Story of European Expansion and the Creation of the New World Order by Jason Sharman.)

Europe’s conquest of the Americas is easier to explain. Without knowing it, Europeans brought a series of shattering infectious diseases from Eurasia which the inhabitants of the Americas had been isolated from for tens of thousands of years. Centuries later Europeans sometimes sought to intentionally infect native American populations. But overwhelmingly the damage was done before anyone had any real sense of what was happening. Almost nothing about the colonization of the Americas as we know it is even close to conceivable without the catastrophic demographic collapse, spurred by so-called ‘virgin soil epidemics’, which continued for well over a century.

But nothing like this happened in Asia or Africa or the Middle East. (Indeed, in Africa the vector of disease ran in the other direction.) How did Europeans get a foothold if they didn’t have technology or disease working in their favor? Recent scholarship has turned the question somewhat on its head. In these early centuries, outside the Americas, Europeans held a fairly marginal niche on the global stage. Yes, they had their maritime trading empires and little cantonments across Asia. But by and large the great land powers of Asia simply didn’t care that much about the early Portuguese and Spanish and Dutch colonial efforts. They were literally marginal to the main concerns of most of these civilizations and even played a played a helpful role facilitating trade.

Look at the early European encounters in India and Asia. They work out well for the Europeans in trading terms. There are recurrent spasms of violence. But their arrival and presence is perhaps most comparable to Viking incursions in Northern Europe seven and eight centuries earlier: An annoyance and occasionally a major annoyance but not something critically affecting the big political or economic questions of these great powers, which were primarily land powers. It’s only in the 1700s and early 1800s when things start to shift in a decisive way. Now Europe begins to confront Africa, South Asia and East Asia with clear technological advantages which reap devastating and world transforming effects around the globe.

But surely that shift to the era of high European imperialism is rooted in that first period. So what’s happening in that earlier period? Why do we live in a world dominated by the hegemony of Europe and its settler societies rather than the Ottoman Turks or the Chinese or one of the trading societies of South or Southeast Asia?

This is an extremely complex question with no single cause.

My own take, however, is that in these early centuries the cultivation of a certain kind of knowledge in Europe played an elusive but critical role in what was to come. Europeans knew about the Americas. They knew about East Asia, South Asia, Africa, the different high civilizations, fauna, flora, trading routes, the technologies or animals or plants that could be copied from or transported from one region and put to effect in another. We all know from our own experience that the person who can make plans based on the full picture has a decisive advantage over one who has only a limited part of it – the person with an accurate map, itself the early 16th century product of the confluence of early global sea-faring and the printing press.

The 1569 World Map of Gerardus Mercator (1512-94), a founder of the Flemish school of cartography. It is in many ways the first modern map of the world.

This kind of uneven access to information, the ability to mix and match it to ones advantage, to see more clearly the global picture that targeted communities or civilizations could not – over time this is a major, major part of the story.

We now rightly see the growth of science as one of the great hallmarks of modern civilization. But it’s long been clear to historians that the origins of science – mapping, the acquisition of information about plants and animals in different parts of the world, their uses for food, medications, industrial production – are inextricably tied to the colonial designs of different nation-states, even as individual scientists and explorers often had goals we would recognize as more disinterested and scientific.

So a certain kind of privileged and comparative access to a particular kind of knowledge, often spurred forward by commercial and colonial imperatives. Which brings us back to the dissemination of knowledge, most especially through movable type printing.

Europe wasn’t first with movable type printing. It appears to have been invented at least twice earlier in East Asia. But only in Europe did it have the explosive effects it had in the early modern period – perhaps in part because its rapid expansion was simpler and less capital intensive when used to print writing in alphabetic languages. However that may be, printing has some decisive catalytic impact on the distribution of knowledge Europeans are acquiring in these early colonial centuries while their technological edge remaining limited or non-existent.

But it was some further reading on the early history of print which brought me back to a topic I was trying to get as far away from as I could while I was away: digital publishing and the economics that undergirds it. The cultural and intellectual history part of the printing press story I had some grounding in. The business dimensions of it and particular seeing the full scope of the business of print outside of the relative small section of elite printing I learned an immense amount about reading The Book in the Renaissance by Andrew Pettegree.

As noted above, Gutenberg got the different moving parts of printing together over the course of the 1440s. Once he had knocked out a few small-scale ephemeral editions and then his monumental bible the growth of the technology was nothing short of explosive. (For an engaging reconstruction of Gutenberg’s trials and errors and eventual success see The Gutenberg Revolution by John Man.) Within a couple decades there were working presses across Western Europe. But the vast majority failed in the latter decades of the 15th century. It was a major industry shakeout.

There were a number of causes. Printing is a capital intensive business. A few poor predictions could mean and often did mean disaster. There was also no effective system of copyright. So if you had something new and hot there was no way to stop another printer from putting out their own version, saturating the market and thus undercutting your edition.

But the main cause was more foundational. Mechanized printing blew apart the constraints that existed in the old system of book production based on hand-copied scribal manuscripts. Scriptoria had gotten quite efficient, especially near major towns and universities where a small number of educational texts were in constant demand. But there’s only so fast the human hand can write out an entire book with any reasonable level of accuracy.

Suddenly with a printing press, albeit with a fair amount of work typesetting and compositing, a small group of craftsmen could turn out two hundred or even a thousand copies of the same book. And, critically, the same book meant the identical book, down to every last letter.

The problem was that the breakthrough capabilities of print and the relative lack of constraints on production it created, the things that made it all seem so game changing in the universe of manuscript books, quickly created a new book making ecosystem in which those new advantages could as easily be liabilities. The labor-intensive nature of manuscript book production kept supply closely chained to demand. Many individual books were produced on a specific commission. I want a copy of Cicero’s Epistolae ad Familiares. I hire you to write me out a copy. Done and done.

You could print an edition of a thousand books. But that didn’t mean there was a market for 1000 books. And if there was, that didn’t mean you had the experience or connections to access those markets. And if there was a market for 1000 books, it wasn’t that difficult for someone else to set up a press and make another thousand and saturate the market.

Many of the earliest printers came out of the various craft trades which were components of the printing process. Gutenberg was a goldsmith, a trade that gave him the skills to forge the punches and type that were the centerpiece of the process. Others were calligraphers or others with skills tied to one or another part of the printing process. But these weren’t people who had experience moving goods through regional or international trading markets or the regional fairs that were already ubiquitous in the late Middle Ages.

They also didn’t have access to lots of capital, another critical requirement.

Printing was and is a capital intensive business. Almost all the investment is upfront, mainly paper but also labor and ink and the sunk costs of typesets. You spend all that money and you have 500 books. Then you need to sell them pretty fast to recoup your investment. If you’ve misjudged the market, one book could put you out of business. Even if you can sell them, you may need to wait some time to recoup your investment.

Most of us know A.J.Liebling’s famous phrase: “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.” But in this period the real key wasn’t the ability to set up a press. That was relatively easy. The real key was access to the trading networks that allowed printers to at least somewhat reliably sell or consign the books they’d printed. This all lead to a brutal shake out in which the great majority of early printers failed. Eventually their place would be taken by printers integrated into those trading networks and with access to capital to make it possible to sit on inventory that might take time to sell or simply to venture on the most complex and capital intensive projects.

This basic dynamic is key. A radically disruptive new technology comes into existence. But as much as we may know better we conceive of that disruptive technology in the context of the system of production in which it arose rather than the one it will create.

The whole story has clear and painful parallels to the evolution of digital publishing over the last quarter century. In the news world, thee mechanics of the web made it possible to start publishing for a mere fraction of the costs of conventional print publishing. Your publication could be as easily read in Cologne or Delhi as in Los Angeles. It was liberating, transformative and a mortal threat to the old system, the business model of which was based on quasi-monopolies of commercial speech in specific metropolitan areas.

Yet just as had been the case in the early days of mechanized print, the folly was to imagine that these transformative capacities could be exploited in the world of monopoly print journalism which those fancy new digital publishing capacities were already destroying. This was obvious in a way but took years for people in the trade to fully understand – fully understand and draw out the true implications.

If there were minimal barriers to entry, the near monopoly power that successful news publishers had over advertisers would be broken. Indeed, with such limited barriers to entry there would likely always be an over-supply of publications relative to ad dollars, thus fundamentally shifting the balance of power from publishers to advertisers. Finally, the networked nature of the internet, combined with a chronic lack of market power from publishers would allow other players who were neither publishers not advertisers to scoop up more and more of the dollars. (In other words, the platform monopolies.) There is a common pattern: a period of rapid growth and exuberance followed by a brutal shakeout as the nature of actual potential business models becomes clear.

As you know, I’ve written a fair amount about the economics of digital publishing over recent years. But as I’ve been thinking about the future of this publication, where it fits into the ecosystem of news, what it can do uniquely and so forth – this five centuries of distance gave me a new sense of clarity. That’s a topic I’ll return to next week.

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