Printing Presses and Dinosaurs

I have a restless nature that enjoys change. That’s probably the reason we’ve lived in three cities and are planning another move. And even when we stay in one place for a while, we move from house to house. Like Goldilocks, I want to try them all!

Professionally, though, I’ve about had more than enough change. The book industry is dragging us all through a lot of major upheavals, and we’re all digging in our heels and looking for steady ground. However, I doubt that our current upheavals can compare to the social, cultural, and literary tsunamis created by Gutenberg’s printing press in medieval Europe.

From a single press in 1436, printing presses spread to 110 cities by 1480 and by 1500, they could be found all over Central and Western Europe. That’s pretty fast work in a time when just traveling from city to city could take weeks, and putting together a single press took huge amounts of time and money and expertise. The learning process with all those fiddly bits of type and ink had to have been enormous, but the demand for printed documents was so high that printers couldn’t work fast enough. They not only killed the careers of a lot of people who sold their services as scribes, the presses allowed laymen and heretics to produce pamphlets that hitherto had been in the almost complete control of the Catholic church and their monks  This wasn’t just industrial revolution, it became a religious and cultural revolution.

Those enormous old printing presses with their rag paper process started cottage industries selling old  clothes– and cheap paper was plentiful when the price of rags plummeted after the plague dumped a surplus of old clothes on the market. How’s that for a painful transition? That early press also created the world’s first bestsellers–Erasmus sold three-quarters of a million copies of his work during his lifetime alone. And suddenly, scientists could communicate and share their discoveries in meticulous detail over vast distances and there we were—the early internet. 

Printing presses (the image shown here is of a press circa 1811) also made it possible to create documents in the local language, so church Latin disappeared as the standard language of text. Spelling and grammar in these languages had to be standardized so everyone could read and understand the books produced—which actually reduced the variety of words and syntax. Saying “Yo, mama” didn’t always have the same meaning to the person speaking it as the person reading it, so regulation was probably necessary to prevent duels. Alas that we can’t say the same today!

But reaching that point of regulation took centuries. We’ve all seen the old documents with half a dozen different spellings of the same word—and even their own names—on the same page. Change begets change. I’m pretty sure there’s a physics rule in there.

Change makes some aspects of life easier, but it also adds new levels of confusion and upheaval. That’s the nature of the beast. And that’s what’s happening in the book industry today. We no longer need printing presses! We’re throwing out six centuries of tradition. Just think about the trees saved—and the timber industry killed. No environmentally damaging ink—no bookstores. We’d need a crystal ball to see the wide-spreading effect on our futures.

Right now, we’re in that period of transition where chaos reigns and standardization hasn’t developed. Will Amazon’s mobi format become the formal language of e-books? Or will the e-pub format’s ease of use kill the Kindle? Will bookstores find a way to work directly with authors so we can sell both print and e-books without the expense of the middle man? Surely this wild, wild west of heaving every page ever written onto the market has to end, but when? And how?

Even though change excites me, and I’m riding the wave with great glee, I’m aware that we could all crash on the rocks tomorrow. But slowly, we should see improvement.

For now, I’m enjoying the opportunity to reissue old books that haven’t seen the light of day in years because storage of print books is too costly. On June 12, Book View Café will reissue my 1997 Regency romance THE MARQUESS with a stunning new cover, in anticipation of the July release of the never-before printed sequel, THE ENGLISH HEIRESS. Change has allowed me to release both the original book and its sequel one month later, a feat not easily accomplished in the old world of publishing.

 How are you enjoying this wave of new technology? Are you about to be swept under by the tsunami or are you enjoying surfing the curl?






Printing Presses and Dinosaurs — 2 Comments

  1. When referring to any technology as “dinosaurs” it behooves us to remember just how long the age of the dinosaur lasted.

  2. LOL! I’m referring to myself as a dinosaur, but I get the point. Can we translate dinosaur years to human years? Know any short-lived paleolithic crustaceans?