Saturday, August 8, 2020

"How Books Became Cheap"

From Lapham's Quarterly:

A timeline of bookmaking technology.
c. 220: Woodblock printing
The earliest type of printing involved carving a relief pattern into blocks of wood, which would then be inked and pressed onto cloth, and later paper. A woodblock could be reinked and stamped many times, saving labor compared to scribal work, despite the initial investment of labor in carving the block. The earliest extant examples are from China; the technology spread from there to Japan and other parts of the world. Color woodblock printing began in China in the fourteenth century, initially with only the addition of a single color, usually red. A technique for five-color printing called nishiki-e became widespread in Japan in the 1760s.

1040: Movable type
The first movable type—printing technology that uses small blocks of type for individual characters that can be rearranged as needed—was invented by Bi Sheng in China. Movable type came to Europe around 1450, when Johannes Gutenberg began using it with his printing press. The first items Gutenberg printed were a German poem, some religious tracts, and a popular German grammar book, but he is most famous for producing the first printed edition of the Bible, of which forty-nine copies survive today.

c. 1500: Pocket-size books
Printing books pocket-size is one way that printers and publishers have been able to offer less expensive options for buyers. The Italian publisher Aldus Manutius was known for his small-format books—quarto sized, made of paper folded into four, and octavo sized, made of paper folded into eight. In 2009 the Dutch publishing company Jongbloed BV invented the dwarsligger, a small book printed on very thin paper that is intended to be read one-handed. The text is printed parallel to the binding, so the reader can flip the pages up with a thumb—like scrolling on a smartphone. The smallest book ever produced, Teeny Ted from Turnip Town, is carved into crystalline silicon and is only a hundred micrometers tall. In this case smaller does not mean cheaper: the list price is $15,000.

c.1700: Stereotyping
One of the greatest costs in the production of movable-type books was the actual setting of type, with each letter placed individually by hand in the printing block. But the invention of stereotyping—where a mold is made of a typeset page and a whole page is then cast in a plate of type metal—made reprinting a book much less expensive. Early forays into creating stereotypes (also called clich├ęs) almost always involved Bibles, a book printers knew they would print again. Printers later created stereotypes for books they expected would go into second (or more) editions. Since producing stereotypes nearly doubled the cost of composition, publishers were taking a gamble on what books the public wanted to buy....