Sonja Hakala’s Your Book, Your Way is being revised and renamed. You can enjoy What Would William Shakespeare Do? in real time right here. If you want to start at the beginning, you can by clicking here.
PRINTING STILL RULES
The book publishing industry developed in the quintessential middle ground between those who produce the raw materials of a book (writers and their manuscripts) and those who manufacture finished products from those raw materials (printers and their printing presses).
When you study the history of the book publishing industry, you realize its internal structure has always been dictated by the technology of printing. To put this in a contemporary perspective, the chaos in contemporary book publishing was not caused by changes among writers or new demands from readers or booksellers. Nope, book publishing as we’ve known it from the mid-19th century to today is coming apart at the seams because of digital printing.
If you really want to understand how book publishing works—knowledge you can use to your advantage as an author—then you need to understand a little bit about printing.
GUTENBERG, JOHANNES: PRINTER
In 1439, in Germany, a clever goldsmith named Johannes Gutenberg got involved in a secret operation that included a wine press, ink, oil, paper, and a device that could mold multiples of the same letter out of metal. The result of this man’s secret operation is credited with changing the course of history in western Europe, changes that eventually touched every corner of the world.
When you say the name Gutenberg, everyone thinks “Oh, the movable-type guy.” But crediting Gutenberg with merely inventing movable type is actually an injustice. What Gutenberg really invented was a complete printing system.
Think about what you need to write a letter by hand—a writing implement (pencil or pen) that holds a substance (ink or graphite) with which you can make a mark on a surface (paper) that can be read by someone else. At each step in this process, these objects—the pen, the ink, the paper—must work together in a very explicit way so that you can write a letter and someone else can read it. But what would you do if you didn’t have ink that flowed easily or only a paper towel to write on? What if you wanted to print hundreds of copies of your letter? What would you do? These are the challenges that Gutenberg faced.
Let’s define movable type before we go much further. When you use movable type, you create swaths of text by combining hundreds of individual metal components—letters, numerals, spaces, punctuation marks—so they function as a single unit. The beauty of movable type is that when your printing job is done, you can take all those individual components apart and reconfigure them in a new block of text.
Compare this type of printing to a rubber stamp. With a rubber stamp, every letter, space and punctuation mark is fixed, to be used in one configuration only. You can see the advantages of movable type, I’m sure.
The concept of movable type was well-known in Europe by the time of Gutenberg. It was already in use in different parts of Asia—primarily China and Korea—in the 11th century. But the Asian versions of movable type were made primarily of ceramic and wood, substances that function like rubber stamps, not movable type.
Asian printers faces another problem that put them at a disadvantage when it came to the full-scale development of movable type—their pictographic alphabets. Depending on what authority you consult, there’s a minimum of 20,000 characters in the Chinese alphabet. Imagine, if you will, trying to carve 20,000 characters out of wood or molding them into ceramic in a way that they could be used over and over again.
Compare this scenario with the one Gutenberg faced—26 letters, ten numerals, and a handful of common punctuation marks. Our symbolic alphabet gave team Gutenberg a distinct advantage in the development of a method to print massive quantities of words on paper.
Since Gutenberg was a goldsmith by profession, the choice of using metal to create letters that could be used again and again must have been obvious. Metal stands up well to being inked and pressed on paper. When it gets worn, you can melt it and reuse it. But you need the right combination of metals to make type that leaves a clear impression on paper without punching holes in its surface. To solve this problem, Gutenberg mixed lead, tin, and antimony for his type. This combination is still in use in letterpress printing today.
At the time Gutenberg began his work, ink was simply a mixture of colorant in water, and the quality of paper was haphazard at best. So Gutenberg developed an oil-based ink that dried on the surface of paper without blurring or soaking in. And he developed a way to make paper with a consistent finish to hold just the right amount of ink.
Of all his inventions, Gutenberg’s matrix molding system for creating metal copies of the same letter over and over again was the most significant. Imagine the time it would take to individually carve every letter e on this page! Using Gutenberg’s method, you could carve a single letter e and then make as many of them as you wanted.