Thursday, 5 April 2012

The logistics of early printing

I was watching Stephen Fry on TV last night talking about early printing, and I was struck by the thought that it must have been a damned inefficient business - say about an hour to set up and proofread a page and about a minute to print a single page, meaning that printing 500 pages on an early printing press would take most of a day, and book of a hundred or so pages close on three months to print and bind.

I'm going to guess that a good copyist could write a legible page in under ten minutes, meaning that it would take a little more than two days to produce a single copy. Now of course the printer needed a couple of lads to help him and they needed to be paid. So if we say a copyist was paid the same as a printer we really ought to have two copyists doing this to account for the printers lads. If you work through the maths you can come up with the conclusion that in three months our pair of copyists would have managed to knock out around a hundred copies as well as ending up with a terminal case of writers cramp.

The important point is that printing books was only five times more efficient than copying - a decent gain but not startling. Of course as the size of the print run goes up it becomes more and more efficient, but even with a run of a couple of thousand it can't have been that efficient.

And this goes part of the way to explain the paucity of printed books in sixteenth and early seventeenth century even in moderately well off homes - they were expensive and hard to produce - hence the lack of penetration.

Chapbooks and pamphlets were another thing entirely - by late Tudor times pamphlets and ballad sheet were widespread and sold for a penny or so they helped spread the news.

It's interesting that government was also quick to adopt the technology - when Henry VII died in 1509 Richard Pynson, the royal printer was used to print copies of the decree announcing pardons on the accession of Henry VIII to ensure their widespread (and accurate) distribution throughout England.

The licensing of printers in Tudor times has always struck me as a parallel to the control of xerox machines and gestetner machines in the old Soviet Union - no one or only a very few were going to use them to produce a copy of Solzhenitsyn, but as a way of producing a flyer or samizdat newsletter they were unparalled ...

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