I’m sure at this point everyone knows about Johannes Gutenberg. If you missed out on Gutenberg, go check him out, he was an interesting guy. We’ll still be here when you get back.
Movable type printing presses revolutionized the world in the 1400s. Prior to printing presses books were hand written, usually by monks or others who had all the free time in the world to write a book – and usually illustrate it – with a quill pen and some ink. Needless to say this was something of a tedious process and it wasn’t uncommon for books to take decades to write. Sure, they were absolutely gorgeous when they were done, but imagine waiting 20 years for the next Charles Stross novel. Hopefully it wouldn’t land with a thud like the last Star Wars movies did. And even when it came out there would be precisely one copy of it. Ever. Unless you could find a monk or someone willing to copy it, which could also take decades.
So, along comes the printing press and suddenly it takes a whack of time to set up a book because you’ve got to custom make the plates but you can crank out a ton of copies in a short amount of time.
Now, imagine moving from this world into the movable type printing press world. Mass communication just became a reality and it was a serious thorn in the side of both political and religious leaders. It made information easier to come by and made it a damned site harder to hide secrets.
In its own way, mass communication was a weapon more powerful than anything that had ever come before. Movable type printing presses allowed the first mass production and dissemination of information. Things like this allowed the Renaissance to happen, kick started the scientific revolution, and wrested information from the iron grip of the literate elite of the time. Writing made information portable, printing presses made it affordable. And that right there is a powerful weapon.
Information is still a weapon, and an amazing one at that. To paraphrase Spider Jerusalem, with the right information in the right place you can blow the kneecaps off the world. And you can do it with a single shot. Wars are won and lost on information. Kings fall because of information. Lies are opened wide to the world instead of lurking in the shadows. Information, as they saying goes, is power and printing presses redistributed power.
At the time Gutenberg was working with movable type the presses were expensive and cantankerous beasts. It took some know-how and a lot of money, but you could put out a flier that not only said the king was a big doody head, but had proof. You could publish novels and stories and all sorts of information that kings and priests would have preferred stay hidden. It wasn’t easy, but you could do it without spending a lifetime writing it by hand. Information could be more timely; maybe the king was a big doody-head at this moment in time, but he was okay at others. By hand you could spend months or years writing up a diatribe about the king only to find when they were done that the king had been whacked and replaced with someone completely different.
You just look foolish showing up with fliers decrying the previous king. Especially if the new one actually turns out to be a decent guy (or gal).
Things stayed like that for a very, very long time, at least until mimeograph machines and later Xerox taught us a few new tricks and became economically viable to print up a slew of flyers about your missing cat or candlelight vigils for dead rock stars.
For the professional set, though, the printing press was still king and even in the late 80s (when I started doing page layout), you still had to know a thing or two about design and the rules of printing. My first page layout was done on huge sheets of grid paper with a large ruler and a pencil. I didn’t get to work with actual desktop publishing software until I was in college.
Again, things stayed like this for while. You could photocopy some stuff or you could do it right and take the time to put things together and send it to a printer. If you want to send something to a printer you found out quickly that printing was fantastically expensive. $20k-$30k for the first book off the press. The rest of them cost less than a dollar, but that first one was a doozy. And, no, you can’t skip printing the first book. Trust me, I tried.
Into this milieu drops a little thing called the World Wide Web, a subset of the Internet. Most people think the web is the Internet, but it’s only a small portion of the whole Internet. HTML and the Hypertext Transfer Protocol were relatively easy to use and let anyone put together something that looked – well, pretty godawful if I remember the early days of the web correctly.
HTML gave rise to a slew of publishing technologies including ebooks. Amazon spearheaded the indie author revolution with the Kindle and self-publishing became a thing. Now everyone, including me, has written a book (or several). Some of these are books that never would have seen the light of day under the traditional printing press model. Printing was still hugely expensive and publishers were wary of publishing anything they didn’t think would sell well. Can you imagine anyone ever printing Bigfoot erotica? No way in Hell, right? Yet, someone self-published it and it became a huge thing for a while.
Actually, when you get right down to it, the Kindle was a god-send for erotica authors. Now you could be reading Bigfoot porn on the train ride to work and no one would ever be any the wiser.
There is a problem with digital printing, though. The initial cost barrier, much like using a printing press, ain’t free. You need a Kindle or a Kobo or an iPad or something similar to read these books. If you lose power or network connectivity you’re boned. This brings me to Createspace and on-demand printing.
Back in the day, some relative of mine (a great-grandfather, I believe) wanted to write a book. He sat down, wrote that bad boy and found no one was interested in publishing a book about his dog. So he did what any red-blooded American would do. He payed to have it printed. I still have a copy around here somewhere.
It was called vanity publishing at the time and it was hugely expensive. That and you had to buy a lot of copies, which meant you just dropped a wad of cash on a bunch of books that you wrote and you still had no guarantee anyone else would want to read them.
On-demand printing is, in my opinion, a truly amazing technological marvel. Forget ebooks, that’s just pushing electrons around. I’ve seen on-demand printers and they’re incredibly cool. Think about a large box, not entirely unlike an advanced copier. Paper and instructions go in one end and a book comes out the other.
I hear Amazon has a couple of these things lying around somewhere. Think of it as a World Wide Web in a box. Gutenberg, after you peeled him off the ceiling and stopped his ranting about the demons controlling the magic box, would probably have loved these things. The print on demand printer has finally done something Johannes set out to do back in the 1400s: made printing truly flexible and within the capabilities of the average person. The input is relatively easy to do and the output looks pretty damned amazing.
I can see why traditional publishers would be leery of these things. Now, after six hundred years of innovation, it’s easy to make a printed book. Anyone can do it, Createspace lets you do it for free and even gives you royalties. IngramSpark lets you do it for a minimal cost and even gives you royalties. The eBook revolution may have let anyone write and distribute a book over the Internet, but eBooks are limited to digital distribution. Print on demand technology will let you, with a minimal amount of work (Henchmen and Arise took less than a day to format) print an actual, factual book. And it doesn’t even have to be a Bible.
And that’s a pretty amazing thing.