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First Impressions

Not all of us, I suppose, look that closely at the initial few pages of our books, where, among other information (the ISBN or International Standard Book Number; the year of first publication; sometimes the font or type-style that has been used [“Set in 10.2/13.5 pt Sabon LT Std”) and mysterious formulae presumably of legal import (“The moral right of the author has been asserted.”), one can usually find the place where the object we are holding was manufactured.

Most of the books on my shelves are published in Britain, and of these the majority have been printed there too. Penguins and Oxford paperbacks are heavily represented and both publishers seem to rely heavily on the two-hundred-year-old company Clays of St Ives. But for books with a more important design component (cookbooks, art books), British publishers will sometimes go further afield for a suitable and competitive printer, to Italy or Spain for example, or, increasingly, to China. Indeed two recent very well-made books I have bought on the history of book-publishing, Keith Houston’s The Book (2016), published by Norton, and Roderick Cave and Sara Ayad’s A History of the Book in 100 Books (2014), published by The British Library, were printed in China.

The first of these works in fact brings together a British writer, an American publisher (a company, incidentally, wholly owned by its employees), an American book designer and Chinese printers. This, of course, is what we call globalism, a relatively recent phenomenon we are inclined to think, and perhaps not a very benign one. But how recent is it?

Everyone knows that Johannes Gutenberg of Mainz, around the middle of the fifteenth century, invented printing with movable type ‑ except that he didn’t. That distinction may belong to an eleventh century Chinese experimenter called Bi Sheng, or a fourteenth century official called Wang Zhen. Technologically, it seems that China may have stolen a march on the West in this area as in others, but for a variety of reasons it failed to follow through: Chinese ink and Chinese paper, it seems, were less suitable for mechanical printing than they were for calligraphy; but the main problem was the huge number of characters in Chinese writing – Wang Zhen needed to use more than sixty thousand individual characters to print one book. Ultimately, it was easier to carve entire pages (in wood) for printing than to assemble them from separate characters.

Although there are other contemporary claimants to be the first in European book-printing, Johannes Gutenberg seems to have been the one who most successfully brought together in a viable commercial operation the various separate techniques, punch-cutting, type-casting, composing (setting type), inking, pressing, binding etc, to put together a printing system that would work. Not the least part of making printing, or publishing, work is having a market, and this is something that Gutenberg seems to have been well aware of, though he was to be elbowed out of his business at a quite early stage by his financial backer Johann Fust. Printing could potentially be a profitable business: at a time when a book made by a scribe might cost as much as a labourer’s annual wage, the ability to produce an unlimited number of such objects mechanically must have seemed like a licence to print money. And indeed it was, if there was anyone to buy them. If not, bankruptcy could threaten and there were many bankruptcies among those who paid insufficient attention to the market in the early decades of printing.

In spite of determined attempts to keep the mysteries of printing secret, book publishing using the new technology spread quite rapidly out of its base in Mainz, to Cologne, Strasbourg, Nuremberg, Bamberg, Augsburg, Basle, Venice, Rome, Paris, and in the 1470s all across northern and central Italy, to Lübeck and Rostock on the Baltic, Lyon, Poitiers and Angers in France, Zaragoza, Salamanca, Valencia and Barcelona in Spain, a dozen towns in the Low Countries and across the Channel to London, Oxford and St Albans. It was before long to spread to Africa and America with the establishment of presses in São Tomé (by the Portuguese) and Mexico City (by the Spanish).

It might seem from the above that what was in the process of creation was a number of independent “national” publishing traditions, but that would not be quite accurate. We are talking about a period before nations had solidified and national languages been codified (usually by privileging a particular dialect as “standard”), but also about a culture that was in many respects a universal one (or a European one that thought of itself as universal) and where a large proportion of publishing, with a market much larger than “the national”, was in Latin, a language understood by all the educated classes. English publishing, that is publishing in the English language, started in Bruges in the Low Countries in 1473 with the merchant William Caxton’s Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye. Caxton had learned about printing in Cologne and was to set up a press in Westminster in 1476, but books for the English market continued for some time to be produced on the continent, chiefly in France and Flanders, as England, and other peripheral locations to the far north, east and west, remained well behind the pace set by the core.

The capital of printing in the fifteenth and early sixteenth century was Venice. Peter Burke calculates that about 4,500 editions were published there, or two million individual books, before 1500. Not everyone of course welcomed the boom. The Benedictine monk and scribe Filippo de Strata, in a written plea to Doge Nicolò Marcello in 1473 or 1474, complained of the drunkenness of printers (most of them were Germans and this may have been a slur on the nation), of the effects of a glut of books on the morals of the young and, just as importantly perhaps, on the livelihood of scribes still working on manuscripts. He complained of

the utterly uncouth types of people who have driven reputable writers [he means scribes] from their homes. Among the latter this servant of yours has been driven out, bewailing the damage which results from the printers’ cunning. They shamelessly print, at a negligible price, material which may, alas, inflame impressionable youths, while a true writer [scribe] dies of hunger. Cure (if you will) the plague which is doing away with the laws of all decency, and curb the printers. They persist in their sick vices, setting Tibullus in type, while a young girl reads Ovid to learn sinfulness. Through printing, tender boys and gentle girls, chaste without foul stain, take in whatever mars purity of mind or body; they encourage wantonness, and swallow up huge gain from it.

But it was not just the drunken mechanicals who were drawn to Venice. To edit and proof-read the books (in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Italian, Arabic, Glagolitic [Slavic] and other languages) scholars were required, freelance “men of letters”, a shifting population of poor scholars, translators, editors, transcribers, writers and correctors of the press who would later go on in various European cities to occupy that insecure place of employment which in England came to be called Grub Street. In fifteenth century Venice there was suddenly a huge influx of Greek-speaking scholars after the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453. It was these men whose knowledge gave the necessary boost to Italian humanism as printers like Aldus Manutius republished Greek and Latin classics in fine critical editions.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the centre of gravity of European publishing – and indeed to a degree of intellectual endeavour in general – shifted north, and Antwerp, Louvain, Leiden and Amsterdam became notable centres of learning as well as commerce. One of the most successful printer-publishers was Christophe Plantin (1520-1589), a Frenchman who in the 1540s decided to move to booming Antwerp (then under Spanish rule). He and his dynasty were to make a very good living printing, among other books, the religious works which were sent out to aid missionary efforts in Spanish America. The house, or rather complex of houses, in which Plantin lived and carried on his business is today a wonderful museum of printing, publishing and the art and culture of the era, known as Museum Plantin-Moretus ( In the room once occupied by the proof-readers or correctors of the press we find the following explanation:

The correctors are seated at the oak table near the window. They carefully read the proofs that are made between the process of typesetting and the actual printing. Pagination, punctuation, accents, spellings, abbreviations, fonts: not one error escapes their all-seeing eyes ... The corrector is a scholar. He will know Dutch and French, but often also Spanish, Italian, Greek and Latin, and sometimes Hebrew and Aramaic (once the most important language of the Middle East) too.

Plantin’s correctors are the ancestors of today’s editors employed by publishing houses and sub-editors (in America copy editors) employed by newspapers and magazines. Though there are many signs that it may be on the way out, editing is not an ignoble trade. Plantin-Moretus’s view is perhaps a slightly romantic one. In almost thirty years working with newspaper sub-editors I am afraid I never saw one (even when looking in the mirror) of whom it could truthfully be said: “Not one error escapes their all-seeing eyes.”

No, correctors or editors are only human; but with a good system and sufficient resourcing they can make a significant difference to the end-product – if, and it’s a significant if, that is any longer thought to be important by managers of publishing enterprises or indeed book and newspaper readers. But more on this anon.

Sources: Keith Houston, The Book; Roderick Cave and Sara Ayad, A History of the Book in 100 Books; Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin, L’Apparition du Livre; Peter Burke, A Social History of Knowledge. Illustration: Christophe Plantin traces his printer's mark and motto, Labore et Constantia.