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History of Publishing Ep 5: The Age of Early Printing

The invention of printing revolutionised the publishing industry. Johannes Gutenberg devised the first printer between 1440 and 1450. Gutenberg had experience working in a mint as a goldsmith and he combined blocks of wood with letters cut into the surface, ink and machinery into a device that could reproduce text quickly and in large volumes.


The first printer hold the letter blocks together in a frame. The letters would be covered in ink and paper would laid on top of the blocks before a roller or press would push the ink-covered letters against the paper to transfer the words on to the page.

The invention was disseminated across Germany and by 1500, there were printing presses in sixty German towns. One of the most notable locations was Nurnberg where Anton Koberger operated on an international scale. In his hay-day, he managed 24 presses and had connections across Europe. He was likely the first great publisher, using his business success to rise socially, becoming a member of the town council.

In comparison, England's early days of printing were delayed. Printing didn't arrive until 1476 and in 1500, the industry had only expanded to five printers in London, all established by European businessmen. For about 40 years, England was a very profitable market for continental printers. Richard III had made printers exempt from an Act in 1484 restricting foreigners from working and trading in England. However, the free trade of the publishing industry was ended by Henry VIII, who passed a series of Acts (1523-1534) to protect English stationers, imposed restrictions on foreign craft and prohibited the free import of books.

The printing press was introduced to England by William Caxton, an Englishman who trained in Cologne and set up his own business in Bruges. Caxton returned to England during the reign of Edward IV and received royal patronage from Richard III and Henry VII. Caxton is a significant figure in the history of publishing as he printed in English instead of Latin, helping to shape the language during its years of development. This period saw the creation of many national languages and printing helped standardise and preserve the local dialects that were blossoming into recognised written language.

The initial period of printing was highly competitive and dominated the book industry. A printer controlled almost every stage of publication, from editing to bookselling.


Next Episode: Episode 6: The Book Trade Blossoms

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