Analysing exactly how successful the early printers were is not an easy task

Analysing exactly how successful the early printers were is not an easy task. Firstly, one must realise that the topic of printing does not consist solely of the extent to which printers prospered in a monetary sense, or the extent to which printing was accepted by the readership it aimed at. It requires an appreciation of the fine and difficult art of printing and the problems that lie therein.

One need only look at Moxton’s Mechanick Exercises on the whole Art of Printing to understand the complex process printing involved, he identifies the process of simply printing a page without taking into account publishing, financing or selling, as eight separate jobs. When one realises that in the earliest times the printer had to perform all these simultaneously, one cannot look at the output of books without the utmost admiration for the printer. At the same time, printers had to contend with the problem of rivals setting up a press in opposition to them, almost forcing them to turn politicians in addition to their other tasks. Of course, the aims of the printers were not to overcome difficulties, as in every case, as opposed to manuscript production, the ultimate aim was of a mercenary nature, that is to form a book trade. Printers needed to make money.

To this end it is true that many failed and success was reserved for those fortunate enough to find investment, but it may not be wise to forget that many others succeeded in making much money from the emergence of the book trade. In effect, one can examine two main areas. Firstly, the extent to which printers overcame the huge problems that were associated with the arrival and absorption of a new technology- those of acceptance, finance, technique, and distribution. Secondly, the extent to which printers themselves found success in their aim of building a prosperous trade and, in many cases such as the ‘ chapbook’ printers, to bring ordinary literature to the partially educated. It is quite amazing that a single invention in a time of very limited communication permeated European centres almost completely by the 1480s; only thirty years after Gutenberg, Schoeffer and Fust completed their printed Bible.

Yet, one may also hypothesise that this permeation was possibly more a success of the book trade and the art of printing than a success for the earliest printers, who wished to keep their press secret for as long as possible. The early printers encountered many technical problems. Firstly, there is the problem of the types of metal used to make punches, type sorts, and matrices. One must remember that these different pieces were expensive and difficult to produce, so each piece of equipment had to be cast with the view to it lasting for a lengthy period. As late as 1570, Paulus Manutius found that characters were still so weak that a new set needed to be cast each time he began a new book, stating that they only had a reasonable life of four months. 2 The crudity of method that was employed by the first printers is offset by the surprise that many printers produced works of extraordinary quality.

One need only look at Gutenberg’s Bible to realise exactly how fine the work was when compared to the quality of his equipment, after all, it wasn’t until the late fifteenth century, and into the sixteenth century, that the metal alloys used for casting type and matrices were standardised. Yet between 1453 and 1503, whilst the metals used for casting were still being formulated, the printing presses of Europe turned out by closest estimate eight million books, more than all the manuscripts put together since 330AD. 3 Technical problems were also present in the setting of type. It is not until the 18th century that there was uniformity in the height of each ‘ sort’ to paper. This is important since in order for the press to work, the type sorts had to have uniformity of height, otherwise they would fall out of place in the press. 4 This is a particular problem for the printer since he would either have to buy, and go to great lengths to find, sorts of a uniform height, or buy sorts of any height and file them to a uniform size.

Since any equipment especially during the earlier centuries was particularly expensive, and not many printers had the matrices needed to construct sorts themselves, sorts had to be bought when a printer could find them. Therefore, few printers could afford not to have to go through the process of making each sort uniform. The amount of dedication thus needed to produce anything is nothing short of remarkable.