History of Book Publishing

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 485

Although the Romans utilized slave labor to underpin a thriving market for hand-copied books, book publishing in its present form became possible only after the invention of movable type by German printer Johann Gutenberg in the early fifteenth century. Movable type soon led to an explosion of book publishing and the dissemination of ideas that were perceived as dangerous in some quarters. An early best-seller, Gargantua and Pantagruel, written by a former monk and medical doctor, François Rabelais, lampooned the medieval Roman Catholic church for its strict adherence to rigid doctrine. The satire led to the book’s being banned in parts of Europe, and Rabelais’ near arrest. A popular book published by Galileo, A Dialogue Concerning Two Planetary Systems, which challenged the Church doctrine concerning an earth-centered universe, led to his imprisonment in his own home, and to the book being banned by the Church. In the early days of book publishing, popularity did not always ensure personal safety for authors.

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Other factors worked against the spread of book publishing. The absence of laws regarding copyright made plagiarism and piracy of written works a common practice. Draconian libel laws in England worked against the publication of many works, leading to either self-censorship or outright repression. Seventeenth and eighteenth century English laws meted out stiff punishments for anyone found guilty of making false statements in print about another’s character. Strangely enough, the punishment was usually doubled if the statements were found to be true, as the crime was then deemed to be defamation of character. Not surprisingly, fiction, plays, and poetry came to be the publishing genres of choice, for few publishers were willing to risk imprisonment through the publication of a controversial work of nonfiction.

One publisher who came to have a reputation for “libeling and lampooning” was also the first important book publisher in the North American colonies, and subsequently in the newly founded United States: Benjamin Franklin. Franklin describes the perils of book publishing under colonial rule in his autobiography. Franklin’s writing career began during his early teenage years, after his brother was arrested and forbidden from publishing his Boston area newspaper. Franklin later found the publishing climate much friendlier in Philadelphia, and produced books there in both English and German. He also describes in detail the difficulties he encountered while trying to raise the capital necessary to get started in the business.

The invention of automatic typesetting in the late nineteenth century and the adoption of an international copyright convention during the same period made the production of cheap mass-market books a profitable enterprise. Through this advance in technology books became much more widely available and accessible, but the discounted prices were primarily the result of economies of scale. The ever-increasing cost of production and distribution created an even newer form of censorship, as the demand for profitability became the yardstick against which all other textual qualities paled.

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