Manuscript to Print = Print to Digital?

Course Leader, Dr Leah Tether, has been away on sabbatical researching her next monograph! She updates Blurbify on her findings about the commercial book trade’s move from manuscript to print, and how that can be compared with the current shift towards digital.

For some time, I’ve been arguing that print did not herald in the publishing trade. For many, the two are synonymous and it was only with the ability to cater to a mass market that publishing was really born. I have a somewhat different take on it, however. For me, the mass market was developing long before print arrived, with increasing literacy driving the demand for books at an incredible rate from the fourteenth century onwards.

Producers of manuscripts responded by setting up ever more professional enterprises, with ‘production lines’ of scribes copying different sections of a book, so as to be able to produce more books, more quickly. I, therefore, suggest that print only really crystallised a set of standards that were already in place and, as such, manuscripts equally constitute forms of publication, produced in an industry aimed specifically at commercial enterprise and profit.

None of this, of course, is to suggest that print didn’t play an enormous role in changing the face of publishing, rather I wish to nuance the idea that it set in motion a totally new age.

Michael Clanchy, for instance, has argued that we should see print rather as a culmination of developments already in train, rather than the commencement of something completely unfamiliar. It is this notion, and other related ideas, that I’ve been researching during my sabbatical, focusing particularly on such moves in the French book trade between 1200 and 1530.

However, this also got me to thinking about what this might tell us about the modern book trade. I’ve discussed before some of the similarities between manuscript and digital and I wondered about whether the shift from manuscript to print might find also some common ground with that between print and digital.

I started to think about Clanchy’s notion of a culmination. Print was only developed in response to the need for a quicker way to produce books – so is the same true of digital? The more I considered it, the more I thought there might be something in this.

Increasingly, we’re seeing printed books as preferred for ‘luxury’ copies of books – coffee-table tomes and the like – while the most frequently read ebooks are what we might call paperback literature volumes – some might refer to this as ‘throwaway literature’. The same was true, to some extent, of what happened with print – luxury books were either hand-painted to look like manuscripts (or actually were produced as manuscripts) for long after print was introduced. Print, whilst by no means cheap, came to be used for less lavish volumes, because they could be churned out comparatively quickly and economically.

In other words, print for a long time effectively fulfilled a different and complementary role in the book trade to manuscript. The two weren’t competing per se, and both sat on bookshelves alongside each other.

I wonder, therefore, if we shouldn’t be thinking in similar ways about digital? In more general terms, of course, digital is encouraging us to seek socially-enhanced experiences, so having standard ebooks mimic printed books is all very well – but are we missing a trick? Of course, enhanced ebooks and reading experiences already exist, but should we be focusing even more on these as we move forward? That’s definitely something for me to ponder in the closing weeks of my sabbatical. Watch this space…

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Course Leader of the MA Publishing at Anglia Ruskin University; researcher of medieval literature, publishing history and reading cultures.