A View from Christopher Mims
Lessons From the Gutenberg Bible for Publishers Going Digital
Gutenberg’s reward for the invention of the printing press was financial ruin, but others figured out a unique way to keep the printing business afloat
Every time someone purchases a new tablet computer or e-reader, another tiny fraction of the world’s newspapers, books and magazines sublimate into the digital ether. In an era of great transition, when even advertising models are up in the air – for example the precipitous drop in the price of banner ads, the ultimate analog for outdated print advertising models – it’s helpful to remember that we’ve been here before, and the solutions were no less strange than the ones publishers will eventually be forced to settle on as they fully transition to digital.
NPR’s truly excellent Planet Money podcast recently took economist Tim Harford on a tour of all the places in New York City that are emblematic of failure – and its necessity for innovation. Their first stop was the Gutenberg Bible in the New York Public Library.
You’d think that the inventor of the printing press, which revolutionized all media after it, forever, would have reaped great riches from his invention, but that wasn’t the case. It turned out that everything else that went into creating a book – the paper, binding, transportation to book sellers, etc. – was so expensive that you might as well copy them by hand.
Gutenberg had solved the wrong problem.
What kept the early publishing industry afloat was something quite unexpected, from a modern perspective: the printing of Papal indulgences. That’s right: the birth of movable type was sheets of paper telling sinners they were absolved of their transgressions.
Eventually, of course, the printing press allowed for the explosion of an industry to a degree that none of its progenitors could have imagined. And maybe there were even a few visionaries back then who saw it coming. But in the meantime, those who made it work found the one thing that fit the economics of their nascent technology – sort of like how so many outlets have come to rely on blogging to bring in the pageviews at a cost considerably below that of original reporting.
We all know that eventually, something like the print media most of us grew up with will find a way to sustain itself solely in a digital form. But what many have yet to realize is that the route to that eventuality could be strange and circuitous, indeed.