1.2.10: 1460 - 1585 - Financing, print-runs and prices

An immediate consequence of the introduction of printing was a radical change in the entrepreneurial side of book production. Publishing printed books required long-term capital investment before costs could be recouped and before any expectation of profits. Printer-publishers had to command technical skills, but entrepreneurial talent was just as vital.

A full picture of the financial aspects of a printing house can only be obtained from a fully preserved archive. The only such archive in the Netherlands is that of Plantin-Moretus, also unique in its time as a company of exceptional size. Sources for the earliest period are the civil actions conducted in Germany that provide much insight into the financial arrangements that supported publications; in countries south of the Alps, written contracts provide direct information. We may infer that similar organisational forms were known in the Netherlands. From such sources as exist we learn that it was not unusual to form business associations, often of a temporary nature, sometimes even to finance a single work, and that this was not always made clear in the books. Another form of association for a printer was that with a patron or client who commissioned the edition and financed it.

There is no direct information for the Netherlands earlier than the Plantin archive for the size of print-runs. An edition of about 175 copies has been calculated for the first book printed in Europe, the Gutenberg Bible. Konrad Sweynheym and Arnold Pannartz, who were the first printers in Italy, published a list with the number of copies they had printed between 1465 and 1471. This shows that an edition-size of 275-300 copies was usual at the time, sometimes a similar number of copies were reprinted shortly afterwards. For the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493) it is assumed that Anton Koberger printed 1500 copies of the Latin edition and 1000 of the German version. This gives a reasonable estimate of minimum and maximum print-runs for early printing in the Netherlands. For the Biblia Regia (1568-1572), an undertaking which required an enormous investment in preparatory study, organisation and materials, Plantin printed a total of 1213 copies on four different types of paper with prices per copy varying from ƒ 70.- to ƒ 100. -, while 23 copies on special paper and on vellum were printed exclusively for the patron, King Philip II.

What is known about the prices of books in the Netherlands during this period is mainly dependent on annotations of buyers in copies and disparate archival data. It is difficult to interpret such incidental data and to attach a value to the recorded sums of money in relation to the actual cost of living. The cost of a large book remained high, but a printed book was less expensive to buy than a manuscript. For the Netherlands an important source of information is the list of 105 books sold in 1483 by Petrus Actor and Johannes de Westfalia to Thomas Hunt, bookseller in Oxford. Analysis of the prices in this list has resulted in the calculation of prices per printed sheet.

author: L. Hellinga

Financing, print-runs and prices