1.2.2: 1460 - 1585 - Organisation of a printing/publishing business

The establishment and operation of a printer-publisher's, which was initially the usual combination , was, certainly in the time of the pioneers, a complicated business. It was normally mandatory to ask permission of the local authorities to be allowed to set up a printing house business. It was then a question of getting hold of one or more printing presses with their accessories. If the type was cast in-house, the necessary metal and tools had to be purchased; type could also be bought from another printer or from a type founder. Initials, ornaments and woodcuts may also have been bought. The correct ink was needed as well, as was paper imported from abroad (vellum for valuable productions).

All this required large amounts of capital for which, if necessary, a financier had to be found. Depending on the size of the company, personnel had to be hired. In a large company such as that of Plantin, organising working conditions and personnel required its share of attention.

If the text to be printed was not supplied by a client (for example an institution or authority that wished to have a regulation published), the printer-publisher had to get hold of copy. This could be a codex but it might, for example, also be a printed book. If necessary, the text was submitted for approval to the ecclesiastical and/or secular authorities and a privilege may have been requested to provide protection against piracy. A preparatory calculation was carried out to determine the scope of the work for the compositor and the printer. This enabled internal planning whereby the activities could be harmonised with one another. The next step was composing the text and, if the printer considered it necessary, a printer's proof was made and corrected. The production phase proper then began in which an edition was printed in at least two pulls per sheet, the inner and outer forme.

In the management of this process, the printer had to take into account the sales opportunities in a changing market. The question was not simply whether the produced title would attract prospective buyers. Material aspects such as the choice of format, type, composition density, number of sheets and the print-run figure all determined the price and consequently the numbers sold.

Binding was not part of the actual production process although sometimes part of the edition was bound. Usually the books were held in stock as a quantity of sheets folded in half which could be provided with a binding at the request of a buyer. The manual application of rubrics, running titles and initials (still usual in the earliest printed books) and the colouring of woodcuts were not part of the primary production process either. The completed book was therefore not a standard product, because the final result was partly determined by the buyer who could add items as he saw fit.

The process as has been sketched above, applied in general throughout the whole period.

author: W. Heijting

Organisation of a printing/publishing business