In the midst of the confusion that characterizes our time, it seemed useful to take a step back and wonder what might be the cause of the increase in book sales after ten years of questioning ourselves.
While we were stuck at home for several months and were limited to travel for two years, books were the best lockdown companions for many of us. The resurgence of books in the face of media giants is a breath of fresh air for our professions. And the revival of reading, this silent and disconnected activity, this “unpunished vice” as Valéry Larbaud ironically wrote, is perhaps a sign that something deeper is happening.

Rather than looking for a hidden meaning in the evolution of media over the ages, as McLuhan did, it seemed useful to go back even further to understand the invention of the printing press, the context in which it was born, and the changes it brought to intellectual life.

By going back in time, we realize that books were born long before Gutenberg’s invention in 1450. We would like to offer you the chronology of printing, which will put into perspective what was, in reality, a long process.
By Simon Dulac,
Founder of Rapido Books

The Long History of Printing

New ideas are often born when the evolution of customs, the consumers’ needs, and expertise meet. Inventions are born out of these intertwined processes. This is how our relationship with technology changes our relationship with the world. Here is a brief history of the transformations of writing over the ages, which made the advent of the printing press possible and necessary.
Originally, writing was an instrument of power. It was used by Egyptian scribes to fix and keep track of the tax calculation basis on media such as clay tablets, birch bark, and papyrus.

3,000 B.C.: Papyrus marked the first progress for writing, which had been limited to clay tablets until then. The volume, made up of sheets of papyrus glued together, rolled up on itself and was not folded because of its fragility. It was usually 6 to 8 metres long and could sometimes exceed 30 metres while its height was between 30 and 40 centimetres.

Note: The recipe for the manufacture of the papyrus was a real state secret for the Egyptian power and was so jealously guarded that it was lost during the collapse of this civilization.
History of Printing - Volumen

Source : Cultea

200 B.C.: The codex was the first form that could be compared to the present-day book, it had sewn quires made of papyrus or parchment sheets. It had the advantage of allowing non-linear leafing, unlike the volumen which was rolled up. The codex is really the ancestor of the bound book.

Note: Reading on an electronic tablet is closer to the volumen than the codex. Paper still has the advantage of leafing through compared to the ebook reader.

History of Printing - Xylography
Source : Arcgis

7th century: It was at this time that the printing press was invented in China. Thanks to this medium, Chinese culture spread more easily in Asia, as did the Buddhist religion in Korea and then in Japan. It consisted solely of carved wooden plates, this process is called xylography.

10th century: Multi-colour printing was developed in Asia. At this time, the Turkish Empire was also printing, no doubt thanks to the skills they had acquired during their conquering incursions and trade with Asia. In the 15th century, however, the Sultan eventually banned printing, making it punishable by death on the grounds that Arabic characters were sacred. This allowed the art of the manuscript to survive in the Ottoman Empire until the beginning of the 20th century.

11th century: Thanks to trade with Asia, the production of paper began in Europe. At the same time, the first movable typefaces made of clay were used, which made it possible to speed up the layout work. There were also wooden movable typefaces at this time, which will also be used later on in typography for large-print headings on posters. The first banknotes and even the first advertisements on paper appeared at this time.

History of Printing - Wooden Movable Typefaces
Source : CGTN

13th century: The invention of the first movable metal type in Korea.

15th century: While Gutenberg was working on his invention, the Japanese invaded Korea and discovered movable type printing techniques and created their first publishing houses in the archipelago. At the same time, some Jesuit missionaries appropriated these skills to distribute religious texts in Japan.

1450: Gutenberg opened the first book printing plant in Mainz. His genius laid in his ability to bring together all the necessary skills to operate the first mass-produced printing system.

The Inventions We Owe to Gutenberg

Gutenberg’s work can be summarized as follows:

He was the inventor of the screw press, thanks to his knowledge of carpentry. This printing technique was a decisive improvement on the rubbing technique used by Asian printers until then. The smear was a rag pad that was pressed against the back of the sheet to transfer the ink onto the paper.

– The real stroke of genius of this inventor was the development of the punch. Thanks to his expertise in goldsmithing, he conceived the principle of the copper matrix filled with a mixture of lead, tin, and antimony to produce the movable type.

History of Printing - Screw Press
Source : Alamy

– He also developed the recipe for greasy ink, which is more suitable for the press than the Chinese ink, which is too liquid.

History of Printing - Johannes Gutenberg
Source : Wikipedia

– It was finally Gutenberg who rationalized all the techniques necessary for the production of books and grouped them together in a single profession: master printer, someone who was both a typesetter and printer as well as a bookbinder.

– To top it all off, Gutenberg boldly embarked on the project of printing the Bible. The first 180 copies of the Bible, consisting of two volumes of 600 pages each, took three years to produce, during which time a copyist monk produced only one.

History of Printing - Johannes Gutenberg
Source : Wikipedia
Unfortunately, Gutenberg’s ingenuity and innovative spirit were not fully rewarded. His life came to a rather unhappy end. Pursued by Fust, his patron, who was upset by the poor sales of the Bible, Gutenberg lost his workshop and his machines at the end of a lawsuit between the two partners.
Eventually, his former apprentice Peter Schoeffer took over the workshop and Gutenberg disappeared into anonymity. Schoeffer produced outstanding printing works that are still used today. He also established the Frankfurt Book Fair, which publishers from all over the world still attend every year.

Books Were Born Out of a Growing Appetite for Knowledge

Books first appeared in the middle of the Renaissance, primarily because there was a tremendous appetite for knowledge at that time. The increase in the demand for manuscripts was due to the development of universities. This is what made Gutenberg’s invention so successful. Humanity progresses when it has a project.

Commercial expansion and advances in knowledge have led to a continuous inflation of writing:

  • At the end of the Middle Ages, universities were training more and more students and were demanding larger quantities of copies. It was the pecia, the technique of copying books in series, that encouraged the creation of the first libraries in universities;
  • The development of the administration, the notary’s office and, of course, the trade led to an increase in the number of documents;
  • As international trade grew, the use of bills of exchange became more and more common.
Source : World History
Interestingly, the increase in demand for books also helped establish the first merchant booksellers who offered, on their own initiative, certain copies for sale. These merchants were, in a way, the first publishers, and thus preceded the invention of printing.

We do not appreciate enough the importance of paper in the progress of our civilization: paper has become the indisputable medium of our memory for knowledge, financial, and legal acts. Our culture is indeed a culture of writing, in which all social structures are based on the unquestionable value of printed texts. Our increasingly forgetful age would do well to remember this as it approaches uncertain shores.

Was the Printing Press a Revolution?

According to Victor Hugo, the printing press was the “mother of revolution.” He wrote this beautiful text in Notre Dame de Paris: “In the fifteenth century everything changes. Human thought discovers a mode of perpetuating itself, not only more durable and more resisting than architecture, but still easier and simpler. Architecture is dethroned. Gutenberg’s letters of lead are about to supersede Orpheus’s letters of stone. The book is about to kill the edifice. The invention of printing is the greatest event in history. It is the mother of revolution. It is the mode of expression of humanity which is totally renewed; it is human thought stripping off one form and donning another; it is the complete and definite change of skin of that symbolic serpent which since the days of Adam has represented intelligence. In its printed form, thought is more imperishable than ever; it is volatile, irresistible, indestructible. It is mingled with the air. In the days of architecture it made a mountain of itself, and took powerful possession of a century and a place. Now it converts itself into a flock of birds, scatters itself to the four winds, and occupies all points of air and space at once. We repeat, who does not perceive that in this form it is far more indelible? It was solid, it has become alive. It passes from duration in time to immortality.”
The invention of printing is the greatest event in history. It is the mother of revolution.
It is the mode of expression of humanity which is totally renewed; it is human thought stripping off one form and donning another.

Victor Hugo
March 1831
Notre Dame de Paris
Victor Hugo
March 1831

Notre Dame de Paris

Victor Hugo’s lyricism tells us more about his time than what the invention of printing really was. In the 19th century, great minds saw the material and moral progress of humanity as a kind of assumption, and saw themselves as prophets of a new world.
Without getting into complicated analyses, we must admit that we tend to idealize innovation. For example, when we call it a “revolution,” we are first and foremost affirming our belief that something exceptional is happening.

We cannot ignore the fact that printing offered the Protestant Reformation an effective tool to shake off the moral yoke of the papacy and spread its new ideas. It also made having direct access to texts the ideal way to educate consciences. In 1517, when Lüther published his Disputation on the Power and Efficiency of Indulgences, also known as the 95 Theses, there were already more than 200 printing houses in Germany. More than 20 million books had already been printed throughout Europe, which is considerable compared to the few hundred million inhabitants living on the continent at that time, most of whom were illiterate.

History of Printing - Protestant Reformation
Source : The Guardian

There is no doubt that books are part of the foundation of our civilization. By improving literacy, printing books enabled a growing number of women and men to emerge from ignorance, and then gradually promoted the liberation of consciences. It is no coincidence that books are still at the heart of children’s education and adult training today.

The comeback of the paper medium for reading shows us the importance of books in our culture.
Didn’t the great writer Jose-Luis Borges write: “Of all man’s instruments, the most wondrous, no doubt, is the book. The other instruments are extensions of his body. The microscope, the telescope, are extensions of his sight; the telephone is the extension of his voice; then we have the plow and the sword, extensions of the arm. But the book is something else altogether: the book is an extension of memory and imagination.”
Source : Wikipedia

The Inseparable Links Between Books and Freedom

This short historical summary allows us to measure the extent to which the publishing and printing professions are part of a long evolution, marked by chance, sometimes by failure, but also by surprising discoveries and unforeseeable transformations. As an instrument of power, writing was first seized by scribes, then was jealously guarded by the political and religious elites who were convinced that knowledge should not be shared.

Against all odds, writing finally became the primary instrument of literacy during the Renaissance. It spread to all strata of society thanks to movements that ran through society, such as humanism, the Protestant Reformation, and the spirit of the Enlightenment.

The idea of human progress is inseparable from writing. We could say that books have done more to reduce ignorance than any other invention.

Good book sales from 2020 to 2022 are an encouraging sign for our professions. Perhaps it also tells us that writing will continue to play a major role in revitalizing the intellectual life of our culture during an important period in our history. To paraphrase Borges, books respond to our need for identity, but they are also a space where imagination and thought are able to open up new spaces.

Ten years ago, the decline of the paper book seemed inevitable. Badly treated by the digital media, marginalized by connected tools, shaken by Amazon’s commercial methods, it proved to be particularly resilient. It has resisted the digital tsunami that was supposed to sweep it away. With a certain amount of screen fatigue beginning to show, it is conceivable that the paper medium will continue to rebound in the coming years.

Even more fundamentally, our culture is based on the deep connection between writing and freedom. At a time when the audiovisual media are becoming tools for advertising, books remain a protected space where the author can imagine and create without the constraint of an audience, and where the reader can take a step back to think or be moved in their own way, sheltered from influencers and censors of all kinds who urge him or her to react.
Source : Wikipedia

In his book The Crisis of the Mind, published in 1919, Paul Valéry attempted a bold and luminous analysis of the role of the word as an activity of the mind based on trust: “Believing in the human word, spoken or written, is as indispensable to human beings as trusting in the firmness of the soil.” In these pages, which testify to a great elevation of the spirit, he granted paper extraordinary qualities: “Paper, as you know, plays the role of an accumulator and conductor; it carries not only from one man to another, but from one time to another, a highly variable charge of authenticity or credibility.”

In our noisy, disrupted and digitally standardized age, we can say that the book is undoubtedly one of the last places where the word can still be printed with confidence, where it can still escape the levelling effect of the industrialization of the world. “The essential is always threatened by the insignificant” wrote the poet René Char.

Valéry’s conclusion sounds like a commitment by the man of letters to fight so that intelligence can still express itself: “We must preserve in our minds and in our hearts the will to be lucid, the sharpness of the intellect, the feeling of the greatness and the risk, of the extraordinary adventure in which the human race… is engaged.”

We have a sacred bond with writing.

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