Learning from the Late Greats: Johannes Gutenberg edition

There’s no better moment to dabble in time-travel than at the start of a new year; our sense of reality is skewed, anyway, by a solid season of interrupted work schedules, an exoticized diet, and upbeat television specials featuring exuberantly optimistic actors and singers.  Why not take the holiday nostalgia one step further by actually crossing an event horizon and stepping into 1439?

Consider the setting: Established by the Romans as a military outpost in 12 B.C.E., Strasbourg in the Fifteenth Century had a long and rich history of latinic and germanic occupations, as the remnants of the Roman empire duked it out with the Alemanni, Huns, and Franks.  It had a history, too, of internal conflict, with the citizens outmaneuvering their bishop and winning the status of an Imperial Free City in 1262, courtesy of King Philip of Swabia.  Within a century the city had been wracked by revolution, the bubonic plague, and exceptionally brutal pogroms, in which Strasbourg’s entire Jewish population was either burnt to death or forcibly expelled from the city.  The year of the pogroms is also the year in which Gutenberg is reported to have begun building his printing press––1439––and one has to wonder if there isn’t something more than coincidence at work here.

William Caxton showing specimens of his printing to King Edward IV and his Queen. Published in 'The Graphic' in 1877; now in the Public Domain.
William Caxton showing specimens of his printing to King Edward IV and his Queen. Published in ‘The Graphic’ in 1877; now in the Public Domain.

“Okay––” I hear you saying.  “Okay, so Gutenberg did some cool things, reinventing existing technologies in a frenzy of progress, like some Steve Jobs of medieval France.  But what does that have to do with self publishing, promotion, and me?”

Quite a lot, actually.

While we don’t know a lot about Gutenberg––including, for example, how he felt about the pogroms and expulsions and social constructs of his day, and even the exact year he was born––we do know rather a great deal about his legacy.  His celebrated press was in full operation by 1452, less than 13 years after its conception, which is actually quite impressive given the materials he had to work with and his somewhat unpredictable financial situation (he was eventually bankrupted in a court case by his sponsor, the wealthy Johann Fust).  And in a time when books were still for the most part produced over the course of painstaking months of fine brushwork by dedicated monks, he put more printed materials into the hands of more readers than any westerner before him.  He was the definition of the foolhardy entrepreneur, borrowing money, racking up mammoth debts, quitting Strasbourg in disgrace, and setting up shop elsewhere, repeatedly.

He may have been born into a different time and a different world, but we intrepid few (the self-publishing few) can still learn two very important things from this early icon of self-publishing:

1) Use the tools at hand, and use them well, but don’t become shackled to any existing paradigm.  Gutenberg didn’t invent the printing press, as much as westerners like to think so.  That honor goes to Bi Sheng in 11th Century China, or perhaps even an earlier inventor of cluster of inventors of whom we know nothing.  What Gutenberg did that was so impressive is that he seized on the tools available to him––newly minted methods for punchcutting, matricing, and so on––and repackaged them in such a way as to make them efficient and therefore affordable enough to outdistance his competition––the monks––in both speed and quantity.  He didn’t invent the wheel, but he did put a motor on it and send it speeding into the next century.  He knew when to let go, too, and answer to no other voice but his own vision for publication.

2) Pay attention to the market; listen to both your readers’ needs and those of your own practical enterprise.  Gutenberg didn’t just print the sacred texts for which he is famous.  In fact, the bible-printing business drove him into the ground––or underground––and he lost so much money that even his astute early decision to print more lucrative materials (latin grammars, indulgences, pamphlets, and a dictionary) was not enough to keep him (even remotely) afloat.  Listen to your readers, and pay attention.  We live in a day and age where it’s feasible to customize your approach to the market, whether in terms of the format or formats you use to reach the most readers with the most net profit, or in terms of the kinds of events, interviews, and other promotional efforts you coordinate to spread the word.  You don’t have to be the victim of your own art, as Gutenberg was; you can stick to your vision and reinvent yourself, all at the same time.

Johannes Gutenberg’s story is equal parts inspiration and cautionary tale, but there’s so much more to him than I can sum up here.  It’s only fitting that one of the world’s largest, oldest, and most comprehensive volunteer-driven digital enterprises is called Project Gutenberg, and is dedicated to the distribution of free ebooks.  Next week, I’ll examine another titan of Ye Olde Selfe-Publishing Impulse.  Will it be Jane Austen for her efforts with Sense and Sensibility, or Ezra Pound, or Emily Dickinson, or Virginia Woolf?  Check back next week to find out who!

If you have any comments, reflections, or suggestions for this new series, I’d love to hear them.  Drop me a line in the comments box, and watch this space on Wednesdays in 2015 as I blog my way into better acquaintance with these legendary figures of self-publishing!

KellyABOUT KELLY SCHUKNECHT: Kelly Schuknecht is the Executive Vice President of Outskirts Press. In addition to her contributions to the Outskirts Press blog at blog.outskirtspress.com, Kelly and a group of talented marketing experts offer book marketing services, support, and products to not only published Outskirts Press authors, but to all authors and professionals who are interested in marketing their books and/or careers. Learn more about Kelly on her blog, kellyschuknecht.com.

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