|Gutenberg Bible, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University|
Gutenberg went bankrupt.
Forgive me for leaping to today’s point so abruptly. But I want to get that on the table right away, for those readers who shrug after a few lines and rush off to “Pearls Before Swine.”
That fact is important, yet overlooked. The average reader is vaguely aware that Johannes Gutenberg was a 15th-century German who printed the first book using moveable type, a Bible, now rare — 49 copies, to be exact. (So rare, there are none in Illinois: two pages at the Newberry Library; one at The Art Institute. Otherwise, the nearest copy is at Indiana University.)
They do not know that Gutenberg started printing Bibles in March 1455 and by November had gone bankrupt and lost his printing press.
I mention this now, in this moment, as digital media is being rattled by failure and mass firings: 1,000 employees sacked in recent weeks at BuzzFeed, AOL, HuffPost and Vice Media. Newspapers are shedding staff, as technology relentlessly undercuts the established order, and nobody can figure out how to stop the process. Flash: We can’t. The old way is over. A few living fossils might survive; I’m hoping to become the horseshoe crab of Chicago media. But generally, we’re sailing off into a new world and never going back.
BuzzFeed, et al., are in the same business Gutenberg was in — selling words for money — and grasping his struggles might give us insight into our own.
Gutenberg’s Bibles were expensive — 20 gulden, when a stone house in Mainz went for 80 gulden. Think $100,000 in today’s money. Printing these books took time, and getting the monasteries who bought copies to pony up took even longer. The new product worked — people wanted printed books — but money was slow in coming.
Sound familiar? Early printers struggled to figure out how to keep their heads above water.
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