Thursday, December 29, 2011

A Theory of the Early English Printing Firm

David R. Carlson discusses a new theory of William Caxton's printing work, beginning, not with his literary folios as many do, but with his jobbing. Explaining that jobbing was the way for a printer to start, and to maintain, some productivity, Carlson examines some of the extant pieces of Caxton's ephemera--a handbill advertising his own work, and an indulgence with blanks left for the purchaser's name. He considers briefly how the handbill reflects on and contributes to relations of production; it says "Don't pull this down" in Latin, using the innate authority of Latin to do the work of intimidating lower-classes from messing with it (reflecting on class struggle), while at the same time it is a piece of printing that is advertising for more printing (contributing to more production). In this moment, Caxton the printer was working for Caxton the publisher.

Ephemera were a good market for new printers; they were always being used and disposed of and people always needed more. But they were not using the productive capabilities of the new technology to the fullest, either. It has been assumed, Carlson says, that printing jobs was the potboiler for the real work, printing books, but he says it is probably the other way around: printing books on speculation was a way to make some money between jobs, which were paid up front.

Caxton also knew that the printing press was capable of more, so he tried to do more with it. However, he quickly learned that print could not compete with handmade books in the elite, literary, luxury book markets. So he learned to branch out and to create new markets of book-readers. He helped invent and exploit new markets for books, and to create new kinds of books. Caxton is partially responsible for Chaucer's title as the father of English literature; he began printing English literature which Continental printers were not doing much of.  He also worked in ecclesiastical and legal markets, which always needed new books; the English legal market especially had idiosyncrasies that were not being served by Continental printers. He also helped to create a sense of need for individual devotional books rather than books owned by an institution and shared among its members.

Caxton was never as financially successful in printing as his protege, Wynkyn de Worde and his partner Pynson. But these men built on and expanded models that Caxton was already working with. Carlson theorizes that Caxton worked this way because of the productive capacity of the new technology, not because of some innate and sentimental love of English literature. As he says, "all this the machines decided" (61).

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