The printing press did much more than to mechanise the production of words. It put an end to self-publishing, or at least to a radical form of self-publishing which had the author of a book stand face to face with her audience, market and popularity. In the age of print, access to a book is heavily mediated, by editors, publishers and distributors. For the medieval author, on the other hand, this division of labour was not on the radar. For that author was often her own scribe, editor, publisher and distributor. It was enough for the author of a book on history, for instance, to write it up and to launch it onto the market, whence, if successful, it would subsequently end up being copied by hand by other authors or scribes who didn’t feel the need to seek permission from the author or even let them know about it.
In a world without printers, a handwritten work was, as soon as the writing was over, ready for publication. A work’s success and popularity depended on how the book fared within the author’s innermost circle, since diffusion emanated from the centre. Once a book managed to mobilise the time and effort (both were remarkably high in a pre-print environment) of enough scribes, the book’s success could grow far away from the area which produced it. We are no longer accustomed to thinking of books as products of space, especially since few books today get printed in the same area where the author resides. But for medieval publishing, a book was born quite literally out of an author’s pen and was tied to a place and time.
How a book was made, produced and published by hand is quite a tale to tell, and one which sounds exceedingly alien to modern ears. For if anyone knew that to get their book read by others one needed to write it entirely by hand (doable), be their own corrector and editor (less doable), binder (clearly less doable), advertiser (undoable) and distributor (totally undoable) – while at the same time depending on other people copying the book by hand in order to push its diffusion forward, one would probably not start out on the journey at all.