0.09 Economics

A great deal has been learned in recent years about the economics of publishing in general, and it is possible therefore to document the financial circumstances under which many individual textbooks were produced. As with other kinds of books, we see a movement away from the subsidized production that characterized the earliest printing ventures and towards genuine market products in the sense of books produced on speculation. Increasingly publishers were betting on a large existing demand, on a ready market for new textbooks, or on their ability to create demand through advertising. (50)

In some ways, textbooks, particularly the perennial favorites inherited from the Middle Ages, were ahead of the market in this regard because at every period some of them could be produced cheaply for students every printer knew were out there. Even in the early years of printing, when teachers did not expect every student to have a textbook in hand, they could see the value of doing so if the text was an old standard and the booklet in question was cheap enough. As we will see in the chapters to follow, some of these smaller textbooks were bread-and-butter work for printers who could produce them quickly in the down time between larger and riskier projects.

Large texts and suites of textbooks designed to fit a particular teacher's course were among the earliest examples we know of collaborative publishing with shared risk among investors. The risks could be minimized by having a successful teacher as collaborator, since he could guarantee that his present and future students would buy the books. Sometimes these teachers also provided part of the cash needed to capitalize the venture, while in other cases, printers or their backers undertook all the financial risk on speculation that the reputation of a well-known teacher would create a market. This latter case was particularly likely for university-level textbooks, where the investment was large but the authors were genuine celebrities. Local grammar masters in the fifteenth century had less fame, so they often had to participate financially themselves if they wished to publish new and untried works. In the sixteenth century it was rarer for teachers to invest, but there are probable cases as late as the fifteen forties. (51)


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  • (50) On the direct involvement of grammar masters in early, subsidized printing ventures, see Balsamo 2006, 138-140. More generally on the organization of capital and labor in the Italian printing industry in the early years, ibid., 12-20.
  • (51) Priscianese 1540 and Cafaro 1546, for example, discussed in chapters two and seven. For a case of direct marketing to a teacher, see Signaroli 2006, 76-78.
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