Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Message For Michel Webster: printing and the division of labour

I received your comment/question this morning and in the process of trying to accomplish several tasks in a hurry, I passed it for publication but 'lost it", somehow.
Your question was how were books published in Smith's day.
Printing had been known and practised since it was invented and it gradually over centuries replaced the ornate illuminated manuscript texts beloved by monks.  Book length printed texts changed other aspects too, such as the monopoly that the Latin language held as a literary medium and in the early audiences of readers.
The situation in Smith's times was that prospective authors handed their hand-written manuscripts to a speculative printer who produced a typescript in the form of printer's sheets and sold the sheets to readers who arranged for them to be cut into pages and leather-bound into books.
For much of the time that Smith was alive and writing this was the norm.   Readers could arrange a binder of their choice.
Looking at first editions of Wealth Of Nations initially, I was surprised to see the different bindings in different rare copies, until it was explained to me by a librarian about the separation of the 18th century printing from the binding processes into separate businesses.  Readers could have a bound book personalised by their choice of the markings on the brown leather of their fancy.  Gold lines and edges, family crests and title, plus their own names as owner, as well as the author's of course, usually had their personal bookplate on the inside cover.  The printed text was always in the printer's chosen style.
Just as printing techniques and type faces changed over the years, so did the paper, and all aspects of the printing process itself, printer's inks and type-face designs included.
From a single-shop printing operation in earlier centuries, it became a prime-example of the intricate lengths to which machine processes are subject to the increasing divisions of labour, certainly through the 19th and 20 centuries.  
You can see this in Allyn Young. 1928. "Increasing Returns and Economic Progress". Economic Journal, 38, pp. 527-42 (Increasing returns rather than decreasing returns was and is far more significant for economists than the straight-jacket of decreasing returns favoured by mathematical treatments of the Ricardian focus).  Increasing returns are more significant than decreasing returns for growth economics. Young's seminal paper, for other reasons, shows the extent to which the sub-division of the printing sector developed, in a Smithian fashion like his example in Wealth Of Nations of the day labourer's common woollen coat.  I have long considered the labourer's coat example, and any like it, as of much more significant economic example of the division of labour than the pin-making example that Smith took from Diderot's Encylopede, 1751-75, and which most people mistakenly take as the extent of what he meant.
The above is my instant response.
 If it is not what you were asking about, let me know.
Of course, the advent of publishing houses from the late 19th century reorganised the publishing process.  Publishers became the main players, selecting in-house printing facilities and outhouse independent printers, and binders, but with author selection, design and marketing in their own hands.  There was also the complication caused by the copyright laws (itself a major legal sub-division) and more recently by new technologies with editorial decisions (and the money) in the hands of publishing houses and the production of printed books outsourced, plus the new, still unfolding, consequences from e-books recently developing.



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