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December 13, 2005

Printing and economics

Before the invention of movable type, book publishing was technologically possible, but prohibitively expensive. Printing involved carving the contents of a page onto a wooden block — backwards — and then basically stamping that ink-covered block onto a page. Each wooden block was usable only for a single, specific page. Movable type, developed by Johannes Gutenberg and others, took the granularity of print technology from the page down to the character level. This innovation changed the economics of printing, and led to affordable books and the spread of literacy.

I spend perhaps too much time thinking about this development. Movable type was not primarily a technical advance — you could print the same information with movable type that you could with page blocks. Instead, the critical change was in the production process, which moved from a page-based system to a character-based system. This allowed reuse of the type from one book to another, which resulted in a massive reduction in the cost of book printing.

In the twentieth century, the printing process was further commoditized by the devolution of typesetting responsibilities from the print shop to desktop publishing software. The quality of content produced by professional typesetters was higher than that produced by amateur desktop publishers, but that issue didn’t do much to slow down the adoption of DTP as a workflow.

Early books created by hand-copying and illuminated with full-color decorations, were works of art. Movable type made mass printing possible. Software made mass publishing possible — any author could be a publisher.

And XML? XML opens up new workflows, including custom publishing (where the information displayed to each reader could be different), automated formatting (page layouts are applied by the software rather than the author), and content labeling (metadata).

XML makes it possible to design the look and feel you want for a published document (in whatever output medium) ahead of time. As authors create and publish content, the formatting is applied automatically.

With wood-block printing, the quality of the printed document depended on the skill of the carver. With movable type, the font designer could create a single set of type, which could be reused by print technicians to create many books.

Similarly, the format automation available in XML makes it possible to create a professional look and feel for a document that is accessible to any author, not just those with an understanding of design issues.