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The Publishing World: Surprise! It has only now begun to change after 500 years of being about the same

A new book: Copernicus’ Secret: How the Scientific Revolution Began by Jack Repcheck, was surprising to me when I recently read it for a couple of reasons.

First, I did not know the details of the intense flaming of scientific inquiry in the mid-1500s in Prussia and Poland which eventually led to modern science. The book covers immediate predecessors of Nicolaus Copernicus in Wickenburg and other universities,  the rivalry to “be first” to enunciate some new theory, the fraternal interplay of minds in the academic world and the rush to publication of scientific treatises.

It is that facet of the book, the quick publication and circulation of books, that I found most fascinating. Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press 1468, which led to public circulation of books, had swept Europe and initiated a collective advance of ideas, theories, propositions, proofs and discussions on several fronts but particularly the scientific.

The author follows the development of Copernicus’ theory that the earth revolves around the sun not the sun around the earth, as Ptolemy had decreed. The scientist defended his theory with page after page of complicated proofs involving trigonometry and various solar movement charts. Though his friends urged, and finally succeeded in getting him to put out, an early version of the radical theory into book form, the full scientific proofs were not fully printed until after his death.

Why had Copernicus been so averse to publication and so careful when he did agree to having his theories put into books? He could hardly bear to put into the new public forum what he knew was the truth.  He realized that through the new distribution and trade system in Europe, books were going quickly from Germany to Russia, Italy and France, the northern counties and England for scholars to read—and inevitably challenge. He was aware that publication would rise a firestorm of controversy. His Heliocentric Theory would reflect on the new Protestant Reformation by challenging church doctrine, firm for hundreds of years in supporting Ptolemy.

The surprising aspect of the story to me was the rapidity with which book publishing had taken over the public mind and economy and how quickly it went into a predictable form. It was in this period that the system still present into our own day and age was firmly established.  Publishers, who were also printers, found investment money from entrepreneurs in the new post-Renaissance capitalistic economy to purchase the newest equipment in presses and for typesetting and binding. They advertised for authors and accepted submissions from agents who scoured the literate, in this case scientific, world, for new material. Editors edited, always an important part of the publishing process; expert readers checked. Proofers and the author corrected in the laborious pen and ink of the time and sent rapid couriers to the printers with Oks to publish. Books were generated as fast as could be expedited and put on trade ships in ports like Antwerp, Hamburg in northern Germany, Rotterdam, the Scandinavian countries and London and other English ports.

They were sold via posted broadside flyers and in newspapers and circulated even in the countryside towns. Books could be ordered directly or from bookstores which proliferated. How much did a book cost? Copernicus’ On the Revolutions cost about the equivalent of $150, as far as I can figure out (in Florins.) No wonder libraries also proliferated for borrowing. Books were precious. That was one of the few basics that did change over five hundred years: books became inexpensive enough for all to enjoy.

Today there is a second, less conspicuous revolution in book publishing. Although the venerable system of large publisher/printers still prints many books for the reading world, in America  and elsewhere also, many writers are skipping the middle part of the age-old publishing system. Instead of submitting to agents who then approach publishers who may farm out the printing in a process that may last two years or more, 40% of authors today choose to manage the process themselves. Digital printing has enabled  authors to  easily design and typeset and then through easy online publishing systems which may offer good (or poor) editing services, publish a book themselves. Or more likely, they will inexpensively hire a book to be digitally created—then copies ordered directly from the author, printed “on demand.” Broadside flyers  or newspaper announcements have been replaced by blogs, quickly sent releases, promotional schemes which include platform appearances, clever website book offers and all kinds of other creativity.

But ours is an age-old world, a world of publishing which has its impetus and origin in the oldest of all creative crafts, that of story-telling.

Nancy Niblack Baxter, Senior Editor at Hawthorne

Click back to the website to order Nancy Baxter’s newest book A Cabinet of Curiosities of the Civil War; Important, Moving and Sometimes Odd Stories from the Human Side of the War.