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From Manuscript to Printed Book: the Evolution of Marketing Practices

“You’re just an Instagram post away from finding an ideal reader – not busting out a ballad in the public square.”

Goodreads. Book Bub. Story Origin. Book Funnel. If you’re in the book world and giving it a go at marketing your own books, these apps, accounts, and subscriptions are nothing new to you.

Oh, but wait.

You also probably have a website, a blog, an active social media platform, a monthly newsletter, and you’ve got yourself lined up for a book blog tour or two prior to launch.

All the tools you need to be successful to appropriately and effectively market your book, right? Well, kinda. We all know there’s more, but these are the foundational tools for success. But it wasn’t always like this. It was never always this easy to have the tools you need virtually at your fingertips. Marketing tactics have evolved – they’ve changed – and the way we sell books today has drastically transformed over time.

Back in 2014, I had this wild moment where I decided to get a second master’s degree in English studies. I spent several years immersed in book history, ancient literature, publishing, and of course Shakespeare’s canon. I even spent a summer abroad in London – and geeked out a couple of times in Chicago pouring over some incredible books at the Newberry Library.

All this to say… I pocketed some incredible historical information about the evolution from manuscript to printed book – and how society’s knowledge production and dissemination stemmed from both science and religion. The advent of the printing press and the way stationers adapted their marketing strategies and tactics to distribute books is simply mind blowing. I’m a self-proclaimed book history nerd and have been dying to tackle a blog post on how the evolution of marketing practices drastically influenced the history of the book as it moved from manuscript to print culture – and flourished in the sixteenth century with print drama and literary authorship.

This stuff is wild. And pure genius. And if you want to learn a few fun facts about book history, turn the (metaphorical) page (because who even uses paper anymore?)

Let’s start at the very beginning – with manuscripts. Throughout the eleventh and twelfth centuries, most manuscripts were made in monasteries. Monks sat in cloisters copying and studying texts for hours at a time, sometimes extending projects over years. In the twelfth century, early universities in Paris, Bologna, and Geneva introduced education (independent of the monasteries) causing an increase in the number of scribes creating manuscripts. It became impossible for the monastic libraries to keep up with the collegiate demand. At the same time, more and more individuals started to have an interest in manuscripts for their own personal use.

In this context, I am applying the term “marketing” to discuss books that were largely custom-ordered. Marketing practices for manuscripts often fell into two categories: creating a physically and visually appealing manuscript that could “speak” for itself and active marketing practices (defined as proactive actions in which agents of the press engaged directly with potential customers). The physical manuscript often featured hand-drawn illustrations with embossed stamps of wood or metal and were frequently used to decorate the bindings and the heads of each chapter or paragraph in a work. Woodcuts were sometimes used as well. Specific types of calligraphic fonts such as gothic and black letter were popular and proved easily readable for a manuscript audience. In addition, border decorations, marginal images, independent pictures, elegant ways to conclude a line, and an array of decorations graced the pages of manuscripts; combined with rubrication, the pages of manuscript books oftentimes were filled with color to attract readers. Lastly, manuscript marketing also included the creation of running heads, footnotes, tables of contents, and the quality of the writing surface (parchment or vellum). These features were aimed to help sell manuscripts that could be read, used, and navigated by readers.

It’s clear that manuscript marketing relied heavily on the physical manuscript itself to visually appeal to readers. However, there were also a small number of active tactics that agents of the book trade could use to sell such books. Sellers of manuscripts in fifteenth century Europe often copied a list of books they had available for sale and included this catalogue in the manuscript purchased. Book fairs were also utilized in fifteenth century Europe; middle-men would travel to towns throughout Europe dispersing leaflets and posters that advertised their supply. In addition, manuscripts could be individually adjusted to target a wide array of demographics. An author or scribe could produce, as required, an abbreviated version, an enlarged version, or a version that omitted passages that might be offensive to specific readers. While active marketing tactics were employed, manuscript marketing was mostly reliant on the physical book to help entice upper class readers to buy.

Enter the printing press.

Gutenberg’s printing press was a catalyst for the change in information dissemination in fifteenth century Europe. The invention of movable type in the fifteenth century set the stage for the modern era and with the rise of interest in both science and religion, stationers inherited a new challenge: how do I sell the surplus of printed books I now have? Stationers needed to create a demand for the printed book; and they did, by developing new practices of book marketing.

Title pages became a large part of marketing and acted as custom advertisements for the text within. Title pages could include eye alluring woodcuts or illustrations to appeal to the literate and non-literate alike. Oftentimes the text on the title page would be strategically placed to entice readers with words like “never been published before”, “newly corrected”, “true and perfect coppie”, “corrected”, or “newly augmented”. If the text was a dramatic work, stationers often chose to include on the title page the playing company attributions, records of the play’s performances, plot details, performance venues, and sometimes an author’s engraved likeness. These new marketing tactics were imperative to the dissemination of books in the marketplace.

Font also played an important role in the marketing of a book. Throughout the early modern period, printers relied largely on black letter fonts and roman type. During the early transition from manuscript to print, stationers would also do their best to make a book look like a manuscript. In fact, it was common to try and deceive a buyer who might distrust the new mechanical process; stationers tried to pass off printed books as manuscripts often by replicating extravagant book bindings common to manuscripts. Relying on the appealing features of the physical book to help sell copies as a marketing tactic was still just as important as it was during the era of manuscripts. Stationers worked hard to include positive testimonials on title pages from previous buyers, added edition numbers to make it seem like the book was immensely popular and needed a reprint, and even purposefully misattributed the author’s name. Stationers recognized the need to evolve their sales tactics to sell books to the public. Their livelihood depended on the sale of books and their creativity with how to sell those books increased as time passed.

Active marketing strategies flourished with the printed book, and many stationers went to great lengths to actively market their books to the public. Stationers in London, for example, often posted copies of book title pages in and around St. Paul’s Churchyard, in bookshops, and even in theatre precincts where performances were held (if the book was a drama). Singing the beginning of a book in a public square to a recognizable tune also drew in readers and enticed buyers to purchase a book to see how the story ends. Sometimes stationers even used women singers to attract women buyers. As in manuscript days, stationers also sometimes included with every purchase a catalogue of current books available for sale.

In the sixteenth century, stationers started to promote their books for a specific purpose beyond pleasure reading by establishing the value of the text or by promoting the knowledge, service, or expertise found within. Some stationers even went so far as to offer a money back guarantee if the knowledge within was not sufficient to what was advertised. Marketing became extremely creative as stationers tried to reach new readerships. Some stationers rebranded plays as “dramatic poems” to reach new audiences. Other stationers tried to bring back the same customers repeatedly by selling books as a series or as companion pieces. Many stationers also sought to highlight the low book prices and offered packages of hybrid-books (binding together similarly sized manuscripts and printed books). As evidenced, the multitude of marketing practices played an essential role in the cultural phenomena of printed books and expanded greatly from the initial marketing tactics employed before the press was invented.  

And if it felt like you may have just read a research paper – you kind of did. In lieu of writing another thesis, I opted to complete a comprehensive exam. And here you have it… From Manuscript to Printed Book: the Evolution of Marketing Practices.

So, the next time you login into Goodreads – or get your fourth email of the day from Book Bub, take a hot second to consider how EASY marketing has become. You’re just an Instagram post away from finding an ideal reader – not busting out a ballad in the public square.

Book history for the win.

(Scholarly references available upon request)

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