Printing technology transformed the spread of knowledge and ideas, but also created a new business problem: publishing risk. Printing a book required large expenditures for labor and paper, but offered an uncertain hope of profit. Christopher Plantin’s cost accounts offer detailed insight into this risk and its management.
Plantin’s cost records, kept for nearly four years in the 1560s, are now being compiled into data base software. When completed, this should offer insights on the magnitude of risk, risk-sharing options, and risk management techniques. It also should help quantify the risk profile of specific decisions, such as the number of copies to be printed, and the selection of paper, font, format, and layout.
Plantin allocated to specific books only costs that were incurred with the decision to print that book: principally labor and paper costs. He did not allocate fixed costs of his business, such as printing presses and real estate. This paper explores a threshold question: whether the costs he did allocate offer an accurate picture of his risk incentives. Specifically, was Plantin’s business capital-intensive? If so, then his fixed costs may have created incentives that would not be captured in the data base.
The present analysis concludes that Plantin’s business was not capital intensive, comparing it both to present day and early modern businesses. When operating at the planned scale, Plantin’s business incentives were in fact driven by the variable costs that he recorded in his costing system. This can be seen not only from his accounts, but from his behavior: he curtailed production in difficult markets and managed risk on a book-by-book basis. The data base accordingly will be useful in understanding how publishing risk, the necessary companion of printing technology, helped shape print culture and the circulation of ideas in early modern times.
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