The Cost of Books Keeps Falling
That's a good thing
Books are important. They offer an information-dense and efficient means of transmitting highly granular knowledge from one person to many. But the ability to read and the availability of books was once an extreme luxury reserved for an elite few. Few human accomplishments have had a more profound impact on progress than the falling cost of print media, the subsequent explosion of literacy, and the feedback loop this created.
The Luxury of Knowledge
The invention of printing technology is often attributed to the Europeans, but the earliest printed materials known have been found in China, dating as far back as the first millennium A.D. Moveable type technology, where printing panels were replaced with moveable and reusable individual letters/characters, was also first invented in China around 1000 A.D.
The technology came to Europe centuries later, when Johannes Gutenberg, a political exile from Germany living in France, began experimenting with printing around 1440. He returned to Germany several years later, and by 1450, had a printing machine ready for commercial use: The Gutenberg press.
Prior to moveable type technology, the production of books was a labor-intensive process that made them an extreme luxury. Books were often written out and copied by hand. Each letter of every word was painstakingly penned by a scribe. A single book of typical length took some 135 days of labor to create. If we factor inflation, tying this labor to the median wage of a blue-collar worker today, this equates to a production cost of over $35,000 per book.
Obviously, had the cost of producing print media remained unchanged, few would have had the opportunity to become literate and educated. The printing press dramatically lowered the cost and time required to reproduce books. In doing so, it simultaneously reduced the cost of storing and transmitting knowledge.
This didn’t happen immediately, of course. It took time for movable type technology to diffuse into society and for competition between printers to drive prices down. Research shows that, in Europe, the price of books fell an average of 2.4 percent per year in the 100 years after the arrival of the Gutenberg Press. In addition, books were increasingly printed in local vernaculars instead of Latin, increasing their accessibility to laypeople.
The falling cost and greater availability of printed materials raised the utility of literacy. It didn’t take long for some governments to set up education systems for the purpose of expanding literacy, enabling and accelerating the passage of knowledge from one generation to the next. In the 20th century, illiteracy, once the norm, had been almost completely eradicated in the “developed” world. The “developing world” is not far behind.
A Positive Feedback Loop
The ability to read, write, and study gave subsequent generations an inherent advantage over their ancestors. They were able to absorb information from expert authors, bypassing the trial and error of those who came before them. The printing press was an invention that spurred the accelerated diffusion of knowledge, in turn, accelerating the invention of the modern world itself.
Ultimately, this has led to the emergence of the internet and digital media, which has made books and other “print” media still even more abundant. In the digital realm, the marginal cost of production and distribution has fallen to essentially zero. The single biggest cost has become royalties to the authors themselves. This is a dramatic and profound change from just 500 years ago.
Indeed, the cost of reproducing digital books is so low that websites like Project Gutenberg host tens of thousands of books, freely available for anyone, anywhere to read. Should the price of books have remained at $35,000 a piece, the library of Project Gutenberg would have cost some $2.3 billion…for only a single copy of each book.
Thanks to progress, education is no longer reserved for a select elite. Digital media is available to virtually all, enabling some of the most remote and poorest individuals to benefit from the vast expanse of human knowledge. With only a smartphone or access to a library, everyone has access to billions of dollars of knowledge, a luxury that our ancestors could have only dreamed of.