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Commentary & Analysis

The Power of Print to Change the World

Print began to flex its muscles and show its power not long after Gutenberg invented movable type. Print was a causative factor in the rapid spread of Martin Luther’s teachings in the first half of the 1500’s. Andrew Pettegree has done an excellent job of presenting a blend of European history of the period, the story of Martin Luther and how print influenced it all in Brand Luther. Highly recommended reading!

By Cary Sherburne
Published: October 14, 2016

Andrew Pettegree is a British historian and one of the leading experts on Europe during the Reformation. He currently holds a professorship at St Andrews University.  Brand Luther: How an Unheralded Monk Turned His Small Town into a Center of Publishing, Made Himself the Most Famous Man in Europe—and Started the Protestant Reformation – well, the title says it all, I suppose.

For those of us in the printing industry, this book provides an insightful look into the state of the printing industry at the time, the effect printed materials had on the spread of Luther’s message, and how Luther understood and nurtured the printing industry to both commercially benefit his city (in those days, the printer got all of the revenues from selling the books, not the author!) and to ensure that his publications were produced with an acceptable quality. After reading this, one wonders what the printing industry would look like today were it not for the stimulus Luther provided.

That being said, had you been a printer in those days, he probably would have driven you crazy.  He was very hands on, and we know this because of letters between Luther and his printers that survived from periods when he was in exile and unable to be personally present for press checks!

Luther did two things that were unusual for the time: He published many of his works in German instead of Latin. And he published a plethora of writings in short form in Flugschriften, or pamphlets, typically eight pages. This enabled his message to be understood by the general populace and allowed ordinary citizens to buy several dozen Reformation Flugschriften whereas they may have only had one book – or no books – in their household. Pettegree says:

Engaging this new public would ultimately be hugely lucrative for Germany’s printers, but the challenges of this expanding market were not insignificant. Capturing new readers required both ingenuity and innovation: a new movement required a new sort of book. In mastering these design challenges, Germany’s printers gradually settled on a look that was distinctive and instantly recognizable. This was Brand Luther, and it was one of the great unsung achievements of the Reformation.

When Luther posted his 95 Theses Against the Indulgences on the church door on October 31st, 1517, an event that is generally agreed to be the beginning of the Reformation, there was only one printing press in Wittenberg, Germany. It was operated by Johann Rhau-Grunenberg. He was notoriously slow, and Luther was not pleased at all with his workmanship. According to Pettegree, “By 1518 the inadequacies of the local [Wittenberg] industry were all too obvious. In any circumstances one press would have been insufficient to meet the enormous demand for Luther’s work. That this press was in the hands of Johann Rhau-Grunenberg was a recipe for embarrassment and frustration.”

The lack of capacity and quality drove Luther to work to attract other printers to bring their businesses to Wittenberg. The alternative was to send manuscripts to other cities for printing, which could be problematic. Not only was there a risk of the manuscript being lost or stolen in transit, but for Luther, it was an inconvenience and an irritant not to be able to do press checks to prevent errors and ensure quality. Since sheets were typeset one at a time, press checks were an almost daily event during the printing process!

Back then, printing a large book was a risky investment. A 500-page book could take a year to produce, before the first copy could be sold. So much like today, a printer had to have good credit to acquire the enormous stock of paper that was required, to say nothing of covering operating expenses during the year. Plus, much like today’s book market, there was no guarantee that all of the copies would even sell. Print too many and you couldn’t recoup your investment; print too few and it was very costly (and time consuming) to reset the text for a new edition. German printers typically tried to time publication of books to coincide with the Frankfurt book fair – wow, who knew it had been in existence that long?? – to capitalize on the gathering of book aficionados in hopes of selling all or most of the stock.

Publishing content in pamphlet form changed all that. Not only were the pamphlets more affordable, but the message could get to the market within weeks, or even days, instead of taking a year or more. Printers could make quick profits which could then be reinvested in other projects.

What was Luther’s effect on the industry? Pettegree says:

Between 1502 and 1516, five successive printers [in Wittenberg] published a total of 123 books, an average of 8 a year. All were in Latin and most very small. None of the printers seem to have made much of a living out of this. This was an industry teetering on the brink of viability, probably sustained only by direct subsidy from the elector [governor or ruler] and the university. Between 1517 and 1546, on the other hand, Wittenberg publishers turned out at least 2,721 works, an average of 91 per year. This represents around three million individual copies and includes many of the milestone works of the era, not least multiple editions of Luther’s German Bible.

This vast blossoming of what was essentially a new industry was entirely due to Martin Luther. One in three of all the books published during these three decades were Luther’s own works and another 20 percent were those of his Wittenberg colleagues and followers.

For anyone associated with the printing industry, regardless of your religious persuasion, Brand Luther is a fascinating read. I highly recommend it!


Order a copy of Brand Luther: How an Unheralded Monk Turned His Small Town into a Center of Publishing, Made Himself the Most Famous Man in Europe—and Started the Protestant Reformation on Amazon.com

Cary Sherburne is a well-known author, journalist and marketing consultant whose practice is focused on marketing communications strategies for the printing and publishing industries.

Cary Sherburne is available for speaking engagements and consulting projects. To get more information contact us.

Please offer your feedback to Cary. She can be reached at cary@whattheythink.com.


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