History of Book Printing

What we call a book today is very different from what our ancestors would have called a book.  The history of book printing starts with tablets, scrolls and sheets of papyrus.  After these, we had elaborate, hand-bound and expensive books known as codices. These eventually gave way to press-printed books which lead to the mass-printed books you find in bookshops all over the world.

Clay Tablets

The history of books starts with clay tablets.  These were first used in Mesopotamia in the 3rd Millennium BC.  Characters were made in moist clay via a triangular tool called a calamus. Chile, Philippines and Germany were some of the countries that used clay tablets up until the 19th Century.

Papyrus Books

Papyrus books were in the form of a scroll of several sheets pasted together which were in the region of 10 meters long or more.  The text was on one side, divided into columns and ran horizontally when the scroll was rolled out.  The title of the book on a label attached to the cylinder containing the book. The book of the Dead from the early 2nd millennium was created as a papyrus book.

Pre-Columbian Codices

In Mesoamerica, codices were created. The information in these books was recorded on strips of paper, animal hides or agave fibres. They were then folded and protected by wooden covers. Many of the codices were thought to contain religious calendars, knowledge about the gods, astrological information genealogies of the rulers, cartographic information and tribute collection. Most of these codices were protected and stored in temples but many were unfortunately destroyed by the Spanish explorers.


Romans used wax-coated wooden tablets upon which they could write and erase by using a pointed stylus with a spherical end. Usually, these tablets were used for everyday purposes and for teaching writing to children.

Production of parchment began around the 3rd century BC. Parchment was made using the skins of animals. It proved to be easier to conserve over time as it was more solid.

The History of Book Printing in Rome

Printing of books developed in Rome around the 1st century BC with Latin literature. It was thought that the number of potential readers in Imperial Rome was roughly around 100,000. The book business extended itself through the Roman Empire thanks to the extension of the Empire.


Cai Lun in AD 105 created a sheet of paper using mulberry and other bast fibres along with fishnets, old rags, and hemp waste.  Paper used as a writing medium only became widespread by the 3rd century.

The codex replaced the scroll sometime between the 2nd and 4th centuries. Books were now a collection of sheets attached at the back instead of a continuous roll. It was now possible to access any point within the text accurately and quickly with thanks to a table of contents and indices. It was also easy to rest on a table which allows the reader to take notes while they are reading. With the codex came improved form with the separation of words, capital letters and punctuation. 1500 years after its appearance and it is still the standard form of books today.

Moveable Type Printing Press

Production of the book came into the industrial age in 1440 with the invention of the movable type printing press by Johan Fust, Peter Schoffer and Johannes Gutenberg. Books were no longer a single object reproduced or written by request but were now a publication enterprise.  The cost of producing books was lowered significantly, this, in turn, increased the distribution of books.

Book Printing in Europe

Printing presses were set up in rapid succession throughout Central and Western Europe. Barely 30 years after the publication of the 42-line Bible, the Netherlands featured printing shops in 21 cities and towns. Germany and Italy each had shops in about 40 towns at that time. by 1500, 8 million books had been produced by 1000 printing presses throughout Western Europe.  Fast forward 50 years and the city of Geneva had over 300 printing presses and booksellers alone.  By the sixteenth-century, book printing was in the order of between 150 and 200 million copies.

History of Book Printing in the Rest of the world

The establishment of trade links through the West and east sea routes greatly facilitated the global spread of Gutenberg-style printing. In the Americas, the first extra-European print shop was founded in Mexico City in 1544. Soon after this, a ship carrying a printing press left Portugal setting sail to Abyssinia with the purpose of helping missionary work in Abyssinia. Circumstances prevented this printing press from leaving India, and consequently, printing was initiated in the country.

North America saw the adoption of the Gutenberg printing press by Elias Boudinot a Cherokee Indian who published the tribe’s first newspaper, the Cherokee Phoenix, from 1828.

In the 19th century, the arrival of the Gutenberg-style press to the shores of Tahiti, Hawaii and other Pacific islands, marked the end of a global diffusion process which had begun almost 400 years earlier. At the same time, the Gutenberg printing press was already in the process of being displaced by industrial machines like the steam-powered press and the rotary press.

The introduction of steam printing presses, followed by new steam paper mills, constituted the two most major innovations. Together, they caused the price of book production to fall and the rate of book production to increase considerably.

Then we had typewriters and eventually computer-based word processors and printers which let people print and produce their own documents at home.  Among a series of developments that occurred in the 1990s, the spread of digital multimedia, which encodes texts, images, animations, and sounds in a unique and simple form was notable for the book publishing industry.

About Jamie Rand

I'm the Business Development Manager at Imprint Digital, a leading book printing company. This blog is where I share insights and strategies from my journey, offering advice for everyone in the publishing and printing industry.