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Frankfurt Book Fair — Gutenberg to E-Book

The Frakfurt Book Fair is now going on in Frankfurt, Germany, as it has — give or take a few interruptions — since the 1450’s. Guenberg’s Bible was shown there, and I’ve been imagining all the buzz there was about movable type.

“Herr Schmidt,” says one bookseller to another, “think of the monks this will put out of work!”

“Ja,” says Herr Schmidt. “Jurgen, we will never have so good reading again. Just think. Now books can be made so fast. And on paper. The slaughterhouses will go under, because they won’t be making vellum any more. And the quality. That will be awful. No more beautiful illuminations.”

Counters Jurgen, “But think how much money we will make. I am thinking I will buy a printing press. Then I can print the books and — ”

“We can sell more books.” Herr Schmidt’s face splits in a wide grin. “Ja. It is true, what you say. Maybe this infernal invention is a good thing.”

Forward a few decades to the book fair of 1524 or so. Herr Schmidt and Jurgen are long gone, but their great-grandsons are there to view Martin Luther’s translation of the New Testament into German.

“Do you know what this means?” asks Schmidt the Younger.

“Ja. It means anyone can read the Bible now.” Jurgen III and Schmidt stare at each other.

“What will they need pr–”

“Shhhh!” says Jurgen. A slow smile widens across his fce. “Just think how many books we will print and sell, Schmidt.”

Schmidt slaps Jurgen on the back. “Ja! If everyone can read a book, everyone will want to wite one. We will print more and sell more. Think of the money we will make!”

Frankfurt Book Fair 2010: The descendants of Jurgen and Schmidt meet again, this time after a session on e-books.

“This could put us out of business,” says Schmidt the 24th, who is CEO of a major publishing conglomerate. “Pretty soon no one will want to buy a hardback book. Where is the profit in selling electronic books? Any fool can format a book for Kindle, and think of all those formats they can make on Smashwords.com. It will be the death of us!”

“Not so,” says Jurgen the 26th, who is a younger man. “Think of wht we can save on advances, and paper cots, and printing equipment. Besides, there’s no warehousing for an e-book.”

Schmidt thinks and scratches his head. At last, just when Jurgen is about to adjourn to the beer-garden, he nods. “I understand.” He smiles his slow, wide smile. “E-book rights are all up in the air, and if we are smart, we can make more money than ever.” He slaps Jurgen on the back. “Maybe these infernal inventions are a good thing. Shall we get a beer?”

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