Pre-industrial Song bookmakers: a study in decentralized economics

The Literary Collection of Zhu Xi

The Literary Collection of Zhu Xi, courtesy of the National Palace Museum

Found at Taipei’s National Palace Museum last month, tucked away inside an exhibition on art and culture from the Southern Song period of Chinese history, was this infocard on the economics of bookmaking:

In addition to printing, marketing also played a role in the wide circulation of books and in the transmission and fusion of culture. In the Southern Song dynasty, cultural pursuits were highly valued. Printing, by either official or private bookshops who served the role of both producer and seller, was formally encouraged. The officially issued books, which were laid out in large format, printed with quality ink and carefully collated, were modeled by private bookshops.

This got me thinking again about business models for information distribution. In the pre-industrial era of the Song dynasty, the costs of production — as well as revenue generated from sales — were decentralized across a great many independently owned operations. Decentralization, in this case, also fueled innovation: the world’s first movable type system was invented by Bi ShÄ“ng, a commoner and artisan who developed the technology between 1041 and 1048.

With the Industrial Revolution came a cost incentive for businesses to engage in centralized mass-production of goods. The decentralized and distributed economies of previous eras gave way to monopolies over the tech and tools of production.

Fast forward 200 years, and the pendulum is swinging back. The cost of digitally reproducing and transmitting information is now pennies on the dollar compared to physical copies. It is now possible for anyone* to set up shop online and act as both producer and seller, as Song bookmakers of the past once did.

*Anyone with access, that is — a topic for another day.

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