The first-ever print runs were tiny by our standards and costly by any standard. Gutenberg produced fewer than 200 copies of his eponymous and awe-inspiring Bible and died a broken and insolvent man. Other printers followed suit when they failed to predict demand (by readers) and supply (by authors who acted as their own publishers, pirates, underground printers, and compilers of unauthorized, wild editions of works).
Confronted with the vagaries of this new technology, for many decades printer-publishers confined themselves to pornographic fiction, religious tracts, political pamphlets, dramaturgy, almanacs, indulgences, contracts, and prophecies—in other words, mostly disposable trash. As most books were read aloud—as a communal, not an individual experience—the number of copies required was limited.
Not surprisingly, despite the technological breakthroughs that coalesced to form the modern printing press, printed books in the 17th and 18th centuries were derided by their contemporaries as inferior to their laboriously hand-made antecedents and to the incunabula. One is reminded of the current complaints about the new media (Internet, e-books), its shoddy workmanship, shabby appearance, and the rampant piracy. The first decades following the invention of the printing press, were, as the Encyclopedia Britannica puts it "a restless, highly competitive free for all .. (with) enormous vitality and variety (often leading to) careless work".
There were egregious acts of piracy—for instance, the illicit copying of the Aldine Latin "pocket books", or the all-pervasive piracy in England in the 17th century (a direct result of over-regulation and coercive copyright monopolies). Shakespeare's work was published by notorious pirates and infringers of emerging intellectual property rights. Later, the American colonies became the world's centre of industrialized and systematic book piracy. Confronted with abundant and cheap pirated foreign books, local authors resorted to freelancing in magazines and lecture tours in a vain effort to make ends meet.
Pirates and unlicenced—and, therefore, subversive—publishers were prosecuted under a variety of monopoly and libel laws (and, later, under national security and obscenity laws). There was little or no difference between royal and "democratic" governments. They all acted ruthlessly to preserve their control of publishing. John Milton wrote his passionate plea against censorship, Areopagitica, in response to the 1643 licencing ordinance passed by Parliament. The revolutionary Copyright Act of 1709 in England established the rights of authors and publishers to reap the commercial fruits of their endeavours exclusively, though only for a prescribed period of time.
Books—at times with their authors—were repeatedly burned as the ultimate form of purging: Lutherís works were cast into the flames and, in retaliation, he did the same to Catholic opera; the oeuvres of Rousseau, Servetus, Hernandez, and, of course, of Jewish authors during the Nazi era all suffered an identical fate. Indeed, the Internet is the first text-based medium (at least at its inception) to have evaded censorship and regulation altogether.
The battle between industrial-commercial publishers (fortified by ever more potent technologies) and the arts and craftsmanship crowd never ceased and it is raging now as fiercely as ever in numerous discussion lists, fora, tomes, and conferences. William Morris started the "private press" movement in England in the 19th century to counter what he regarded as the callous commercialization of book publishing and the inexorable decline of Renaissance-type libraries and collections.
When the printing press was invented, it was put to commercial use by private entrepreneurs (traders) of the day. Established "publishers" (monasteries), with a few exceptions (e.g., in Augsburg, Germany and in Subiaco, Italy) shunned it and regarded it as a major threat to culture and civilization. Their attacks on printing read like the litanies against self-publishing or corporate-controlled publishing today.
But, as readership expanded (women and the poor became increasingly literate), market forces reacted. The number of publishers multiplied relentlessly. At the beginning of the 19th century, innovative lithographic and offset processes allowed publishers in the West to add illustrations (at first, black and white and then in color), tables, detailed maps and anatomical charts, and other graphics to their books. Battles fought between publishers-librarians over formats (book sizes) and fonts (Gothic versus Roman) were ultimately decided by consumer preferences. Multimedia was born. The e-book will, probably, undergo a similar transition from being the static digital rendition of a print edition—to being a lively, colorful, interactive and commercially enabled creature.
Publishing has always been a social pursuit and depended heavily on social developments, such as the spread of literacy and the liberation of minorities (especially, of women). As every new format matures, it is subjected to regulation from within and from without. E-books (and, by extension, digital content on the Web) will be no exception. Hence the recurrent and current attempts at regulation.
Every new variant of content packaging was labeled as "dangerous" at its inception. The Church (formerly the largest publisher of bibles and other religious and "earthly" texts and the upholder and protector of reading in the Dark Ages) castigated and censored the printing of "heretical" books (especially the vernacular bibles of the Reformation) and restored the Inquisition for the specific purpose of controlling book publishing. In 1559, it published the Index Librorum Prohibitorum ("Index of Prohibited Books"). A few (mainly Dutch) publishers even went to the stake (a habit worth reviving, some current authors would say...). European rulers issued proclamations against "naughty printed books" (of heresy and sedition). The printing of books was subject to licencing by the Privy Council in England. The very concept of copyright arose out of the forced registration of books in the register of the English Stationer's Company (a royal instrument of influence and intrigue). Such obligatory registration granted the publisher the right to exclusively copy the registered book (often, a class of books) for a number of years—but politically restricted printable content, often by force. Freedom of the press and free speech are still distant dreams in many corners of the earth. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), the V-chip and other privacy invading, dissemination inhibiting, and censorship imposing measures perpetuate a veteran if not so venerable tradition.