Grim, before I accept the proposition that "the difficulty of acquiring books before the printing press is overstated" I would need to see some sources. Every history of the period I have ever consulted has emphasized the seismic impact of the sudden availability of a vastly greater body of printed material, along with an explosion of literacy and an accompanying market for books. What do you think is overstated about that picture?I think it's overstated in both directions. For one thing, the idea that Gutenberg produced a 'sudden availability' of 'a vastly greater body' of material is not borne out. Here's a chart of "the number of separately printed items in Britain and by English abroad," from James Raven's The Business of Books, p. 8.
Now Malory's work is right there at the beginning, but as we see the printing press didn't change the world over night -- or in the first hundred years, or hundred and fifty. It was the kickoff of the industrial revolution that made the printed book the main game. Even long after Gutenberg's death around 1465 (if I recall correctly) printed books were not the majority of books being produced.
For the most part right through the Renaissance books were made as they were made throughout the Middle Ages. And this was a substantial business!
Moreover, the universities were the earliest centres of the book trade as we understand it, and the provisions for the multiplication, sale, and rent of standard works helped these at least to travel by their own momentum. In these respects the university life of the later Middle Ages reached a comparatively close approximation to early modern conditions; the chief difference, to use Shaw's phrase, lay in the iconography.That's from Charles Homer Haskins, "The Spread of Ideas in the Middle Ages," Speculum 1 no. 1 (January 1926). He goes on to point out that there are records of 'vast stores of books' returning from the Fourth Crusade as a favored item of plunder; in fact, the Crusaders had learned early in Spain that there was almost nothing of greater value than the books of Greek learning, and Arabic commentaries or expansions on the same, that they were able to take from the Saracen lands.
A gentleman named Peter Yu, though a lawyer rather than historian by training, composed a fairly careful brief history of books in response to a comment by Justice Breyer that is called "Of Monks, Medieval Scribes, and Middlemen." Michigan St. Law Review 1 (2006)
By the twelfth century, towns emerged, and communities grew in size and wealth. As a result of the spread of literacy, the demand for books increased dramatically, and a large number of new texts appeared. "Monastic libraries soon found it more and more difficult to keep their collections up to date, and they began employing secular scribes and illuminators to collaborate in book production." Meanwhile, schools became independent from cathedrals, to which they were originally attached, and guilds of lecturers and students gathered to form universities. With the changing lifestyle and the emergence of new educational institutions, it became more and more common for people to want to own books themselves, whether students seeking textbooks or noble women desiring to own beautifully illuminated Psalters. By 1200 there is quite good evidence of secular workshops writing and decorating manuscripts for sale to the laity. By 1250 there were certainly bookshops in the big university and commercial towns, arranging the writing out of new manuscripts and trading in second-hand copies. By 1300 it must have been exceptional for a monastery to make its own manuscripts: usually, monks bought their books from shops like anyone else, although this is not quite true of the Carthusians or of some religious communities in the Netherlands....He goes on to note that the 'challenge' to traditional manuscripts by printed works was generational, as the traditionally produced works did not drop off in popularity, and printed works were actually more expensive than hand-made works in the first generation. The technology to produce them was new and not an industrial technology; there were very few people who knew how to make or use it, and it still required a very substantial amount of labor. The works were certainly popular, which demand increased their price given the limited supply, but they did not replace the Medieval method for generations -- only supplemented it.
Ordinances, therefore, were developed "to regulate the work of the copyists, to lay down the minimum requirements of formal presentation and substantial correctness, and to prescribe the selling price of duly certified copies." A notable example of these regulations was the ordinance of Bologna University of 1259, which provided what commentators have considered to be the earliest regulations of sales, loans, and production of books used by the university. Similar regulations were also enacted by the University of Paris in 1275 and by Alphonso X of Castile in Spain sometime between 1252 and 1285. Although England had similar regulations concerning the stationers, "the English book trade . . . developed not around the universities, as on the Continent, but in London, where the stationers formed a guild as early as 1403." This guild was known famously as the Stationers' Company...
As the book trade grew in volume, the number of scribes increased dramatically, and a scribal industry began to emerge as a profession.... [t]he book trade continued to flourish in major European cities, and the number of scribes and illuminators increased substantially as a result. "By the late thirteenth century in Paris (a century later in England), ateliers of scribes and illuminators were known by the name of their master artists," and "the names of scribes, illuminators, parchment-makers and binders . . . [can be found] in tax records, though few names can be linked with surviving books."
I don't think that Tex is at all wrong about the way the general history is presented, however. It's just that here as so often with the Middle Ages, the Modern age has gotten the truth completely backwards.