Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 87 / AUGUST 1987 / PAGE 60

Computers and Society

David D. Tornburg. Associate Editor

The Next Gutenberg Revolution

With the introduction of Atari's new laser printer for the ST, the price for a complete desktop publishing system has reached a new low. Ever since Apple's original entry into this field, desktop publishing has become the catch-phrase of the 1980s, and it seems that this new wave of enthusiasm has not yet begun to run out of steam.

To most people, desktop publishing provides cost-effective solutions to the document creation process for businesses of all sizes. Tasks that once required the services of outside typesetters are now performed in-house with a healthy savings in both time and money.

While this application for desktop publishing more than justifies its existence, this field has a greater power than meets the eye. In the case of corporation-based desktop publishing, the documents being published were going to be created anyway. The only benefit of the new technology was that it saved time and money. But the real power of desktop publishing comes when it is used to publish documents that would otherwise never be seen. To see why this is so, let's take a trip back in time.

In days of old

When books were sold

Through publishing on demand,

An author's dreams

Took years, it seems,

'Cause books were writ by hand.

Before Gutenberg, demand publishing was the only way books came to be. If you wanted a library of classics, you would hire a few dozen scribes and then wait for two years while they copied the books. There were no publishers as we know them, no bookstores, and almost no literacy among the general public.

All this changed in the centuries after the invention of moveable type. For the first time, books could be created so inexpensively that copies could be printed in advance of their sale. As the public became increasingly literate, publishers added more and more titles to their catalogs. Bookstores started to appear, and bookselling became a business in its own right. In other words, we went from a time where books were created by consumer demand to a time where they were created by publisher demand.

The introduction of the publisher between the customer and author has had its good and its bad sides.

A problem for many authors comes when they realize that no matter what friends may think, a publisher must first be convinced that their book is worthwhile. If you are an unpublished author, and are not in the news on a daily basis, it can be very hard to get anyone interested in your manuscript.

Even if your book is accepted by a publisher, it could be years before it gets into print. The result is that many authors feel that the established publishers have a stranglehold on the industry and that they end up acting as the arbiters of taste by deciding which books get published and which ones don't.

Of course, publishers are caught in a bind of their own. They can ill-afford to publish and promote books that no one wants to buy, and their cost for bringing a book to market is so high that they need to be guaranteed a good return on their investment. This is why the escapades of a movie star get more marketing dollars than the poetry of e. e. cummings.

Enter The New Age Of Publishing

Rather than bemoan your fate as an unpublished author, you can go into the book-publishing business yourself because of the accessibility of low-priced, high-quality desktop publishing systems.

I did this as an experiment last year when I published Unlocking Personal Creativity, a book I wrote using my Macintosh. I printed the master copy of the book on a LaserWriter using a heavy, clay-coated paper to produce a crisp image. The printing and binding was done in a local shop, and, in a few weeks, my manuscript had become a room full of books that I sold—and now sell—through direct mail and through local bookstores.

This is true freedom of the press.

If you have a message to convey and know how to reach your audience, self-publishing can be very rewarding in many ways. Of course, you should have your manuscript edited professionally and not be reluctant to ask for advice from experts in the field.

One of the most wonderful benefits of desktop publishing is that it has the power to free authors from the restrictions of big publishers—to give control back to those who created the words.

It will be interesting to watch the reaction of the publishing giants as more and more innovative books start to emerge from the smaller presses. Remember that when Apple got started, IBM issued a statement declaring that the personal computer field was outside its domain of interest. Will the big publishers say the same thing about personal publishing? Time will tell.

Meanwhile, Gutenberg would be proud.

Dr. Thornburg has a total of 12 books published by COMPUTE! Addison-Wesley, and Random House. He now uses desktop publishing tools to publish books through his own company, Starsong Publications, where he has two titles in print. He welcomes letters from readers and can be reached at P.O. Box 1317, Los Altos, CA 94023.