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Online Publishing: Threat or Menace?

by Laura Fillmore

Part 1

Presented at Graphic Communications Association Online Publishing Conference
Pittsburg, Pennsylvania
March, 1993

Copyright © 1993 by Laura Fillmore; written permission required to reprint.

Last week we had a fantastic snowstorm in New England, and this would have afforded the best of times to curl up in front of the fireplace with Dickens' "A Tale of Two Cities," reading to my kids. We have my grandfather's old leatherbound edition: perfectly spaced black type sunk into the Italian paper page, as vividly readable today as it was a hundred years ago. We would have delighted at the illustrations, wondered what code Madame LaFarge was knitting there in her lap. This whole scene makes sense: I was an English major at Barnard College, then worked in the Little, Brown trade book division, and started Editorial Inc. eleven years ago--we've produced hundreds of books. Such an evening would fit the context of my life.

Instead, that Saturday night I chose to squint into a computer screen, manipulating ASCII files of John Ashbery's poetry, and searching for online typos in Robert Coover's raucous fictions. Yet this substitution was deliberate, and, yes, exciting, for we were preparing for the Online BookStore's Internet debut of both authors on Monday the 15th, where the Pulitzer-Prize winning poet Ashbery and novelist Coover read into an SGI computer, their voices being digitized to accompany the text files we'd worked on during the blizzard. These text files will soon be available to the Internet public, a huge and exponentially growing audience worldwide. The Internet, a vast network of networks, is open to all, owned by no one, and has a population estimated at 10-20 million users, which is growing at 15% per month according to Vice President Gore. In his science fiction novel "Neuromancer," William Gibson referred to "the consensual hallucination that is the matrix," the matrix being the worldwide computer network of networks including its largest discrete unit, the Internet.

But wait a minute. How did we get from a leatherbound Dickens in a snowstorm to a consensual hallucination? To understand why it's possible, and exciting, and world-changing to have John Ashbery reading from his poem entitled "Flow Chart" over your rec room Mac, let's get some background before we explore how the service of sending recorded voice, text and pictures over wires might be perceived as a threat to the publishing industry and even to the author himself. I think we'll discover some ways we might make sense of, and dollars from, the consensual hallucination of our electronic age.

I don't know about you, but my collaboration with computers has been neither simple nor easy. I remember the shrinking feeling in my stomach the first time I bought a computer set-up back in 1984: $10,000 of the bank's money for an XT and an HP LaserJet. The salesman left, I was back at the C prompt, and the room grew dark. No matter which buttons I pushed, "Abort, Retry, Ignore" glared back persistently. Finally, I chose none of the above and unplugged the whole thing. But I had seen the beast, I had faced the menace--and I knew where the plug went into the wall. Terrible thing, ignorance, and there must be a kind of poetic justice at work that puts me here before you, proposing we link up "live on line" to the largest network of networks in the world.

Surely, the Paper Age seems comfortable enough. Easy to manage, easier to understand. The author wrote the book, the publisher published it, you bought it and you own it. Pass it on to your kids. Use the Dickens set as collateral for that home improvement loan. Start on page one with the best of times, put it in your briefcase, take it on the train, and then end up, hundreds of pages later, regretting that its over. There's no substitute for the sensual experience of reading a book. The author did all the work and the page lies passive while the reader brings "only" his imagination. You're alone; your hands are free; you don't Enter, Save, or Return. Just shut the door and read the printed word. No threat, no menace.

Surprisingly enough, there was a time when the written word itself was perceived as a threat to society. Plato wrote of Socrates, who, in "Phaedrus," laments to the god who invented letters:

"This discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners' souls, because they will not use their memories...they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality..." Sound similar to what we hear about electronic communication today? Ironically, that ancient Hellenic threat, writing, preserved Greek culture and philosophy, as well as "Phaedrus" itself, just as we might anticipate, electronic codification might preserve our own culture, perhaps in fact reincarnating the oral tradition.

This electronic codification of our culture has been progressing slowly over the past few decades. Not that long ago, books used to enjoy a nine-month gestation period, and the process moved in predictable linear sequence from manuscript to copyediting, design, typesetting, proofreading, indexing, printing and binding, then distribution through traditional channels. Along the way, everyone had a clearly defined job.

Back in the late '70s when I was at Little, Brown, we needed to get special permission to use Fed Ex. When an author wanted his sales figures, I'd walk up the street to the top floor of a separate building where Rose, the lady with the P&L cards, had been keeping tabs for twenty years, and I'd sign out the neatly pencilled card and carefully carry it to my boss, wrapping it in plastic against the weather if necessary. I passed the copyediting department with their well-stocked reference library, a bastion against inaccuracy, and the design department, smelling of wax, hung with rulers, sizing wheels, and X-acto knives.

During the past decade, it's as if an electric current has been laid beneath that whole process, and we've been jolted awake. Desktop publishing has meant decentralization and hyped up production schedules. Mirroring our new computer tools, book production has switched to parallel processing mode to facilitate the making of instant books. The paperless office is littered with reams of waste paper; decentralization and outsourcing have created a whole new subgenre of publishing: itinerant freelancers who create--and sometimes even publish--books. Of course, some of us still resist. An author's blithe reassurance that "it's all on a disk" strikes cold terror in the heart of those publishing types who understand that pretty formatting and spell checking can't make up for sloppy prose and inaccurate thinking.

But the process is irreversible. And again, the computers lead the way and we should look to these success stories to understand the medium. The best experience I've had of immediate production was Guy Steele's "Common Lisp"--over 1000 pages from copyediting to repro in 6 weeks. We parallel processed the book and generated about 10,000 pages of proofs along the way. Despite the effort, as with practically all software-related books, the book was out of date before it made it to the stores. These kinds of books stretched the capabilities of the print medium as an efficient vehicle for disseminating information. But they opened the door for the popular instant book so that we've come to expect immediate books on almost any popular passing fad or personality enjoying his fifteen minutes in the limelight.

Amid the hubbub of the desktop revolution, consider for a moment one reliable and efficient facilitator, the Fed Ex man, a true prefigurement of our networked electronic age. On the job, in uniform, he's a totally trackable employee, trafficking in paper packets packaged in familiar cardboard containers all the same. He may even drive a truck with a code written on top to allow for satellite surveillance. His location is always known by his superiors at headquarters, logging continually in and out as he does with his pen-based computer. He's part of a network, hardly a free agent making decisions on his own about how best to navigate from point A to point B by 10:30 am.

Where Fed Ex headquarters has increased efficiency over these past few years by making the delivery service for paper more like a computer, the people in the publishing industry they serve have felt disturbing undercurrents of a certain kind of chaos. Increased speed and volume have led to high job turnover, a blurring of disciplines. Our computerized tools allow the editor to become a typist a designer and a typesetter, the designer becomes a software junkie, a graphic artist, a prepress house. No time for galleys! Straight to pages! No time for pages; straight to film. The drop dead date is bottom line. Sales are needed this quarter. The home-based desktop publisher tries her hand at imposed film. Fed Ex is too slow; check those last corrections by fax (perhaps the last link in the paper chain before we all turn to email), and then zoom, push the envelope and modem the files to the printer, who can charge the drum and print right then on a lightning web that stamps out thousands of books a day.

There's more. Here come the hybrids: Books produced with disks bound in, books with ads and coupons for updates. Still within the realm of paper, publishing on demand introduces the notion of the publisher as the keeper of the database, "copyright central," offering the public custom-tailored books at a moment's notice. And the customer determines what's in the book. The community college assistant professor of accounting can put together his own textbook, include his own economic theories and home-grown multiple choice questions, all printed and bound together with essays written by the titans of his field, from Harvard, Wharton, and Berkeley. Authors feel the threat of a certain loss of control when their work becomes fragmented by huge centralized databases.

Bring on the nonpaper books, whose screens look just like book pages. These disks begin to offer the reader some of the true benefits of the medium--nonlinear interactive involvement in an information rich environment. With the advent of these expanded hypertext books, along with the various CDs, CD-I's, and data diskmen, no longer is the reader passive before the page; the reader determines what she learns and experiences. The result of course is the continued merging not only of the disciplines within the traditional publishing company, but the evolution of publishing companies themselves into information companies, bringing together the media of books, records, films, in an effort to create, still, a centralized organization buying and licensing intellectual property and selling things . . . tangible things. Creation of these products remains capital-intensive and risky thanks to the many nonstandard formats and platforms, the rampant confusion in our inforich environment.

William S. Burroughs, prophet, poet and drug addict, saw ahead to our present dilemma. "The study of thinking machines," he wrote in "Naked Lunch", "teaches us more about the brain than we can learn by introspective methods. Western man is externalizing himself in the form of gadgets. . . . The C-charged brain is a berserk pinball machine, flashing blue and pink lights in electric orgasm. C pleasure could be felt by a thinking machine, the first stirring of hideous insect life."

Truly sometimes the confusion and the multiplicity of all our electronic gadgets does seem like a plague. One large publishing house I talked to recently about putting their titles online told me that they were having a moratorium on electronic rights; they wanted to wait and see how things "shook out" before they decided what to do with their properties. Well, maybe there's some safety in being a sidelined witness to the whole process, but it's important to start to use the machine, to turn the threat to our conventional way of doing things into opportunities.

Copyright © 1993 by Laura Fillmore; written permission required to reprint.

OBS White Papers Part 2