ONLINE PUBLISHING: Threat or Menace?

Speech presented at Online Publishing Conference
Graphic Communications Association
March 1993

by Laura Fillmore
Editorial Inc.

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.

What does all this new electronic stuff offer us that we didn't have before, and where does literacy fit in? There's Nintendo, a hyped-up, wired-in experience of manipulating a cartoon character in an environment of someone else's making. There are the interactive CDs, where an encyclopedia will show you jungle animals in quicktime, substituting pictures for words. But most importantly, there's the hypertext book that makes you and the way you read part of the book itself. Your unique version is digitized, recorded, and thus immediately transferable to your neighbor in a way impossible when we were all solo armchair readers. The technology enables us to get inside each other's heads on an unprecedented mass scale.

Up until now, the major limitation of these new electronic products books is that they're all separate. Everyone's at his own station, or even on his own private network, insular, doing his own thing on his own platform. Where's the missing link in this new digitized terrain of ours? How to erase the incompatibilities among hardware, software, and our own personal wetware -- what will flatten out and eliminate those barriers, those delimiters of separateness--time and space? I'm not speculating about machines to be invented sometime soon. I'm suggesting linking together online and plugging into the biggest collective machine ever invented. It's plain vanilla, cross-platform ASCII. It's here. It's now. This is the Internet.

Created over 25 years ago by DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) as ARPANET, the Internet was initially designed for computer professionals and researchers to share costly hardware resources. What has become today's data superhighway was originally designed as a kind of electronic communications mosaic that could survive even a nuclear blast. So, unlike a centralized network such as Fed Ex, where if headquarters is destroyed the whole system falls, if part of the Internet, say Dallas, disappears suddenly, then the Internet routers simply redirect the data packets to their destinations. Information travels over the Internet in many separate packets, each one labelled with addressing and sequencing information, and travelling separately to its destination. By analogy, if you were to ship the Brooklyn Bridge via Internet to San Francisco, each brick would travel separately by the best and fastest route, and the bridge would be reassembled in San Francisco as soon as all the pieces arrived.

The Internet is remarkably anarchic, totally distributed, run and maintained by countries, corporations, individual volunteers and universities. The common language is ASCII, the price of admission is free.

Well, almost. Our taxes have paid for it after all, and continue to pay for its new incarnation, NREN, the National Research and Education Network. The same kind of defense dollars built the national highway system. The Internet's a resource, just as the National Parks and Seashores are national resources, only this one's man made. And for the last three years or so a handful of companies have sprung up, provider service companies, offering Internet access to people and corporations equipped with computers large and small, and modems. These companies have grown quite successfully, many exponentially, along with the Internet.

I first became interested to the publishing possibilities on the Internet in the Spring of 1989, when my company was producing Quarterman's book "The Matrix". To punctuate the production process with doses of real life, the author sent me some messages he'd picked up on the Internet--first person accounts from students in Tianamen Square, and from Alaskans responding to the black blight from the Valdez polluting their shores. These messages were so much more vital and immediate than traditional news stories, that I began to wonder how I might hook into this global network and find out for myself what the Internet is all about.

Last Spring we got around to it by proposing a trade computer book called "The Internet Companion: A Beginner's Guide to Global Networking, " an inexpensive trade paperback aimed at telecommunications neophytes. Our author, Tracy LaQuey, did a superb job writing the incredibly complicated basics into layman's language. We signed a contract with A-W in July of 1992, then researched, wrote and produced the book using the Internet, and delivered film for the book 8 weeks later. Even though my decade of experience in publishing told me differently, I wanted to see the book in bookstores immediately, and this urgency increased when the man who wrote the Foreword to our book, Senator Gore, was elected Vice President. During those eight weeks, from the time we delivered film till the book arrived on bookstore shelves, we explored other ways to make the text electronically available to the Internet public, the natural audience for the book.

That's when I met Barry Shein at Software Tool & Die, the first provider service to the Internet. STD has the blessing of the NSF (National Science Foundation) to run a commercial service on the Internet, and he described his operation as basically an electronic store with empty shelves and a cash register at the door. I decided that I'd find electronic properties to fill those shelves and we'd start the Online BookStore (OBS), offering digitized text, audio, and voice files to anyone with a PC, Mac, or larger machine capable of Internet access. We'd keep the prices affordable, say $5 per hour or $5 per download, and offer authors and electronic rights holders royalties for their works, a first on the Internet, which until this point enjoyed a culture of free and equal access to all resources. The problem was, of course, that the resources available did not include current copyright books and publications because there was no financial structure in place to pay authors and electronic rights holders. We wanted to create a popular and affordable alternative to online database services, some of which were charging $60 to $200 per hour, hardly mass market rates.

Our pilot project was "The Internet Companion" which we serialized for free, in ASCII format, chapter-by-chapter, starting on December 17th. The response was immediate and somewhat overwhelming. Close to 15,000 people have downloaded the first three chapters of the book, and many thousands have downloaded the gif file, the scan of the cover and the author's photo. People read the ASCII files and order the book (we've provided A-W's 800 number, as well as electronic ordering information), and our editor tells us that they definitely believe that OBS publication has spurred print sales, for they are receiving orders from places they'd never received orders from before. We have filled print orders from all over the world: Korea, Saudi Arabia, Greece, Guatemala, Finland. A-W is now planning a fifth printing, which will bring copies in print well over the 50,000 mark in just five months.

Remember, these were plain ASCII files, readable by any machine for online use only, not to be reformatted, printed out, or resold. Our new for-pay titles, "Bernice Chesler's Bed & Breakfast in the Northeast," will soon be available on searchable ASCII form, and supplemented by scanned-in photos of individual B&Bs. The Coover and Ashbery files, modern poetry and prose, will be illustrated by voice files of the authors reading their work. We believe that these releases will also complement the printed versions of the authors' works and serve to spur sales of the printed books. It just doesn't seem likely that people will want to sit and scroll through hundreds pages of text as a linear reading experience. Anyone sampling an online book who really wants to read the book in a traditional manner will probably just go and order the book.

But just who are these millions of people on the Internet, this large and immediate audience? It's safe to assume that they are all literate human beings who live and eat, travel, get sick, and read books. And many of them conduct their work, maybe even their personal lives, online. They are used to accessing information in a nonlinear fashion, relieved when a few keystrokes will deliver to their terminals what it might take others in the paper world many hours or weeks to ferret out. We should look at the way these net inhabitants live and work for guidance as to how we publish online.

But as we introduce for-pay information services online, the most pressing concern to authors and publishers seems to be loss of control, letting the genie out of the bottle and never realizing any income from work released in online form. To address this, let's look at the role of publisher in a different light: Instead of selling tangible products, the online publisher is licensing access to literature, information, to popular culture. The tangible products we've been marketing may become tomorrow's "storage media" for the dynamic information on the Net. And one can keep that genie in the bottle in four basic ways:. First of all, you can bury the source files and prohibit complete downloads, so that online customers can query and access files, find out what they want, and pay a fraction of the cost of the printed book for doing so. Your net audience may surprise you: people who access your texts may be people who in the past never purchased, say, a costly medical or reference book. This reader may just want to do few lookups once or twice. That's an expanded marketplace and unexpected income.

Then there's the exploding-book model pioneered by William Gibson with "Agrippa". He published this electronic book which self-destructed after the reader had been through it once. This may not prove to be the most popular method, but it's certainly an interesting option. Encryption is another avenue actively being explored, one route we at the OBS have shunned to this point because we think it unduly complicates things. After all, once thousands of books are available online, how many people are going to hoard their own private ASCII libraries, filling up stacks of hard disks, just so they can "own" files which are available inexpensively online? And, really, if reader/pirates are intent on ripping off publishers and reselling those files, would it be worth their while to retypeset the ASCII files and print and distribute? If they were so bent on deception, it would be a lot easier to simply Xerox the printed book.

Before getting all caught up in piracy issues, let's consider how digitized information and literature hold different values than their printed complements. Let's look at the readers and how they are using these online files. Think nonlinear; think interactive. Online cluster publishing might become popular, offering a collection of works on the same topic which will serve not as a static bookshelf, but an interactive, living resource. Clusters of books could appeal to different audiences; there might be an American History cluster aimed at sixth graders, or a cluster of travel guidebooks, nonfiction accounts and reference titles on particular areas of the world. One proposal currently taking shape is to group the many books and journals which have addressed the conspiracy theory of John F. Kennedy's assassination with the relevant government documents as a means of bringing that unresolved question into a new focus.

Beyond offering supplements in the form of digitized voice and graphics files, the online book might ultimately serve as a data stream, protean, updated regularly, so readers keep returning to get the most recent information or contribution. Tax and investment guides, software manuals, medical reference, drug books, current events books, anything that should be kept up to date is a prime candidate for online, ongoing publication. The printed book then becomes a freezeframe of sorts, a tangible resource for readers.

Publishers might consider weighting their lists differently and not putting so much emphasis on the front list, where books thrive or perish sometimes in a matter of weeks following their publication, depending on the shelf space accorded them in bookstores. What about that cookbook or gardening book published three years ago; why should those sales be flat? The expense of putting these backlist books online would be far less than a whole reprint and marketing campaign, and could yield significant income for both authors and publishers.

Also, while breathing life into the backlist, online publishing will advance the front list. The possibilities of first serials online have gotten a lot of interest at the OBS. This is a useful way to reach a broad audience with an enticing excerpt of a book before it's published, target the book at various interest groups, see how a particular author's work is received. Readers will welcome new work from their favorite authors, even if it's in ASCII form, and especially if it's not available yet in conventional channels.

Promotional possibilities also exist online. A publisher can offer its titles in an enriched context, supplemented by catalogue copy, reviews, blurbs, unbounded by the constraints of time and print dollars. The reader wins from an enriched browsing environment and can make more informed decisions on what he chooses to access on line or buy in print.

The totally new terrain of online interactive books will lead to interesting twists in our cultural evolution. Here's another "Internet Companion" example. We got some email from a professor at MIT the Sunday night before film was due at the printer for the fourth printing. He had a technical correction to our anecdotal account of the role the Internet played in the Soviet coup involving Gorbachev. His points were valid, we exchanged a few messages, made some changes which he approved, and we got the film out Monday morning. This kind of exchange would have been impossible in this timeframe in a paper environment. The interactive possibilities when extended to things like software books, medical case studies, environmental literature, where readers might end up contributing significantly to the content of the book, are quite intriguing. The ease and immediacy of electronic communication invites interaction on a level unknown to us before.

People interacting with texts and making new texts might indeed lead to plagiarism. How would one stop someone from simply taking all or part of an electronically published work and incorporating it into some new work and then reselling it? Beyond the strategies I've already outlined, let me speculate for a minute. People at the Internet Society have developed things called programmable Knowbots, which, when released on the net, can search out from among the thousands of databases and resources on the net whatever it is you program the knowbot to search for, and return that information to your mailbox. Perhaps one could program one's personal knowbots to search out text strings or whole articles from one's own copyrighted prose and report back where it's being used and for what. The idea smacks of Thought Police, but in an environment where the immediate working currency is original thought, something along these lines might well evolve. I checked this out yesterday with Vint Cerf, Head of the Internet Society in Washington, and he confirmed that this was indeed a possible use for knowbots and in fact had some precedent in the software industry.

Now, if the Internet is decentralized, and costs are minimal for online publication, what role then remains for publishers? Can't anyone put online the unpublished memoirs of Uncle Joe? Of course he can, but that doesn't mean anyone will read it. Word travels incredibly fast on the net, and the online books that thrive will have to rely on recommendations and word of mouth on the net. A meritocracy of ideas may emerge. Advertising may not play the big role it does in printed books; the glitz and the packaging may be supplanted by an emphasis on content. Publishers have traditionally been imprimaturs of quality, and have supported authors in their creation of new works. This model should not change just because the methods of access and distribution have undergone radical change. And would a renewed emphasis on content really be so bad?

Probably the most significant threat online publishing poses to publishers is the invitation to think in new and creative ways about how we can use our online resources to add value to books and to our culture. There's no reward from quaking in fear that our paper kingdom will crumple. Continuing to do what we've always done and hoping it all goes away won't cut it; waiting for things to "shake out" doesn't make sense. Although you can't always identify a pioneer from the arrows in his back, it does make sense to proceed with caution. Undergoing a paradigm shift in the way we live and think might prove uncomfortable and error-prone. But when the screen flashes "Abort Retry Ignore," we all need remember that aborting isn't productive, Ignoring leads to Ignorance, a most unhealthy state. It's the trying and the retrying that will lead to a worthwhile online culture.