Chapter 5 - Part E

Owning an Internet Press

Adam: Since the beginning of time, or at least since Gutenberg first stamped out his Bible, people have wanted to publish. After all, someone clever said that freedom of the press goes to those who have a press. The obstacles to becoming a publisher are vast, but generally boil down to money, as so much does these days. To publish a simple newsletter today you must pay for design and production and printing and distribution, and you probably even must buy a mailing list from some guy wearing a trench coat in a dark alley.

Bill: But on the Internet, many of these problems disappear, or are at least made far more manageable. Newsletters, magazines, fiction and the like abound, all published by people who probably couldn't dream of being able to publish their work in the standard way.

Adam: As this is a topic that is near and dear to my heart, we'll start by talking about newsletters, and my very own TidBITS.


Adam: I'm not quite sure of the technical difference between a newsletter and a magazine, but it seems to be related primarily to length. Newsletters are generally under twenty pages or so, and magazines usually seem to check in closer to one hundred or more pages. The small size of newsletters makes them easy to distribute through email and Usenet news, which is a big plus. This is the route my wife Tonya and I took with TidBITS.

Bill: Of course, even if you paid for nothing else to put out your newsletter, there's still the question of your own time. Do you make any money on TidBITS to compensate for the time you spend on it?

Adam: We do, although it was hard to decide how to go about it. After much thought, we settled on a Public Broadcasting-style sponsorship program for TidBITS. We set it up so that our sponsors can distribute more information directly to interested readers via email -- those who are interested send an email message to a specific address mentioned in the issue, and the information comes back automatically.

Bill: Pretty neat setup. Why don't you tell us more about TidBITS itself? I'd like to show our readers what these publications are like, not just the logistics of publishing them over the Internet.

Adam: Okay. In TidBITS we cover all sorts of news related to the world of the Macintosh, although the actual mission statement is to report on anything computer-related that interests me, which often includes information on the Internet and electronic communications.

Bill: Egotist.

Adam: Realist. If it doesn't interest me, I won't write about it well. I also have a short attention span and become interested in lots of different topics. Every now and then I worry that no one is interested in what I'm writing, but the readership continues to grow and provide positive feedback, so I guess that's not a major problem.

At first, being personally interested in every topic was especially important, since I wrote 90 percent of the articles in the first year, and although I continue to write a large number, many other people help out. We encourage other people to submit articles.

Bill: As a matter of fact, even I've contributed an article or two. You didn't pay me anything, though -- does anyone earn anything from writing for TidBITS?

Adam: Not directly, since we don't earn anything from the direct distribution of each issue either -- the sponsorships are for the act of publishing TidBITS, so they pay for the hardware, software, and connection expenses that we incur, not to mention the long hours I put in each week researching articles, writing articles, editing articles, and generally putting the entire issue together. Tonya contributes articles occasionally, and edits each issue, which makes the issues much better than they would be otherwise.

However, if you've ever tried to submit an article to a computer publication, you know how hard that is. I'm not nearly as picky as they are because I don't have a staff that's paid to write. I also don't pretend to be an expert on every topic, so although I'll happily write about Internet topics, say, I try to get other people to write about high-end desktop publishing or databases, about which I know little. So, writing for TidBITS is a way to practice writing (assuming you have some valuable knowledge to share, of course), a way to see how your writing might be edited, and a way to become published.

Bill: Speaking from the point of view of somebody who's just breaking into this professional writing stuff, is an article for TidBITS going to look as good on a resume as an article for Macworld?

Adam: That I don't know, since I'm not the sort who particularly cares about where someone has been published before. If you're an expert about something and you write well, I couldn't care less if you've been published somewhere. I think it's generally a matter of someone who's paying for an article wanting to know that some other publication took a risk on paying you for a different article. I hope that some of the people who write for TidBITS get to use us as proof that they're good writers. Hey, it worked for you.

Bill: Oh. Did it?

Adam: Sure, I knew you could write your way out of a paper bag because of the stuff you did for TidBITS. And the email we've exchanged, of course, but that's slightly different.

Bill: Oh. I'll consider myself flattered. How else is TidBITS different from a normal newsletter?

Adam: The part that I both love and hate is that it's really easy for most of our readers to reply to articles that they read in TidBITS. I enjoy this immensely when they pass on information I didn't know, or make insightful comments, or even just write to say that they appreciate TidBITS. It's good for the psyche.

Bill: And the bad part?

Adam: Do you know how hard it is to reply to over 100 personal messages each day? Some days I spend so much time replying to email that I have no time to even think about writing new articles for the next issue of TidBITS. I also don't like it when time constraints force me to be more terse than I'd like. I prefer to explain fully when answering a question, but it's gotten so that it takes too long.

The other reason for keeping TidBITS relatively small is that I'm sure most of our readers are busy people, too, and they probably allot a certain amount of time to read TidBITS each week. If I doubled the size one week, they'd have to spend twice as much time reading. It's easier to stick with the formula that has worked for so many years, streamlining and enhancing when appropriate, but not for the sake of change alone.

Bill: The small size also helps in distribution, of course.

Adam: Definitely. At 30K per week, TidBITS fits in email relatively well and also traverses Usenet in the comp.sys.mac.digest group. If it were a couple of hundred kilobytes large, I wouldn't be able to use the newsgroup for distribution as easily, and people would dislike receiving it in email as well. TidBITS is also available on the World Wide Web and Gopher servers.


Adam: There are an increasing number of paper magazines that have in some way expanded to the Internet. They don't usually publish the full text of their articles on the Internet, and none attempt to recreate the entire look of the magazine online. That may change, although I expect that the reluctance is entirely due to the fact that they cannot easily charge for the magazines on the Internet.

Bill: There are also some technical problems, of course. Some new software would permit easy electronic transmission of magazines while retaining the original look of the publication, but those programs aren't free and are far from widespread.

Adam: And besides, people aren't accustomed to paying for Internet services and most likely would decide that there are plenty of other good things to check out instead of the commercial resource.

Bill: That makes sense. I wouldn't pay for most things on the Internet, not because they aren't good, but, as you say, because there are plenty that are good and free. Many of these are magazines and journals that exist solely on the Internet, with no paper counterpart.

Adam: Wired magazine, one that does cross over between the Internet and standard print media, appeared about a year ago and has grown quickly in popularity, being as someone in IRC said, "the tabloid of the electronic geek set." Another friend said something to the effect of Wired's motto being "The world is ending, but you can buy cool stuff." Apparently, Wired's editor didn't think this was particularly funny, which may indicate the existence of a grain of sand from which can grow a pearl of truth.

Bill: Pithy. A tortuous metaphor, but pithy.

Adam: Thanks. I think. I like reading the magazine though, since more so than most of the ones I get, there are actual honest-to-goodness ideas in Wired. At this point in my life, I have a voracious appetite for ideas, and even if I don't always agree with Wired's articles, I find them interesting. That FurryMUCK article was pretty one-sided, though, and with the headline, "MUDS: Sex with the FurryMUCKers" on the cover, rather unfair, I thought.

Bill: It certainly distressed enough people -- er, furries on FurryMUCK itself, as we could plainly see when we visited.

Adam: Wired has done quite well, nonetheless, at putting its Internet access where its mouth is, so to speak.

Bill: I suppose it does sound rather hypocritical to wax lyrical about the coolness of the Internet but not provide any Internet resources.

Adam: Precisely. Wired has set up a rather well-designed World Wide Web server for anyone to use, and they have released the full text of articles in back issues of the magazine. Good thing, since two of mine were lost in the mail at some point while moving last year (see figure 5.19).

Figure 5.19: Better graphics than most Web sites.


Bill: Magazines and other periodicals are one thing, but what about those of us who prefer to read novels? Are there any actual books available on the Internet?

Adam: Absolutely. One of the most fascinating and ambitious projects on the Internet must be Project Gutenberg, conceived of and ably directed by Michael Hart. Project Gutenberg's goal is to give away one trillion electronic texts by December 31, 2001.

Bill: That's a lot of electronic books!

Adam: Yup, but Project Gutenberg anticipates distributing only 10,000 separate titles -- its one trillion number comes from the one hundred million people it anticipates will read the texts by that time. I don't believe it has any way of tracking how many readers it gets.

Bill: Even still, 10,000 is a lot. How are they managing it?

Adam: It's quite clever, actually. Project Gutenberg started many years ago, in the early seventies, and it works on a doubling scheme, so in 1993 it released four books each month, and in 1994 it aimed for eight books each month. It's like that game on a checkerboard, where you put down a penny on the first square, two pennies on the second square, four pennies on the third square, and so on. It adds up to a huge amount of money, and similarly Project Gutenberg will end up with a huge number of electronic texts.

Bill: Where do they get their material? Electronic texts don't grow on directory trees, you know.

Adam: Perhaps the most impressive part of the entire project is that it's done entirely with volunteer labor by hundreds of people around the world. For instance, you could type a book into the computer, proofread it, and submit it to Project Gutenberg, assuming of course that it was out of copyright or that it was done with permission. I suspect that most people use scanners to capture the pages of the book and then use optical character recognition software to turn it into editable text.

Bill: Working in a Popular Copy Shop has taught me that copyright can be a very tricky business. How do they handle it, making sure that a book is indeed in the public domain?

Adam: There are some basic rules, although I gather that copyright searches make up a large portion of the work for Project Gutenberg volunteers now. Needless to say, such a loose organization cannot afford to be sued by a large publisher for copyright infringement. The rule they use the most states that works first published before January 1, 1978 usually enter the public domain 75 years from the date copyright was first secured, which usually means 75 years from the date of first publication. There are a number of other variations on this, and in other countries the general rule is the life of the author plus 50 years, but exceptions exist, and even today, the electronic version of Peter Pan comes with a note that says it may not be downloaded outside of the United States due to some strange copyright deal.

Bill: That raises the question of foreign language texts. Do they work with them at all? And how do they feel about some of the alternative distribution methods we talked about above?

Adam: They only concern themselves with English language texts, and prefer to use straight text since it's universal. However, when you're in the position of Project Gutenberg, if someone wants to give you a copy of an electronic text in, say, Acrobat format, you're not going to turn it down. And although they primarily make their works available in text format, I imagine that's primarily a limitation of volunteer labor -- they would love to be able to make versions available on the World Wide Web, in Acrobat format, and so on.

Bill: Project Gutenberg is extremely impressive, and highly ambitious. It sounds like a huge amount of work. What keeps it going?

Adam: It's hard to say for sure, since I'm sure everyone does it for a slightly different reason. I don't know if Michael and Project Gutenberg will reach their goals, but I do know that they have provided a storehouse of useful and interesting information for today's Internet. Also, the volunteers who make Project Gutenberg happen stand as a shining example of what normal people can do on the Internet if they want to. Perhaps that's what impresses me the most about many of these publishing projects -- it's amazing what the human mind can do if it merely wants to and is given the freedom to express itself widely via the Internet.

Moving On

Adam: Now that we've had a quick little jaunt around the Internet, let's move on to discussing some of the nuts and bolts of how the Internet actually works. Keep what you've seen here in mind; when I explain specific tools to you later on, think about how they can help you explore the Internet and find your own way through the maze of information.

Bill: And hey, if you liked this chapter, check out our other book! That will help me eat something besides microwave burritos from time to time!

Adam: That may be the most blatant plug I've ever seen, Bill.

Bill: True. I have no shame. 'Bye, folks, and enjoy the rest of the book!

Adam: Thanks for the help, Bill!