When Johannes Gutenberg developed his printing press around 1440, it didn’t make writing a book any less work, but printing one became a lot easier. As Gutenberg’s technology has been refined over nearly 600 years, the words of Ecclesiastes have become even more apposite.
When I was a grad student here in the late 1960s, people typed their Ph.D. theses themselves or paid a typist a dollar or two a page to type it for them. For three drafts of a 200-page thesis, that was serious money for a starving student, as well as being slow and inflexible. Being comparatively poor — though not starving — and basically cheap, I took a technological approach by writing a program that would format and print my thesis on printers at the Computer Center, the ancestor of the Office of Information Technology.
It’s probably hard to imagine now, but there was only one computer on campus at the time, an IBM 7094 that sat in a large air-conditioned room in the E-Quad. To print a new draft, I handed three boxes of punched cards to the operator: 1,000 cards of program and 5,000 cards of thesis text. (For the benefit of readers not alive in such ancient times, a punched card is a piece of stiff paper about 7 inches by 3 inches with holes punched in it to represent information like letters and numbers; each card holds up to 80 characters.) This let me make a large number of revisions in short order and perhaps improved the writing style, though it had no effect on the research results. In the end I produced what was probably the first machine-readable and computer-printed thesis at Princeton.
Ever since, I’ve been intrigued by tools for book authors. After graduation I spent the next decade doing research in document preparation software and wrote several books where my co-authors and I did everything except for the actual printing and publication. In the early days, this meant producing photographic paper with high-quality images of the pages, which were sent to the publisher, who in turn sent them to a printer to be turned into printed and bound books, shipped to warehouses and bookstores and eventually sold to millions of enthusiastic readers. (That last part is exaggerated, unfortunately, but the rest is true.)
This approach had real advantages, not the least of which was rapid turnaround. It was possible to create a clean new draft in no time, which made it easy to polish the text. It also meant that we were safe from copy editors, who generally didn’t understand what they were editing and often converted arcane but correct material into something just plain wrong. Printers were even worse, since they could never transcribe computer programs accurately.
We have now entered a new age in the relationship between authors, their publishers and copy editors and printers and their readers. Enterprises like Lulu and Amazon’s CreateSpace remove the intermediaries, making it possible for anyone with a bag of words to convert them into a book, printed on paper or distributed electronically or both, without ever going near a traditional publisher. The technology is remarkably simple — upload content and cover files, set a price and have the book available within hours. Copies are printed on demand, not on speculation, which means no inventory and much lower prices than conventional channels. Royalty rates are much higher, a win for a successful author.
I tried self-publication for my latest book, “D is for Digital,” which I published through CreateSpace after a brief flirtation with Lulu. The elapsed time from when I decided the content was good enough until it was listed on Amazon and the first copy sold was about 24 hours. The cover shows that I have no talent as a graphic designer, but otherwise the book is indistinguishable from one produced by a regular publisher. Since there’s no intermediary, the $14.95 price is a third of what it would have been. Of course, publishers do provide useful services, like publicity, which I’m not good at.
The ease with which one can publish a real book is already changing publishing, and it’s going to change other things as well. For example, in some disciplines it’s expected that an assistant professor will publish a book as a necessary part of the tenure process. But what if publishing is no more complicated than reformatting one’s thesis and designing a cover? The result is clearly a book: It has an ISBN, it can be purchased through Amazon — how does that differ from a monograph laboriously shepherded through a university press? Not at all, it would appear. We’re at the stage where anyone with an idea and enough words can have a book in print in a week. With electronic versions, it’s even easier; I converted all my previous ‘Prince’ columns to a Kindle book in a couple of days. (Advertisement: you can buy it on Amazon!) Will “I published a book” lose its cachet? Stay tuned. I’m working on a book about it.
Brian Kernighan GS ’69 is a computer science professor and a Forbes faculty adviser. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.