Silicon Insider: Book Publishing's Tech Evolution

I'm in the middle of writing a book -- and getting a lesson on how the business of book writing has changed in just the last two decades.

I wrote my first book 22 years ago, after almost a decade as a corporate public relations guy, then as a newspaper journalist. I arrived in both jobs during a period of technological transition. Both at Hewlett-Packard Corp. PR and at the San Jose Mercury News, I began my career working on an IBM Selectric typewriter and finished on a computer terminal.

Though I never used a manual typewriter in my newspaper work -- except for in the occasional press room when I was out on assignment -- I did at least catch the end of the old newsroom era: I typed my story each day on a long, carbon-papered double-sheet, tore off the top page and rolled it up, stuffed it into a glass tube with rubber caps, and fired it (with a loud POIK sound) in a vacuum tube to the composing department in the back of the building.

Within a year, all of that was gone, replaced by a computer terminal on my desk with a fuzzy glowing screen and complicated word processing software that required all sorts of coding and formatting, with a fixed keyboard and a miserable viewing angle.

Unlike some of my older peers, I was neither impressed nor upset by the change. Had I been more prescient, I might have foreseen the end of newspapers. Instead, I was simply annoyed. This was Silicon Valley, after all, and I was the world's first daily high-tech reporter: I knew there was already a lot better hardware and software out there. I'd seen Jobs, Woz and Fernandez build the Apple I, attended the introduction of the Apple II in San Francisco, and worked on some of the world's best terminals and computers at HP. I knew the equipment I was working on at the Merc, revolutionary as it was in the newspaper world, was obsolete junk.

The World of Freelance in the 1980s

That's one reason why, almost from the day I walked out of the paper, I told myself I needed to score a real personal computer if I was going to create any real sort of freelance career for myself. As it happened, Mike Markkula, the chairman of Apple, asked whether I'd be willing to ghostwrite an article for him -- and when he offered to pay me with a new Apple computer, I jumped at the chance. Despite having once been a flack, I fell for Apple's PR, and when the time came to choose my machine, I stupidly chose the new Apple III. Four years later, when helping to write the infamous 1984 Apple annual report, I was again offered the same deal -- this time I took the money.

History generally describes the Apple III as a failure -- which it was, business-wise -- but it did the job for me. It wasn't long before, armed with my 300 baud Hayes modem, I had set up what was likely the first-ever personal online newspaper syndicate. I started out writing stories for The New York Times, and eventually shifted to a group of four papers that included The Boston Globe and Dallas Morning News. Each week I would write a feature story, call up the computer at each paper in turn, type in a dozen numbers and letters, then watch as the story was slowly fed to the distant computer. It typically took three attempts or four attempts to get a connection, and the feed usually lasted several minutes, but it was a kind of miracle nevertheless. And it paid my bills.

In early 1983, I signed a deal to write my first book: a history of Silicon Valley that would eventually be entitled "The Big Score." Being a classic first-time book writer -- i.e., broke, having no idea how much work a book entailed -- I worked at other jobs and waited until the last moment to get started. Endless searching of stacks and magazines at the library killed another three months. As a result, I literally worked straight through from Halloween to Jan. 20, only taking a day off for Christmas. And I mean straight through: 15-hour writing days, sleeping on the floor of my office, tendonitis in both elbows, my wife taking me for 3 a.m. walks around the neighborhood to calm me down, even wearing the tops off the keyboard keys.

The result, in addition to my broken health, was a 300,000-word, 800-page bloated monster. I actually wrote even more than that. Once at 2 a.m., my wife found me in the hallway banging my head against the wall after having accidentally erased two days' worth of work. It took a lot of whiskey to get me to sleep that night.

The very idea that I had written a book on a computer was an alien notion to Doubleday, my publisher. My editor, Adrian Zackheim, himself a rookie, however, was game to learn more about computers. So, in addition to the printed manuscript -- four hours of unbearable racket from a daisy-wheel printer -- he also had me send him floppy disks: 10, if I remember, one for each chapter. We even tried having me send him the first chapter via modem -- it worked, but because Doubleday had no way to use the file, it was promptly erased.

Today, It's Cheaper, Easier and More Efficient

Roll forward 22 years. I am now working on what will be -- including works I've authored, co-authored, or was the major narrative contributor to (such as the "One Digital Day" photo book) -- my 13th book. By odd coincidence, the publisher is again Doubleday, and my editor, for the first time in all those years, Adrian Zackheim, now is one of the Brahmins of New York publishing.

This time the experience is vastly different. The deal was negotiated almost entirely by e-mail, sealed by cell phone as I drove down the Russian River canyon in Northern California. I have yet to step into a library. Why would I? I can sit at my desk and search scores of libraries, memoirs, financial records, interviews, photo albums, and magazine and newspaper stories. I have hundreds of pages of this material stacked around me, and that many more stored in my computer. Actual hard-copy printouts, which I only made for ease of access, took a matter of a few quiet minutes. Sometimes, I don't even store the material, but merely call it up from the Web and put it on a split screen with my manuscript.

When I was writing "The Big Score," I went broke several times just paying for the damn Xerox copies -- though only 5 cents at the Sunnyvale library -- that I needed just for quotes and footnote information. Don't get me started on footnoting. This new book, which is about Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard, will likely cost me less, in equivalent dollars, to produce than "The Big Score" -- even including the cost of hardware. My Apple III cost $3,500 in 1984 dollars; my ThinkPad, though a thousand times more powerful, was slightly less.

Best of all, unlike with my old Apple III, I am no longer trapped at my desk writing the new book. I've taken my laptop with me and worked on "Bill and Dave" at a Sierra ski lodge, on car drives to Oregon, and last week on the plane flight to Oxford, England. Thanks to automatic back-up, I've not lost a word yet (knock on wood), and the one time my Thinkpad crashed (the older ones have crappy interconnects through the display hinge) I merely dumped the manuscript on a memory stick and worked on my younger son's laptop until mine was repaired. The Apple III was a lot more durable -- but it also weighed 30 pounds.

All of this has made writing this book a much healthier experience than my first one. I also think that if I haven't grown any smarter, at least I've become a little wiser over the years. I started writing this book on Jan. 6, and with only a couple days missed, I've written 1,000 words to 2,000 words (about the length of this column) each day, seven days each week, right up until last night. I'm now approaching 100,000 words and will likely finish the first draft by the end of this month. It also helps that my advance on this book is an order of magnitude larger than the first one -- and I have two more mouths to feed and a mortgage to pay.

When the final draft is complete, I may never actually print out a hard copy. Rather, I'll lay out the manuscript, with photographs, titles, etc. on my computer screen -- and when I'm happy with it, I'll simply e-mail the file to Doubleday. The entire transmission will likely take about 15 seconds via broadband.

And after that? About six months after Doubleday gets the manuscript, "Bill and Dave" will be published.

Why so long? Let's just say that the publishing industry, not unlike the newspaper industry, has failed to keep up with the pace of technological change that is currently turning the communications world upside down. And, like the newspaper industry, book publishing is about to undergo a painful metamorphosis of its own.

I suspect that my next book, even if I write it a year or two from now, will be as different from my current one as "Bill and Dave" has been from the two-decade-old "The Big Score."

* Once again, the latest news from the tech front from 14-year-old (fifteen next week) Tad Malone, whose diapers I changed while writing book No. 3, "The Virtual Corporation."

TAD'S TAB -- My new personal hero is Ric Romero. Romero is a consumer reporter for a television station in Los Angeles, and somebody got the bright idea to give him a column on technology. What is making Romero a legend, and the latest icon, is that he is so amazingly behind the times on everything.

For example, about a week ago he wrote about a popular new teen Web site called MySpace. Last October he discovered blogging. After reading a few of his columns, I suddenly realized that Romero is somewhat of a reverse prophet: Whatever he "discovers" is now officially dead to popular culture. If I wasn't a teenager and actually had real money, I'd read Ric Romero just to know when to short stock.

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Michael S. Malone, once called the Boswell of Silicon Valley, is one of the nation's best-known technology writers. He has covered Silicon Valley and high-tech for more than 25 years, beginning with the San Jose Mercury News, as the nation's first daily high-tech reporter. His articles and editorials have appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, the Economist and Fortune, and for two years he was a columnist for The New York Times. He was editor of Forbes ASAP, the world's largest-circulation business-tech magazine, at the height of the dot-com boom. Malone is best-known as the author or co-author of a dozen books, notably the best-selling "Virtual Corporation." Malone has also hosted three public-television interview series, and most recently co-produced the celebrated PBS miniseries on social entrepreneurs, "The New Heroes." He has been the "Silicon Insider" columnist since 2000.