Floppy Disc Flashback

“This school system will never order another hard copy textbook from this moment on; eLearning only.”

A friend of mine told me this last week. He’s a 9th-grade Science teacher in North Carolina who has been creating his own eContent for the past 5 years, waiting for his district to catch on to the e-movement. His comment took me back in time to my early days in traditional textbook publishing. I sat down at my first computer at Macmillan/McGraw-Hill School Publishing Company, Social Studies, in 1989. Oh, I shouldn’t say “first” computer; I had used the one at the library, the old command line style, and I had played a bit of Pong (could never understand why men could play that thing for 8 hours; my max was 20 minutes). I had seen computers: my dad worked in the underground nuclear physics lab at Duke University, and I had watched him hook up miles of wires to the roomful of giant mainframes. Still, unlike many of my younger coworkers who were breastfed by their parents’ PCs, my computer experience was limited. On that first day, my boss showed me how to turn it on (yes, I needed assistance), go into IBM XyWrite, and commence the building of bookmaps!  The rest of my time at work was spent with a little red pen (editing); making copies (thousands and thousands and thousands and thousands of copies); and reviewing printers’ proofs. The staff brought large notebooks, clipboards, pens and pencils to planning meetings.  

I don’t remember what was used to typeset the textbooks in the olden days of the late ’80s because that wasn’t one of my jobs, but it was could have been something like CCI (Computer Composition International), working on a “mini-computer,” the size of a refrigerator and running on 512k. For a “large” computer, it only performed typesetting tasks and had a monochrome (orange on gray) screen. CCI was code based, and wasn’t yet WYSIWYG, so in order to even see if formatting worked, you had to compose it to the typesetting machine (another computer, this one the size of an industrial washing machine) using 8” floppy disks for the font information, which printed onto photo paper (that then had to be processed through a developer). What came out of the developer was several feet of paper off a roll, usually 6 or 8 inches wide, but others sizes were available (12” wide wasn’t available for those machines until PostScript came along). Page layout was done using paste-up: photographs were screened, type was run through a film developer, type and graphics were waxed, pages were laid out and film was made. From the film, printing plates were created and run through a printer press. Whew! 

I left publishing during the ’90s and returned, albeit to the typesetting side of publishing, in 2000 to a company called ICC (Interactive Composition Corporation), a full-service composition house based in Portland, Oregon. All day long, reams of paper were delivered to my desk for a fast proof, then off to the shipping guy to mail to authors/editors/publishers. Copyediting was usually done on paper, although some Microsoft Word copyedits were beginning to appear. Thankfully, I retired my little red pen and moved into sales right when proofing moved completely over to onscreen with Adobe commenting tools. These old eyes wouldn’t have been able to take it. Today I can’t even hold a pen anymore without my hand cramping, my cursive handwriting is illegible, and I spend my days hammering a Blackberry keyboard with my thumbs (quite quickly, I might add)! The days of XyWrite and CCI are long gone; I still sell typesetting, but building the hard copy textbook is just one small cog in the multipurposing wheel of fortune.

For publishers who want to stay alive and profitable and do not know how they will find the time and resources to build their digital strategy, they must “work with a consulting solutions provider that is going to be able to help you deal with the two hats of publisher and entrepreneur…successful businesses have been aided by recognizing that content can be controlled while still using a vendor that will recognize that point” (to quote my colleague, Todd).  Pubs marketing/sales teams will also need to come up with innovative tactics to win the business. Note that my teacher friend’s school district almost chose one publisher’s textbooks until a competitor promised EACH TEACHER the technology infrastructure for FREE with purchase of the eLearning curricula. Guess which one they went with?

Rose Rummel-Eury

This article first appeared on www.mypubsolutions.com on 14th December 2009 – click here to see the original article

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