While the Internet holds out the promise of transforming the way we live our daily lives, a different kind of technological innovation is already hard at work affecting how we share information.
For many of us, this technology is at our fingertips, in the computers we use at home and at the office. With a few hundred dollars worth of extra software, most of us can become independent "desktop publishers."
What was once the domain of professionals - writers, editors, typesetters, artists, printers, and binders - is now a thriving industry based in living rooms across America.
Last year, more than 11,000 new publishing firms were created, a 38 percent increase over the average 8,000 firms launched annually. Most of these new firms were founded by self-publishers, writers who publish their own works.
Tom Dial, a publicist for BookWorld Marketing, Inc. in Sarasota, Fla., which distributes the works of small publishing firms to markets around the country, says that computer technologies are responsible for these new arrivals in the publishing industry.
"This jump is directly attributable to desktop publishing," Mr. Dial says. "Now, with desktop publishing, it's relatively easy to give the printer a photograph-ready copy of your manuscript. In the past, it was so much more expensive."
Today, there are 53,000 publishers in the United States, including eight large New York companies, 15 companies a step below them, and about 300 mid-sized companies that each generate between $1 million and $10 million in sales annually. That leaves more than 52,000 small publishers publishing between one and three books annually. Most of these are self-publishers.
Dan Poynter, author of "The Self-Publishing Manual," a publishing consultant and president of Para Publishing in Santa Barbara, Calif., suggests that there is little competition between the big publishers and the new, small publishers, because the latter group tends to fill very specific niches in the book market.
"The big publishers are good at selling fiction, encyclopedias, and autobiographies," Mr. Poynter says. "They're not so good at the more targeted information. They don't know how to sell outside of bookstores."
In addition to books about the publishing industry, Poynter's company publishes books about recreational parachuting. Since bookstores catering to general readers show little interest in such specialized products, Poynter sells these books through specialty stores and magazines.
And since his small firm can produce books at a faster rate than the big publishers, he can offer more current information than any of his larger competitors.
"It takes a New York publisher 18 months to produce a book, when it takes us maybe five," he says. "The information you're getting from a small publisher is much fresher."
Mike Markowski, president of Markowski International in Hummelstown, Pa., tells a similar story of success with a niche market. Fifteen years ago, he was an aerospace engineer and, as a leading expert on hang-gliding, was signed by a New York publishing company to write four books about his hobby.
After the first two books, he decided that the big company was not marketing his work as rigorously as he had hoped. He decided to publish the next two on his own, hiring out the typesetting and binding work to specialized companies, and marketing the books himself.
"[The publishers] told me they'd sell 7,000 copies of my next book," Mr. Markowski says. "I knew I could do double the sales, but I did triple."
"You meet the players in the field, whereas the big publishers just don't," he adds. Markowski International now publishes four books a year under two imprints: Aviation Publishers and the newer Success Publishers, dealing in personal- and career-development books.
Although Markowski and Poynter were already familiar with suitable niche markets when they published their first books, most small publishers have a hard time marketing their products. But a number of mid-level book distributors like BookWorld have cropped up in the last five or six years to bring their books to market.
The two oldest distributing companies, Publishers Group West in Emoryville, Calif., and the National Book Network (NBN) in Lanham, Md., have grown to become $100-million- and $30-million-dollar businesses respectively. Small companies like BookWorld do considerably less business, although they too are growing as small publishers and self-publishers demand a slice of the national markets.
According to Rich Freese, vice president of sales and marketing at NBN, the larger distributors provide publishers with access to a wide range of "nontraditional markets."
"The reason small publishers come to companies like NBN is because we have good professional sales organizations that are respected by national accounts," he says. "We do business with over a thousand independent bookstores and all of the national chains. We sell to K-Mart, to coffee shops, to small stores. We sell books where people will buy books."
But Mr. Freese notes that NBN has developed a clientele of established independent publishers and will not service the self-publisher or speculative small publishers.
For that kind of service, publishers must turn to smaller distributors like BookWorld, which, for a $20,000 to $25,000 fee, will perform every step in the production of a book.
Markowski uses BookWorld only to gain access to major bookstores, and hires out the rest of his typesetting, printing, and binding work to other companies.
On the other hand, self-publisher David Wiesenberg worked in concert with BookWorld during every step of the process. "They said they'd be 'honored' to publish my book," he says. "I though that was quite nice."
Ron Smith, president of BookWorld and author of the "Book Publishing Encyclopedia," believes that this kind of hands-on assistance is the most valuable service that the distributors provide.
"The big publishers will agonize to promote a fraction of their list," he says. "The small publishers, working through a hot-shot distributor, can work ... to move out their own books."
But distributors can't guarantee success. Seven of 10 new books do not earn enough to cover the publisher's original investment, and most self-publishers remain what Dial calls "one-book people."
"You have to invest as little as possible early on," Mr. Smith warns. "You can always print more books later."
Ultimately, self-publishing is a high-stakes game. Books often fail, but successful writers can actually make more money from a self-published book than they could through a big publishing company.
"If you manage to get a big publisher to put up his capital to publish your book, you receive an 8 to 10 percent royalty," Smith says. "If you self-publish through a distributor, you can keep anywhere from 35 to 65 percent of the retail price."
Poynter concurs. "There are three very clear advantages to self-publishing," he says. "The author can make more money, you can get the book to press and distributed more quickly, and the author can control every step of the process."
Of course, a self-publishing author can only make more money if he has access to enough markets. Since distributors are selective about the titles they actively market, most self-published books have a limited run.
Because self-publishers and small publishers have been so successful in niche markets, and so few of their books compete with the offerings from the big firms, few writers view their self-publishing endeavors as stepping-stones into the world of New York publishing.
"It's an end in itself," Markowski says. "Self-publishing gives you great freedom in your life to do what you want to do."