Playing God, part 2

Autumn of 1994 was witness to a computer book publishing universe that was experiencing profound changes. One can only call 1994 the “year of the low reader expectation”.

IDG Book’s ongoing “…for Dummies” series skyrocketed to the top of the bestseller lists, while CEO John Killkullen emerged as a veritable Wall Street hero. Killkullen also could boast the distinction of having become the nemesis of the computer publishing mega corps!

Ziff Davis Press, which had only recently been voted most likely to succeed, was bleeding in returns. How could this have happened? The reading public is the ultimate arbiter of what is relevant, and this public had rejected Ziff Davis’s broad title offering, a line of books that was judged to be both too slick and expensive. The users of 1994 chose instead books that most pundits had predicted could never sell.

Meanwhile, the term “computer graphics” had become part of a common folklore. I now had to question our publishing program’s push towards innovative technology. Stereograms, game playing, and animation all gave me pause as I watched our sales of these books slip.

Not heeding my own advice, I was chanting the manta “if it isn’t broken, break it!” as of Spring 1994. We proceeded to implement an interactive CD-ROM based catalog that focused on the concept of a space station in which users freely navigated in order to access information about our books. Simply pop the CD-ROM into a PC! Instantly the reader was guided on a custom 3D trek into distinct “rooms” where we showcased each title.

The most spectacular offering of our Autumn 1994 season? Creating Stereograms on Your PC. Stereograms, you may recall, consist of graphic images that appear initially as though they are random graphics. Looking closer in a particular manner, however, reveals a striking 3D image “inside” the page. One example: a swirling vortex that seems to descend “into” the page.

Allow your eyes to relax, then focus at an area “behind” the image. Now blur your eyes just a bit to reveal the 3D effect!

We populated the remainder of the 1994 season with 8 titles from topic areas that no one had yet addressed in print, bringing our yearly total to 14–a record high.

  • Gardens of Imagination instructs one how to program 3D maze games such as Doom in C++.
  • Fatal Distractions boasts a collection of no less than 87 freeware and shareware arcade games on a CD-ROM assembled by David Gerrold (the author of the classic Star Trek episode Trouble with Tribbles).
  • Animation How To CD demonstrates how to create skydiving frogs, or engineer columns of marching pencils and elastic diamonds dancing the lambda!
  • Viewer How To offers instruction on how to create one’s own multimedia demos with the same program that empowered classic Microsoft multimedia programs such as Encarta, and Cinemania.
  • Using Compuserve to Make You Rich is a high tech online approach to the management of stocks and investments.
  • Windows Animation Festival CD contains a 650MB bundle of windows animations, together with a 150-page manual describing how they work.
  • PDA Playhouse was called The Interactive Book of Personal Digital Assistants. It was designed to assist users in exploiting the full range of PDA functions and features. Unfortunately, PDAs would not take flight until five years in the future. Moreover, buyers would declare only an interest in using the handheld devices, not reading about them!
  • Modeling the Dream CD emerged as another multi-megabyte collection of dazzling animation and sound effect demos.

Toward the close of 1994, the realization was forced upon us that the world was no longer so enamored with 3D animation. People suddenly were voting for more practical books. The “…for Dummies” titles were thriving.

Our biggest competitor, Macmillan (with its Sams, New Ryders, and Que imprints), was effectively bidding to steal our lunch. Their publication of VR Playhouse came across to me as nothing less than a “soul stealing” market maneuver.

How did I feel? A-N-G-R-Y!