Learn How to Surf!


Children's Writers and Illustrators and the Internet

(Originally published in the June/July 1995 SCBW-I Bulletin) Updated March 1998.

by Harold Underdown

Includes comments on the national online services....

Everyone has an opinion on the Internet. Either it's the coming global interconnectivity that will usher in a new era, or the electronic wasteland that will mean the death of reading and of printed books. It's neither of these things (yet), just a lot of computers connected to each other by high-volume telephone lines. I'll say up front that I like it, and that you should learn as much about it as you can. Why? Simply because as a writer or an illustrator you will find it useful. What follows is my personal, incomplete guide to what you can do with the Internet, using widely available software, followed by some tips on how to connect.

Keep in mind that there are really two Internets, which I call the People's Internet and the Commercial Internet. The People's Internet is just that--personal WWW sites, people staying in touch by email, listservs and newsgroups on every subject imaginable, and of course informational sites put together by non-profit organizations, libraries, universities, and government agencies. This is usually the part of the Internet to go to for information. The Commercial Internet is now the fastest-growing part, and it's promotional abilities mean that it's more easily noticed. But this part of the Net is about doing business, and although you can find information here, mostly the companies involved are trying to find a way to make money, directly or indirectly, through their Net presence. So the information they do provide may be slanted to promote a product. Or they try to entertain you, as businesses seek ways to get you to their sites with games, contests, special offers, discounts, snazzy designs--"bread and circuses," as the Romans had it. Consider who your sources of information are as you travel the Net, but have fun too....

E-mail: Want to stay in touch with someone you met at a conference? Set up a critique group of people scattered across a wide area? E-mail could be the way to do it, and only for the cost of dialing in to the Internet. Though not instantaneous, e-mail is fast, and reaches overseas as easily as to the next town. For me, e-mail alone is a powerful reason to use the Internet: I stay in touch with people less expensively and in some ways more conveniently than by mail or phone calls.

Unfortunately, e-mail is not a way to reach publishers. Many companies are not yet fully connected to the Internet; those that are use it as a way to sell and promote books, and generally do not want electronic submissions or queries.

Telnet: When you telnet, your computer becomes a terminal telling another computer what to do (within limits, of course). Want to know what branch of your library has a book, without leaving home? If your library has an electronic catalog with a telnet link, and more and more do, you can search it as if you were there. You can search libraries in other cities, or access specialized databases, too...

Newsgroups: Imagine a newspaper catering to people with a particular interest, with the contents made up of whatever those same people wanted to contribute. That's a newsgroup, and there are over 12,000 of them on the Internet, with more being formed daily. Folks in children's books will want to read the newsgroup rec.arts.books.childrens, primarily for discussion of favorite books and authors, for reactions to awards, and so on. Some of the larger commercial services have newsgroup-like "forums" or "chat groups" specifically on children's writing, illustrating, and getting published. There is no Internet-wide newsgroup with that specific a focus, though one is often talked about.

World Wide Web: Imagine reading a story about a Dalmatian and her family, flipping to a photograph of a Dalmatian, and then wondering how a pure-bred Dalmatian is described, and easily moving to that information too. That's the kind of thing you can do on the WWW. Material that's been specially set up for it can look like a page in a magazine, with pictures and text displayed together. But there's more on that page--you'll notice things highlighted or outlined in blue, and clicking on these leads to a related page or image, perhaps that Dalmatian you wanted to see; it may be half-way across the world, or on the same computer as the other material. The software takes care of it. All the pretty pictures means using WWW software can be slow (pictures are made up of many bits of data), but this is the easiest way to get around on the Internet, since you can just click with your mouse from one page to another.

With the right program, you can also use the World Wide Web to do many of the things that once had to be done with separate software. You can transfer files from software libraries to your computer, meaning not only games and useful little utility programs but also updated versions of programs you already have, or "shareware" designed by small companies or individuals which you can try before you send in any payment. To get Netscape, for example, an excellent WWW browser program, go to http://www.netscape.com/ and follow the links to the "download" part of that site. You can access gopher sites, set up with an earlier, almost-as-easy-to-use program, which have fast and well-organized directories of information, such as the children's books information site at gopher://lib.nmsu.edu:70/11/.subjects/Education/.childlit. Once you've got that WWW software, you can visit my site, "The Purple Crayon," located at http://www.underdown.org/, for more information and links to such locations as the Library of Congress, an ABA bookstore directory, The Human Languages information page, and, of course, other children's books sites.

So, how does one get started? You don't have to have a computer. Some libraries have Internet access, or you can impose on an on-line friend (probably happy to show off the world of the net to you) for an evening. If you do have a computer, you aren't going to need to add all sorts of components. All you need is a modem and some kind of dialling utility (found on both Windows and Mac systems). Fast modems (56,000 bits/second) are available for not much more than $100, so even if you have a slower one now, get a new one. It's an enormous time saver. I'd also get a book about the Internet; just make sure it came out within the past six months, or it will be hopelessly out of date.

To get on-line, start with any of the big national services that has a local access number. Buy a couple of computer magazines, and you'll find a years worth of offers of a free month. Try a few, and jump around shamelessly until you find one you like. Keep in mind that Internet access through a national service can be slower than access through a local provider--I've noticed that the AOL browser, for example, takes about twice as long as Netscape to display a page. Also, the national services may not be as reliable, and service may not be very personal.

So you should also consider a local Internet provider, once you've played around for a few months. They won't give you a fancy interface, but they should give you personal service, a pre-configured package of software, and a high number of monthly hours as part of your fee. I get virtually unlimited use for $20 a month. I'm quite happy with it, but I know that in some parts of the country the big companies are the only option.

What can go wrong? The most likely problem is spending more time "Net-surfing" than you had intended. You are unlikely to crash your computer, since Internet software is not very demanding of memory or processing speed. You also won't get viruses. I blithely messed around on the Internet for months, even downloaded several programs, and when I got nervous and bought anti-virus software, I found my computer was virus-free. I'm told you are more likely to get a computer virus from a friend's floppy disk than from taking a file from a software library. But get an anti-virus program if you don't have one already. There are several good ones available for free on the Internet....


Updated Comments on the National Services

At this point, only AOL is simply the dominant online service. I've read that considerably more than half of all individuals with personal online access get it through AOL--they have over 10 million members and are still growing. Compuserve sold out to AOL and Prodigy is fading, but Microsoft Network and others are building national services, though none of them are anywhere near as large as AOL. Stay away from the cheapest providers; they may bill themselves as national providers but may be no more than a network of local providers, and consequently unreliable. With the exception of AOL, these services do not provide much in the way of orginal content of interest to those in children's books. MindSpring and Earthlink are both good national providers, but if I were unable to access the Internet through a good local provider I would choose AOL. Though it is still slower to use than direct access (the WWW browser is slower than using a freestanding one, and it can be annoying to start up the whole program when all one wants to do is type a short email to send later), AOL does have useful content for children's book folks:

The Writer's Club Bulletin Boards: Kind of like a newsgroup, these include "folders" for beginning writers, published writers, YA authors, and illustrators. Useful information and peers to chat with. This is the closest thing to a children's writers/illustrators newsgroup---it's too bad that there isn't one.
Writer's Chats: Once a week there is a one hour on-line discussion, often with a guest. These can be well moderated and informative. On the other hand, as Don Hinkle says:

Years ago I used to spend a few sessions in chats on literary matters and lately only under great duress. Any chat is excrutiatingly slow because you're always at the mercy of the slowest typists, you can't get enough information in one message, and the interruptions by others, the crosstalk, makes it difficult to decipher a logged session, so I just gave up.
As of January 2000, you can get service from many national and local providers for about $20 a month, and other options such as cable access are coming on strong. Some local providers are more expensive However, I think the extra few dollars is a good deal. I get personal help, do not have a problem connecting at peak times, and can surf the Web at top speed. I've observed that AOL is about half as fast (due to its system overhead?) as my browser. When I want to do research, my time is worth money, so why spend 4 hours online when I can get it done in two?

And then there is freedom of speech. All the big services monitor their content. You would be surprised at the zeal with which they do this, cutting off accounts of people who have been found to use "certain words" regardless of the context in which they are used, and this is another reason not to use a large commercial service to get your Internet access.

A plea:

I would love to hear more opinions about the other big commercial services. If you are a user of one of these services or another service with information about useful resources at your service, please let me know. I will post your info. here with appropriate thanks.

Copyright © 1995, 1996, 1998, and 2000 by Harold D. Underdown.

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