SUSAN Ovans can edit, typeset, and lay out a page of the Hull Newsweekly without getting her hands dirty -- or even leaving her seat. With a few keystrokes on her Apple Macintosh personal computer, she can select type fonts for text and headlines, draw border lines, and add graphics such as pie charts and graphs. When she hits the ``print'' key, her laser printer spits out a ready-to-be-published newspaper page.
The Hull, Mass., newspaper is one of a number of publications across the United States now using an emerging technology called ``desktop publishing.'' Just as word processors deftly took typing away from the typewriters, so now personal computers are putting the tools of publishing into the hands of those who own desktop computers.
An investment of about $10,000 buys the necessary equipment: a personal computer (the Macintosh is the current front-runner), a software program (``PageMaker,'' ``Ready-Set-Go!,'' or ``MacPublisher,'' to name a few), and a printer that uses laser light instead of metal type to imprint paper.
The end product is near-typeset quality pages -- for newspapers, magazines, newsletters, resum'es, even books -- that can be delivered to a printer to have offset copies run off. The savings in both dollars and time are extraordinary. So are the potential uses.
Special-interest magazines using desktop publishing technology, magazines that would have been impossible to produce a few years ago because of the professional typesetting costs, are now popping up across the country.
In Oakland, Calif., a new tabloid newspaper called Juris is published for lawyers; in Salem, N.H., another tabloid, Daddy's Junkey Mail, caters to musicians and the used-instrument market; and in Sacramento, Calif., Balloon Life magazine is being sold to hot-air-balloon enthusiasts.
David Goodstein, president of InterConsult Inc., a market research and consulting firm based in Cambridge, Mass., calls electronic publishing (which includes larger-scale systems) ``the ultimate end-user application.'' It integrates words, numbers, and graphic images on a screen into whatever shape or to whatever purpose the user wants.
``The whole economics of publishing will change,'' says Mr. Goodstein. ``When an author can own a Macintosh and PageMaker . . . this will change control of what gets into print and what doesn't.''
Goodstein also claims that desktop publishing could be the single greatest contributor to the rise of literacy: ``Now, for $10,000, a small newspaper in Mexico or a book publisher in Africa can have a machine that can instantly produce mechanicals [finished pages] ready for print.''
Julie McCann of CAP International, a market-research firm in Marshfield, Mass., says that a CAP study found electronic publishing grew from almost nothing in 1983 to a $473 million industry last year. Desktop publishing accounted for $55 million of that total.
The CAP study concludes that, by 1990, electronic publishing will be a $4 billion industry, with the desktop segment accounting for nearly a quarter of that.
``But there's a lot of hype going on right now about desktop publishing,'' says Ms.McCann, ``and there is really not a whole lot available yet. Some of these products are pretending they can solve a whole lot of needs, but they really can't.''
She cautions people interested in buying a system to ``try out the software, using it in their specific application to see how it will work.''
At the Hull Newsweekly, Ms. Ovans says she has encountered some software ``bugs'' in pioneering the new technology. Also, laser printers currently cannot reproduce all photos and illustrations adequately, so these must be prepared separately and added later. The current generation of laser printers has but one-sixth the resolution of photographs produced by more traditional printing technology.
Electronic publishing is injecting new life into what had become a sluggish computer market. A Boston trade show earlier this month drew 4,000 people to see about 70 exhibitors display state-of-the-art electronic publishing systems. Although desktop publishing was represented, the thrust of the conference was corporate publishing using work stations tied into large computers.
According to Goodstein, this corporate publishing market is huge. ``Boeing's publishing budget is $2 billion,'' he says. ``There are currently 3 trillion pages of technical documentation that will be produced in the US this year. Corporations pay 10 percent of their revenues for publishing.''
And until recently, most had to send out to publishing houses to have typesetting done. That is changing.
John Minnite of Software International says that until this year his firm, which publishes technical software manuals and books, sent out some 15,000 to 20,000 pages a year to printing houses to be typeset. Now all the typesetting and composing are done in-house. (A printer still has to run off copies.)
``We started using the technology in January and by August we had recovered our costs,'' Mr. Minnite says.