It is important to distinguish between software authors and publishers, though they may overlap. The author writes the program itself, which involves a dogged attention to detail that may require long stretches of 18-hour days until a program is completed.

The author writes step-by-step instructions telling the computer exactly how to execute a task.Computers operate by recognizing either the presence or absence of an electrical impulse, so they can only manipulate long strings of yes or no commands. That means the programmer can't leave anything to the imagination. Each stpe in a task must be spelled out in excruciating detail. The finished program ends up as a series of encoded lines of computer instructions that, if written out line by line, would fill dozens of pages of text; it's usually stored on a compact 5 1/4-inch magnetic disk.

Once a program is completed to the programmer's satisfaction, he typically submits it on a disk to a publisher, "much like a recording artist submits a tape to a record producer," says Harris Landgarten, director of software applications at Lifeboat Associates. The program, along with the documentation (the manual that describes the program and how to use it), is evaluated for its sales potential, its probable markets, and its user-friendliness.

The author and publisher then negotiate a contract, in which the author assigns the publication rights to the publisher for either a flat fee or a royalty of 15% to 30% of the retail price of the program. If they can come to an agreement, both parties work on perfecting the program (called working out the bugs, in the jargon of the trade). The software is tested, usually by both an inhouse staff (called alpha-testers) and by outsiders (called beta-testers), and the manual is typeset and printed. Finally, the program is mass-produced on disks or tapes in formats compatible with the operating systems of different microcomputers.

A software author may opt to self-publish. A number of authors have been successful enough to establish and build companies that specialize in writing programs and have started to publish their own products. And, with sophisticated programming languages like Microsoft BASIC and the increased accessibility of personal computers, many nontechnical people have learned how to program computers well enough to create useful software for specialized purposes. Duplicating a diskette is a simple operation: In minutes, just about anybody can turn a blank $2 disk into a $50 to $500 program disk.

But newcomers should beware: There are numerous pitfalls in self-publishing. To be as successful as VisiCalc or WordStar, a program not only needs very well written -- and therefore expensive -- documentation, but also needs so be marketed aggressively. And because reproduction is so easy, piracy of successful programs is a mounting problem. Electric Pencil, for instance, was the first word-processing program written for personal computers. A young filmmaker named Michael Shrayer wrote the original program in 1975. He started publishing Electric Pencil himself. By 1978, he discovered that, for every legitimate copy he sold, about 10 copies were being made by software pirates. Now he's signed on with IJG Inc. to publish Electric Pencil. IJG has cut the retail price and expects to overwhelm the pirates with aggressive marketing and superior documentation.