By Augustin Hedberg

(MONEY Magazine) – ''Desktop publishing.'' What an ambitious locution! Like ''table tennis'' or ''thumb wrestling,'' it promises great activity in a very small space. Rather than legions of writers, designers, typographers and pressmen laboring in warehouses full of clanking machinery, there is just you, your computer and a printer. Nevertheless, you can produce printed materials faster, easier and much cheaper than a conventional print shop -- and with nearly the same quality. Therein lies the singular difference between desktop and ordinary publishing and the reason why the newer print form may hold promise for you. Traditional publishing was so cumbersome and expensive that you reserved it for special ; occasions. You spent weeks selecting just the right letterhead for your stationery, then printed 1,000 letters -- hoping to use them up before your address changed. But with a decent desktop system, you simply digitize your logo (that is, convert it into computer-readable form) and print it anew each time you write a letter. If you're involved in several lines of work, you can create a letterhead for each. And if you move, incorporate or change your phone number, your logo can reflect the change instantly.

This ease of production has had the effect of improving the appearance of many simple business communications. For example, how often recently have you seen -- or hired someone with -- a typewritten resume? Even the humble interoffice memo is looking sprightlier at many firms these days, as nascent desktop publishers try their wares. On the home front, if you already have a computer and a laser or ink-jet printer, you have everything you need except the software (such as Aldus PageMaker, $350) to put out your church newsletter, customize an order form for your business or self-publish that novel languishing in your desk drawer. You could even do what Joe Mariano of New Orleans did -- turn desktop publishing into a career. Four years ago, Mariano, 35, began putting out promotional brochures and small magazines for local businessmen. Today he has no trouble keeping his days filled with $45-an-hour assignments. Like many desktop aficionados, Mariano swears by Apple's Macintosh as his basic computer. The Mac was the machine that led the way to desktop publishing. At a time when the builders of IBM-compatible machines mostly contented themselves with splashing fuzzy green characters on a screen and printing them like an electric typewriter, the Mac's designers were perfecting the capacity to handle different type styles and sizes, unconventional page designs, and graphics and pictures. The Mac still has the edge in the desktop world, with a greater variety of programs and, says Gene Panhorst, an electronic publishing systems consultant in New York City, faster and crisper screen displays. But, says Panhorst, it's possible to produce just as good a final product with an IBM PC. No matter which computer you own, the first step toward desktop capability is to select a page-layout program -- the most fundamental piece of software for desktop publishing. These are programs that take the place of the stiff paper on which conventional designers paste type and images to create a / finished page. Some of the more powerful word processors such as WordPerfect and Microsoft Word have rudimentary page-layout capabilities built into them, but they are weak sisters to any of the dedicated programs. Currently the three leaders for the Mac world are PageMaker, the oldest and largest seller; QuarkXPress ($490), a rising favorite among many professionals; and Joe Mariano's choice, the latest edition of Ready, Set, Go! ($275). ''The original version was a dog,'' says Mariano, ''but revision 4.5 is more flexible, more powerful and less expensive than either of the other two.'' If you're working on an IBM machine, you can get PageMaker or a package called Ventura ($550) created expressly for the PC. Next you must decide how deeply you wish to get involved with graphics. Programs such as Adobe Illustrator ($300) and Aldus Freehand ($300) let you create pictures or designs on your computer that can be moved into any of the page-layout programs in much the same way that a designer pastes down art. Or you can buy collections of digitized designs -- called clip art -- and modify them to suit your needs. You might also consider an optical scanner such as the new ScanMan ($300) from Logitech in Fremont, Calif. With it, you can pick up copies of photos or art from books or magazines for later manipulation using Ventura or PageMaker. With the right software, a scanner can even decipher text from printed sources, so you don't have to retype it at the keyboard. The most expensive desktop publishing decision you are likely to face is the choice of a printer. Your concern here will be primarily sharpness, or resolution, which is typically measured in dots per inch. To do reasonable- quality newsletter printing, you will need a laser printer that can manage 300 dots an inch or better. Apple's own Laserwriter IINT ($3,600) is a good choice or, for the IBM, the Hewlett-Packard LaserJet II ($1,700). If you like both Apple and IBM, QMS and Ricoh make switch-hitting printers -- the PS-810 ($4,000) and the PC Laser 6000/PS ($3,400), respectively. For truly professional printing, however, you'll need a resolution of at least 1,200 dots per inch. Printers of this quality cost $25,000 and up, but you can duck that expense by storing your finished pages on a disk and taking it to a local print shop that has a professional-quality printer like a Linotronic or Burmisetter. You'll pay about $4.50 to $12 per finished page. The one skill that still eludes most desktop publishers is the handling of color. The page-layout programs display the work in glorious color, if you have a color monitor, and hardware and software exist for Mac as well as IBM to make color separations. But most experts rate their quality as inferior to that of a conventional color shop. So if your brochure is headed somewhere over the rainbow, get the color done by a pro.