Overqualified and Unemployable

The irony of today’s job market.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about a friend of mine. For the sake of anonymity, I’ll call her Sally.

Like me, Sally spent years writing computer how-to books, turning her expertise into easy-to-understand instructions readers could learn from. Like me, she had strong selling titles that earned her a good income. She writes about more technical topics than I wrote about: mostly web-related programming. And unlike me, she stuck to freelance work as her main source of income where I grew and then slid into a career as a helicopter pilot.

A few months ago, Sally mentioned on Twitter or Facebook that she was looking for a full-time job.

A full-time job.

I thought at the time about how I’d feel if I had to get a full-time job after more than 20 years as a freelancer and business owner. A job where I had to dress a certain way every day, work regular hours, attend pointless staff meetings, and answer to a boss with his/her own personal agenda or baggage. A job where my daily tasks would be determined by someone else, without giving me any choice in the matter. A job where the term “weekend” actually meant something.

I shudder at the thought.

Don’t get the idea that I don’t work. Or that Sally doesn’t work. Freelancers work when there’s work to do. When there isn’t, we’re usually looking for work.

But these days, the kind of work Sally and I did as freelancers is getting harder and harder to find. People don’t buy computer how-to books when they can Google the answers they seek. People don’t spend money on the educational content we produce when they can get it for free online. So publishers are letting books die without revision and, one-by-one, freelance writers like us are losing our livelihood.

The reason I’m thinking about Sally lately is because this week she posted another Twitter update to say that she was looking for a full-time job. She was using Twitter to network, to put out feelers, to help her connect to someone who might be hiring. I’m sure she’s following other avenues as well.

What resulted was a brief conversation on Twitter between me, Sally, and another freelancer our age. And that’s when I learned a tragic fact:

Sally had applied for a job at a college teaching the computer language she’d been writing about for years. In fact, the college was using her book as the textbook for the course. But they wouldn’t hire her. Why? She didn’t have a Master’s degree.

Now those folks who are working to get a Masters or already have one probably think that’s a good thing. Makes that extra two years in college really worthwhile, huh? Gives you job security, right?

But does anyone honestly think they can teach the course better than the person who wrote the textbook?

It gets worse. Sally wanted to work for a local organization that has a tendency to hire young people at low starting salaries. When she applied, she even offered to work at that low salary. And she was turned down.

I know why. Young people are inexperienced and far more likely to do what they’re told instead of tapping into experience to suggest improvements as they work. Employers don’t want smart, helpful people. They want drones — bodies to fill seats, push pencils, and get a job done without questioning what they’re told to do.

I saw if myself firsthand when I flew at the Grand Canyon in 2004; the young pilots just did what they were told while older folks like me saw places where the operation could be improved and tried to suggest them. Or, worse yet, used their experience to to make a no-fly decision when weather was an issue. Can’t have that.

So employers are turning away older, more knowledgeable, more experienced workers in favor of young, inexperienced people who might have college degrees to meet arbitrarily established requirements — even when the more experienced workers can be hired at the same cost.

What does that say about our society and values?

Using a Daily Routine to Maximize Productivity

Some things that work for me might work for you, too.

BooksI’ve been a freelance writer since I left my last full-time job in 1990. While freelancing might sound great to the folks who punch a clock or work some version of the typical 9 to 5 grind, it’s not all about working in your pajamas and goofing off in coffee shops. It more about finding work that pays and getting the work done on time. If you’re a good freelancer, you’re doing those two things every working day. If you’re not, you’re probably not earning a living as a freelancer.

My Background as a Writer

Peachpit Logo

My career has followed what might look like a bell curve. A slow start in 1990 with a steep rise in the late 1990s that peaked in the mid 2000s and began a decline in 2006 or so. This is mostly because the market for what I wrote — computer how-to books for beginning to intermediate users — has gone into decline, pushed into obsolescence by the rise of Google, Internet based software support, and video how-to. I was fortunate enough to hop on the video train in 2006 and have authored a number of videos for a great organization, Lynda.com. I still do this and I really enjoy it. But the heydays of writing about computers is definitely over.

Fortunately, I still have enough of a reputation as a writer that I can get opportunities to write short how-to articles and blog posts for paying markets. I did quite a few of these over the years, but lost interest in 2011 and hit a mental road block in 2012 that made it very difficult to write much of anything. I’ve worked my way though that now, mostly out of necessity. My recovery is due, in part, to two new editorial contacts that have offered me money for fresh content. Because my other work as a helicopter pilot is seasonal and very slow in the winter months, I’m embracing these new opportunities. My book and video course royalties only go so far.

Unfortunately, I’m also still “flaking out” once in a while — basically dropping the ball on opportunities I should consider myself lucky to get. As I told one of my editors the other day, I’m my own worst enemy. When I’m focused, I can write good content very quickly — my editors are always happy with what I send. The trick is getting and staying focused long enough to get the job done.

And that brings me to today’s topic: setting up and sticking to a routine.

My Current Routine

I am a morning person. I have been for longer than I can remember. I wake up early and work best before noon. This becomes extremely important as I try to maximize productivity and still have time to take care of the other important things in my life — like the construction of my new home, socializing with friends, and exploring new hobbies like beekeeping and warm glass work.

That said, I generally wake between 4 and 6 AM. (Yes, I know that’s pretty freaking early, but that’s the way things are these days. I haven’t set an alarm clock in years.) I usually stay in bed until at least 5; if I wake before that, I check in on Twitter and Facebook on my iPad before getting out of bed. I’ll also check the weather and my calendar for the day. (More on the calendar in a moment.)

After taking care of bathroom stuff, I head into the kitchen to make coffee, wash the few dishes that might be in the sink, and feed Penny the Tiny Dog. Sometimes I’ll make breakfast, too.

I take my coffee and breakfast to the kitchen table where I spend some quiet time writing in my journal about the previous day’s activities and thoughts. (If you think I share a lot here and on social networks, you should read my journal. This blog is the tip of a very deep iceberg. I’ve already made arrangements to have it published when I die.)

By 7 AM, I’m at my desk working. I try to spend a solid 4-6 hours writing. I’ll try to write work I can sell first, but if nothing comes to mind, I’ll write in my blog about something that’s been on my mind. Sometimes that stimulates my mind enough to trigger ideas for a piece I can sell.

Yesterday was an extremely productive day. By 8 AM, I’d already written a 450-word illustrated how-to article for an editor, a short illustrated blog post for this blog, and a brief proposal for a new video course. I’d gotten an early start — I was at my desk by 5 — but I was still pleasantly surprised.

Distraction is my enemy and it takes many forms. Social media is the worst. Using the Internet to research and shop for things that interest me comes next. Reading old blog posts comes after that. If I’m not careful, these activities can blow hours of my day.

Oops! I’m back. Just lost 30 minutes doing all of the above. Seriously. I wish I were kidding.

The key is to not allow distractions to take you away from your work. Face it: if a task takes 4 hours to complete and you blow away 2 hours on distractions, you now have a 6-hour work day. Wouldn’t you rather finish your work and have the rest of the day off to deal with other things, including those distractions? I know I would. But sometimes it’s difficult to avoid them.

(This is something that’s been on my mind for a while. In 2007, I blogged “5 Tips for Staying Focused.” And in 2009, I blogged “Writing Tips: Avoiding Distractions.”)

When I’m done with the task at hand and have nothing on my calendar to take me away from my desk, if I’m on a roll I try hard to keep working. Yesterday, after a lengthy midday distraction, I made several false starts on a blog post for an aviation blog, started to write a different flying-related blog post for my own blog, and realized what I was writing for my blog might work for the other blog. I pasted the text from my blog composition software — yes, I still use ecto — to Microsoft Word and finished it up. I sent it in and crossed my fingers that it’s accepted. If it isn’t, no sweat; I’ll publish it here on this blog and write something else.

I should mention my calendar and its importance in all this. Because I do my best work in the morning, I try to schedule all my non-work activities for the afternoon. This reserves the morning time for work. I also put everything on my calendar, mostly because I forget scheduled responsibilities if I don’t. And I use to do list software that automatically syncs between my Mac, iPhone, and iPad to keep track of tasks that need to be done and maintain a shopping list. (I should probably blog about that one day, too.)

Yesterday I had to run errands down in the valley (on my to do list), buy a few items (on my to do list), and join some friends for dinner and pumpkin carving (on my calendar). Because I was determined to finish that blog post before I joined my friends and because I allowed midday distractions to eat into my work time, I arrived late for the social activities and only ran two of three errands.

That’s my basic routine: Wake early, coffee, journaling, and writing work in the morning; personal and social activities in the afternoon and evening.

I should mention here that I’ve tried working in the afternoon after something takes up my morning and I simply can’t do it. There’s something about the morning that makes me more productive and enables me to stay more focused. When I sit at my desk in the afternoon, I can’t even get started. The distracting influences are simply calling too loudly.

I should also mention that the short days I experience here in Central Washington State make it very easy to occupy myself at my desk in the early morning. The sun rose this morning at 7:43. (Of course, next week, when we change the clocks, that’ll drop back to 6:43.) But, on average, I’m awake for two or more hours before the sun rises here in the late autumn, winter, and early spring. If I’m not working at my desk, what else could I be doing when it’s still dark out? To me, I’m spending the least useful part of the day doing something that helps me earn a living, leaving the most useful part of the day available to do other things. In the summer, of course, things are very different — and so is my routine.

Setting Up Your Routine

That’s my routine. Now think of yours.

First of all, consider when your best work period is. I’m certainly not suggesting that you wake before 6 and hit the keyboard. (Hell, I wish I didn’t do it.) That works for me but it won’t work for everyone.

Once you know when that golden productivity time is, schedule your day around it. Make that period of time sacred, a time when the only thing you’ll do is work-related. Follow the suggestions in the two posts I linked to above to minimize distractions. Know that distractions will only lengthen your time at your desk. Don’t allow yourself to leave a task unfinished if it only needs another hour or two of your undivided attention to get done. Finishing tasks is extremely rewarding.

If you finish early and have other tasks to complete, do them! Do enough of them and you might get a whole day off.

Ddo your best to make each day’s work schedule pretty much the same, creating a routine. This adds a rhythm to your life that should make it easier to get work done.

What do you think? Use the comments link or form to share your thoughts and tips.


What a freaking waste of time.

I needed a logo for my Maria’s Guides website and line of books. I wanted something simple, something that communicated the brand as well as the fact that the “guides” were in print, video, and ebook formats.

I have no design skills. None. I know what I like when I see it and I can often modify something that’s close to what I like to make it more in line with what I need. (That’s basically how I “design” my websites: I start with a theme and modify it.)

At first, I put a request on Twitter for a book cover design. That was a mistake. I got a bunch of responses from strangers linking to their portfolios or just promising they could do the job. (I created it myself based on a few other book cover designs I found online; it’s okay for now.)

Trying Elance

I decided I’d need a pro for the logo design. My budget was under $500, preferably under $300. I remembered hearing about Elance and decided to give it a try.

Elance is a Web site that connects freelancers with people needing freelance work done. It seems like a good idea and I know there are plenty of designers there. So I set up an account and used the “logo” template to submit a request for proposals.

I should have realized that something was wrong when I got six bids within about fifteen minutes. Although I’d set up my budget for less than $500, the bids ranged from $60 to $149. Four bids were from (supposedly) U.S. based companies, one was from India, and one was from Argentina. Most of them linked to logos or business packages they’d (supposedly) designed for other clients. Most were obviously canned responses that showed no indication that they’d read my request for proposals. LIke this:


Thanks for reviewing our proposal.
We understand your requirement for creation of logo design. Plz check our portfolio attached.

Also view our elance portfolio :
[URL redacted]

or this (supposedly from a U.S. based company):

Hi and Thank you to review our bid!!
This Bid includes:
1) 7 Initial concepts of logo. (Designed by 6 different designers)
2) A complementary Stationery concept (includes Business Card, Letter Head, and Envelope)
3) EMAIL SIGNATURE without any extra cost. (100% NO COST)
4) Unlimited Color schemes of selected design.
5) Original Copy right files. (All rights reserved by you)

It should be noted that all I asked for was a logo.

I decided to give it a try by picking one of the (supposedly) U.S. based companies that submitted a proposal that didn’t seem canned. Their samples were in line with what I was looking for. The price was very good — only $65 — so I figured I wouldn’t lose much if they completely sucked.

On accepting the bid, the first thing they did was send me a list of information they needed. This was the same exact information I had already provided using the Elance template for a logo request.

So apparently, they hadn’t read my request either.

With my response, I added:

PLEASE do not respond to me with canned communications. I have extremely low tolerance for people who waste my time by asking for information they already have. I realize there’s not much money in this, but that’s not MY fault. If you can’t treat me like a REAL client, let’s end this relationship now.

We got past that and they started submitting designs. The first batch had five. (I’m not sure if I’m allowed to show them; I haven’t paid for this yet and, chances are, they’ll use these same designs again for another sucker.) I liked one of them — it featured a graphic representation of a book emerging from a square — and made some suggestions:

…is there a way that the graphic part can indicate both books and electronic media? Maybe a 3-part icon that includes a representation of a book, an ebook (or tablet computer with writing on it), and a movie? For the movie, the old-fashioned filmstrip kind of thing might work.

“Designing” with Clipart

They submitted two more designs. They were dramatically different and very complex. But worst of all: they looked like they had been assembled by copying and pasting clipart. Clipart drawn from different perspectives and in different styles. I started to get a bad feeling.

I wrote back, telling them it looked like clipart. The response:

These are victor file, but if you don’t like them we will send you more revision.

Ah, yes. I know the U.S. education system is pretty crappy right now, but that’s not the kind of English I expect to get from a native speaker. I began wondering where the company was really based.

The next logo design was closer to what I could use. It included the three icons representing books, video, and ebooks. But the style of each icon was dramatically different. I had to look at the video representation under magnification to figure out what it was. And the ebook representation was just plopped on top of its frame with no attempt to make it look as if it were emerging. And, of course, all three icons appeared to be drawn from a different perspective, so they just didn’t go well together. More clipart.

Among my comments to try to fix this one up, I said:

The second panel doesn’t look like film. Consult this link http://www.jeffjonesillustration.com/[redacted] for something closer to what I envisioned. A reel of film with a strip of film coming out.

I should note here that the image I linked to as an example is one of many copyrighted images by illustrator Jeff Jones. Mr. Jones sells the rights to his artwork for use as stock images. I did not buy this image; I was just using it as an example.

Apparently, the “designers” I’d hired thought that they could use this copyrighted image in my logo. In the next revision, that exact image, scaled to fit, was part of the logo. They’d also managed to completely misunderstand my instructions for the ebook reader image in the third panel of the logo.

It was pretty clear that:

  • They had no real design skills.
  • They had no artistic ability.
  • They heavily relied on clipart to create logos.
  • They likely didn’t understand English enough to follow instructions.

Yes, I Know that You Get What You Pay For

Now I know what you’re saying: You get what you pay for. But understand that I was willing to pay more. This isn’t the first logo I’ve had designed — the others cost more. I picked this “design” company based not on the fee but on their proposal and samples. I don’t know where the samples came from, but it’s pretty clear to me that the people I hired did not design them.

By this point, I was fed up. This had been going on for a week and I was at the point where I dreaded opening my next email from them. I wrote:

I’m trying to understand why this is so difficult for you folks. Do the people working on this project read and speak English?

First of all, you CANNOT use the film clipart I linked to as AN EXAMPLE because it is copyrighted. If I use that in my logo, I will get sued. You should KNOW this.

Second, when I said that the tablet computer representation should have writing on it like an ebook, I didn’t mean to put the word “ebook” on it. I meant using lines of fake writing so that it looked as if it were showing an ebook. Also, laying a rectangle on top of a square does not match the design elements of the first frame “book” which is emerging from the frame.

Clearly this is NOT working out. I cannot understand how you folks have gotten good reviews unless the people you worked for were satisfied by your use of clipart to create “custom” logos. I don’t need to pay someone to do that. I can do that myself.

I cannot use what you’ve created and I’m tired of going back and forth with you on this. What an incredible waste of my time. I will contact Elance directly on how to resolve this issue.

And I got online with Elance and sent them a request for help:

I put in a request for a logo design. I got a bunch of very low bids, most of them from organizations that obviously did not read what I was looking for. I picked one I thought knew what I wanted.

For the past week we have been going back and forth on this. I’m supposed to be getting a custom design and what I’m getting is cut and paste clipart. When I offered a link to a sample image on the Web, the “designer” used THAT copyrighted image — if I included that in my logo, I could get sued!

These people are obviously amateurs, have no talent, and cannot follow instructions. I want to end my contract. I am willing to pay 50% of the agreed upon fee to cover the work done. I cannot use the logo as is and will have to pay a REAL designer to come up with something I can use. Please help me resolve this so I can move on and get the logo I need.

I’m still waiting to hear back from them. Believe me, 50% is generous for the aggravation I’ve been dealing with. What I’m willing to pay for is the idea, which I helped them develop.

[Update: They’ve agreed to the 50%. I guess people like this will take any money they can get.]

Apparently Freelancers Know Better

Now when all this started going south, I tweeted:

If this Elance experience is indicative of what it’s like to work with all Elance service providers, this will be my LAST time using Elance.

A Twitter friend tweeted back:

I tried providing service on elance, but would always get undercut by clueless people from india.

So that’s what it’s all about? A web-based service that leads you to believe you’re helping out local designers who are trying to build a client base. Instead, you’re sending business overseas to “design factories” manned by clipart manipulation experts.

What do you think? Do you have any experience — good or bad — with Elance? I’d like to hear a story with a happy ending.

February Needs More Days

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Ever have one of those months where there just aren’t enough days? We all say that about February — mostly because it usually only has 28 of them — but even if it had its full share, it wouldn’t be enough. Mine is booked solid.

Want a glimpse of what my work/personal life is like right about now? Here’s the bullet point edition:

  • I have two chapters left to write on a book I’ve been struggling to finish since November. Part of the problem was that my editor didn’t seem to take much interest in the project, which led me to feel much the same way. Now, of course, they want it done already (as they should) and I also feel the same way.
  • One of my other publishers suggested a topic for a brand new book for them. I need to come up with an outline and make contact with the public relations person for the software company to see what kind of support I might be able to get from them.
  • That same publisher is gearing me up for a revision of my Mac OS X book for Lion. That book, which I also do layout for, has a brand new look, requiring a new template and mindset.
  • Another publisher is making noises about another revision for another project. I’m think it might be pretty far out on the horizon, but I need to chat with them about needs and scheduling.
  • AircraftOwner Online has announced that my monthly article deadline is now the 12th of the month rather than month-end.
  • I’m under contract to write two more articles (that I keep putting aside) for a Web publication. I won’t get paid for the first one I wrote (last year) until I hand in these two.
  • One of my aerial survey clients wants a 1-2 day wildlife survey flight in northern Arizona next week. (This just popped up today.)
  • One of my aerial photo clients has booked a 4-day photo flight in Arizona and Utah for mid-month. The flight requires me to obtain permits for flying low level in three different national parks. (And yes, one of them is the Grand Canyon. Wish me luck.)
  • I have to drop off my helicopter for its 100-hour inspection in Mesa, AZ; a few days later, I have to pick it back up. I also have to hope there’s nothing wrong with it that would prevent me from picking it up on time.
  • I have an FAA Part 135 check flight scheduled near month-end.
  • I have a day trip to Sedona scheduled near month-end.
  • I have a week-long vacation in the Bahamas with my husband. (A business trip for him; a chance to breathe for me.)
  • I have to drop off and then pick up Alex the Bird from his boarding facility before and after the vacation.

Get the idea?

You might have noticed that blogging does not appear anywhere on this list. That’s not a mistake. Blogging falls very low on the priority list. So low, it doesn’t even appear on lists. So this might be the only original blog post you see for quite a while.

Just thought it fair to warn you. This is going to be a very long short month.

And who says freelancers don’t work hard for a living?

Freelancers Don’t Get Sick Pay

We actually work for a living.

It occurred to me the other day that there’s a huge difference between employees and freelancers. I don’t mean to say that I suddenly saw the light — I didn’t. I’ve known the differences for a long time. But the other day, I actually stopped for a moment to think about them. I thought I’d share some of my thoughts here, laid out in a simple table to make comparison easier.

Employees Freelancers
Employees can stop looking for work once they get a job. The only times they need to look for work again is if they want to change jobs, they get fired, or they need a second job. Freelancers are always looking for work, even when they’re working. The ability to earn a living depends on having the next job lined up.
Employees seldom have to worry about losing their jobs to someone who claims he can do it cheaper. Freelancers are constantly competing for work with others who claim they can do the same job for less money.
Employees usual do one job at a time, although that job might entail several concurrent projects for the same employer. Freelancers often work on several jobs for several clients concurrently.
Employees are usually given all of the tools and equipment they need to perform their jobs. These tools are usually purchased, maintained, and updated by their employers. Freelancers usually have to buy, maintain, and update all of the tools and equipment they need to perform their jobs.
Employees often spend part of their workday socializing with coworkers around the water cooler, coffee room, offices/cubicles, cafeteria, etc. Freelancers often work alone. Most time spent socializing is not time they’re being paid for.
Employees often get benefits that include paid vacations, paid holidays, paid sick days, health care, pension contributions, profit sharing, and bonuses. There are holiday parties, company picnics, and sometimes even birthday cakes. Freelancers don’t get benefits. If they can’t work because of illness, they don’t make money. In the U.S. (and some other countries), they have to pay for their own health care, often at extremely high rates. There are no holiday parties, company picnics, or birthday cakes.
Employees have a predetermined workday, such as 9 to 5. They also get scheduled days off, like weekends and holidays. If they don’t feel like coming into work, they can take a paid sick or personal day off. The flip side of this is that an employee has a limited amount of time off. Freelancers work as long as they need to to get the job done. If that means 12 hour days and lost weekends, so be it. If they don’t feel like working in the middle of a job, that’s too darn bad; the job needs to get done on time. The flip side of this is that a freelancer can have as much time off as he wants, as long as he works enough to earn enough money to survive.
Employees are usually not bothered by their bosses outside their normally scheduled workday. Freelancers can be bothered by clients any time the client wants to make contact (although most clients keep contact within their working hours).
Employees can have annoying or even stupid bosses. Freelancers can have annoying or even stupid clients.
As long as an employee performs his job to some level of satisfaction, he’ll likely remain employed. A freelancer needs to perform high quality work for every job to set himself apart from the competition, with the hope that the client will either give him future work or recommend him to others.
Employees get paychecks. The government ensures that they get paid. Freelancers issue invoices and spend time following up on accounts receivable. They sometimes have to remind, nag, and then possibly sue clients to get paid.
Employees have payroll taxes taken from their pay and remitted to the government. In the U.S., their employers pay 50% of their social security tax liability. Freelancers don’t usually have taxes taken from their pay and remitted to the government. They are required to submit taxes quarterly, along with the related paperwork. If they don’t submit on time, they could be penalized. In the U.S., they are personally responsible for 100% of their social security tax liability.

What did I leave out? Employees and freelancers, use the Comments link or form to fill us in.

Is Writing a Book Like Riding a Bicycle?

Is it possible to forget how?

Despite all my blogging about Flying and helicopters, I still earn the bulk of my income as a writer. I’ve been writing computer how-to books since 1991 (depending on which book you consider my first) and have authored or co-authored more than 70 titles since then.

You’d think that by now I could write a book in my sleep. In a way, I can. Or at least I thought I could.

This past week, I began discussions with a publisher I’d never worked with before about two new titles. I you might expect — I certainly did — I was asked to submit an outline for each proposed book. I sat down with Microsoft Word’s outline feature on one laptop and the software I was going to be writing about running on a laptop beside it. And, for longer than I’d like to admit, I felt overwhelmed.

Writing a Book ≠ Revising a Book

Creating Spreadsheets and ChartsYou see, although I’ve got 70+ books under my belt, the vast majority of those titles are revisions. Two of them have been revised at least 10 times. In fact, on consulting my list of books, I realized that the last time I wrote a book from scratch was in 2004 (Creating Spreadsheet and Charts with Microsoft Excel: Visual QuickProject Guide for Peachpit Press), although I did co-author one (with Miraz Jordan) from scratch in 2006 (WordPress 2: Visual QuickStart Guide for Peachpit Press).

And revising a book is not like writing one from scratch.

When I revise a book, I start with the book and its text. There’s no need for a new outline. If the book will need major changes, I might take the existing book’s table of contents, bring it into Word’s outline feature, and modify it to fit the changes into appropriate places. But if the changes are minor — and believe me, quite a few revisions were like that — I didn’t even bother printing the table of contents. Either way, I go through each chapter and read the text, making changes as necessary. I re-shoot all the screen shots — even in books that have hundreds of them. I add sections and remove sections. Occasionally, I’ll move sections around or expand on sections to make them clearer. More and more often these days, I’m asked to remove sections simply to reduce page count. Then I’m done.

But when I write a book from scratch, I’m starting with nothing more than the subject — usually a software program or online service — and a blank outline page. I need to build the outline from scratch, knowing just a few things:

  • The audience. This is usually beginner to intermediate users; I don’t write for advanced users or programmers very often. Knowing the audience is important; it enables me to make assumptions about their experience and goals. My audience has changed in the 20 or so years I’ve been doing this. In the old days, I often had to begin with basics like how to point and click and close windows. Now I can assume my readers know all that and get on with topic-specific content.
  • The series. Most of my books are part of a book series. In the past, I’ve authored the first book in a series, but that’s not common. I like writing series books. They give me an idea of the style and format my editors want. I can visualize the final pages as I write. Heck, for some books — Peachpit’s Visual QuickStart Guide series, for example — I actually lay out the pages as I write.
  • The software or service. That’s my subject matter. I need to know the software or service very well to know what I’m going to write about. Often, I’m working with beta software that’s not quite ready for prime time or, worse yet, changes as I write. I have to explore menus and palettes and dialogs. I have to try things to see what happens. I have to learn so I can teach.
Don’t Torture Yourself
I always write with the software or service I’m writing about running on a second computer. Anyone who tries to write a book without being able to reference the subject matter while writing is putting himself through a lot of unnecessary torture.

The trick is to build an outline from the ground up, knowing where to start and where to end and how to get from one point to the next. Each chapter should have a logical flow, starting with the basics and moving on to more complex topics. I can’t explain how to perform one task until I’ve already explained how to perform the subtasks that are part of it. For example, I can’t write about formatting text until I’ve explained how to select the text to format and why selecting that text is important.

Have I Lost My Touch?

It’s this logical flow of things that had me stalled this week as I struggled with the two outlines. I seemed to have lost my touch. I couldn’t focus on the software and approach it as a new user might.

What made matters worse was that the editor I was working with gave me outlines to start with. I wasn’t sure whether he wanted me to follow those outlines or build my own. The outline for one of the books was very good. I wouldn’t have had any problem using it as a basis for my book. But I felt weird about using someone else’s outline — even if I had permission to do so. It was almost as if I were copying someone else’s work. I didn’t like that idea at all.

That meant I had to come up with an entirely different approach.

And that’s what stalled me. My mind went blank and I simply couldn’t think of another way to do it.

I’ve Still Got It

Putting the other outline aside and concentrating on the software is what saved me. I was eventually able to focus on the software. I started writing Part names, Chapter names, and A-Head names, following the style used in the series. I shuffled heads around. One thing led to another, just like it always had.

When I was halfway finished and clearly comfortable with my own approach, I consulted that other outline to make sure I covered all the applicable topics that it did. Since the other book was about the Windows version of the software (for the same publisher), only about 80% of the topics applied my Mac version book. My outline presented them in a completely different order, building skills along a different path.

Looking back on it, I realize that my outline is more like one of my outlines and wonder what I’d liked about the other outline in the first place.

Back on the Bicycle

I find it more difficult to write an outline than a book. That might sound strange, but it’s true. Getting the organization settled is the hardest part for me. Once I have that blueprint, I can start building pages.

With the initial period of uncertainty mostly behind me — at least on one of the two projects — I’m looking forward to writing a new book and working with new people. I’m hoping I get some good feedback from my editor on the outline and that we can work together to fine-tune it to meet the publisher’s needs. The contract comes next and then the writing. It’s all part of a workflow I’m quite familiar with.

Now if only I could knock out that second outline…

Why I Just Signed the Worst Publishing Contract I Ever Got

And why I probably won’t regret it.

Moments ago, I put my signature on a contract to create a series of videos based on one of my books. Details beyond that are neither prudent nor required for this blog post. Let’s just say that the book is one of my better-selling efforts and the publisher is one that I’ve enjoyed a good relationship with for a while.

The contract, however, sucked.

My main concerns with the contract fall into two areas:

  • The language of the contract makes it nearly impossible to understand without drawing a flowchart or having a lawyer at my elbow to translate the legalese. We’ve come a long way since 1995, when the owner/publisher of the company signed the contracts and all checks and I, the author, was referred to throughout as “Maria.” Instead, it’s “we” and “you” and the single-spaced monstrosity stretches for six full pages, with numerous cross-references to other paragraphs. Whoever wrote this thing could easily get work writing government documents in legalese, such as FARs for the FAA or the latest version of the health care bill. It’s a shame they’re wasting their talents on publishing contracts, where contract recipients actually have a chance of understanding what they’ve written. They could be confusing a much larger audience.
  • The rights clause(s) in the contract require me to give away all rights to the work. All of them. For every possible means of publication and market, existing now or in the future. Forever and ever. It even says that if they need me to sign some other document to give them rights, I’m required to sign it. (Have you ever heard of such a thing?) I get it. I’m writing something for them and I should never expect to have any right in it ever again.

You might be asking why I would sign such a thing. After all, why should I give away all rights in a work I create? After 20 years in the business of writing technical books, don’t I have enough of a track record or reputation or following or whatever to successfully push back and keep some of those rights?

My response: Why would I want to?

Let’s face it — what is the life of a computer book these days? I feel fortunate when I see sales on a book that’s a year old. What good is having the rights revert back to me on a book that’s too stale to sell? Especially when I’ve already written and published the revision?

And do I really think I can sell something better than the marketing machine that my publisher controls? While I don’t think they do as well as they could, they certainly do better than I could.

But the real reason I signed without dwelling on it was the money. There. I said it.

The contract did not offer an advance against royalties. It offered a grant to compensate me for production expenses. The difference between the two is huge:

  • An advance against royalties is applied against royalties as they’re earned. So if you earn $8K in royalties in a quarter and they paid you $5K in advances, your first royalty check would be for just $3K.
  • A grant isn’t applied against any royalties. That means you start earning money on the very first unit sold. Using the same example, if you earned $8K in royalties in a quarter and they paid you a $5K grant, your first royalty check would be for $8K.

The royalty rates in this particular contract weren’t the greatest, but they weren’t bad. If this works out well and they want me to do another one, I think I can push a bit harder for better royalties or perhaps a larger grant. But not this first time.

You see, this is the first project of this kind at this particular publisher. We’re all sailing uncharted waters here.

And that’s probably the third reason I signed. I wanted an opportunity to try this.

Publishing is changing.

I remember the day about 10 years ago when I received six book contracts in the mail. All on the same day. The total advances for those books exceeded what a lot of people I knew earned in a year. And that year, I wrote ten books.

Things are different today. Titles that I thought would last forever — Microsoft Word for Windows Visual QuickStart Guide comes to mind — have died. Too much competition, not enough novice users needing a book, too much online reference material. The Internet’s free access to information is cutting into the royalties of the writers who used to get paid to write the same material. Paper and shipping is expensive. Ebooks have a lower perceived value than their printed counterparts. Brick and mortar bookstores have limited shelf space and a fading customer base. All this spells hard times for the folks who do the kind of writing I do: computer how-to books for the beginning to intermediate user.

When opportunity knocks, I answer the door. If the deal looks good, I shake hands, accept the offered check, and get to work. Even if the deal isn’t as good as I’d like it to be, I’m more likely to take it than I was 10 years ago.

After all, who knows when I’ll hear another knock on my door?