You Can’t Go Back

A note in response to a bulk email from an old colleague.

It may be hard for some blog readers to believe, but for a while in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I was “famous.”

My fame was limited to a group of people who bought my books and read my articles about using computers. I started writing in 1991 — as a ghostwriter for a John Dvorak book — and was soon writing my own titles. I learned early on that if you couldn’t write a bestseller, you had to write a lot of books. So I did. And then, in the late 1990s, two of my books became best sellers. Subsequent editions of the same book continued to be best sellers. For a while, I was making a very good living as a writer. At the computer shows where I was a regular speaker, people actually asked for my autograph.

I’m not an idiot. I knew that my good fortune could not last forever. So as I continued to write, turning out book after book and becoming well known in my field, I invested my money in my retirement, assets that could help extend (or at least securely bank) my wealth, and something that I thought would be a great hobby: flying helicopters. I learned to fly, I got hooked on it, and I bought helicopter. I started my helicopter charter business in 2001 — it was easy to fit flights in with my flexible schedule as a writer — and bought a larger helicopter in 2005. Building the business was such a struggle that I honestly didn’t think I would succeed. But fortunately, I did.

Mountain Lion VQS
My most recent book was published back in 2012. I don’t call it my “last book” because I expect to write more. They likely won’t be about computers, though.

And it was a good thing, because around 2008, my income from writing began declining. By 2010, that income began going into freefall. Most of my existing titles were not revised for new versions of software. Book contracts for new titles were difficult to get and, when they were published, simply didn’t sell well.

Around the same time, my income from flying started to climb. Not only did it cover all the costs of owning a helicopter — and I can assure you those costs are quite high — but it began covering my modest cost of living. By 2012, when I wrote my last computer book, I was doing almost as well as a helicopter charter business owner as I’d done 10 years before as a writer. And things continued to get better.

I was one of the lucky ones. Most of my peers in the world of computer how-to publishing hadn’t prepared themselves for the changes in our market. (In their defense, I admit that it came about quite quickly.) Many of these people are now struggling to make a living writing about computers. But the writing is on the wall in big, neon-colored letters as publishers continue to downsize and more and more of my former editors are finding themselves unemployed. Freelance writers like me, once valued for their skill, professionalism, and know-how, are a dime a dozen, easily replaced by those willing to write for next to nothing or even free. Books and magazine articles are replaced by Internet content of variable quality available 24/7 with a simple Google search.

So imagine my surprise today when one of my former colleagues from the old days sent me — and likely countless others — a bulk email message announcing a newsletter, website, and book about the same old stuff we wrote about in the heydays of computer book publishing. To me, his plea came across as the last gasp of a man who doesn’t realize he’s about to drown in the flood of free, competing information that has been growing exponentially since Internet became a household word.

I admit that I was a bit offended by being included on his bulk email list simply because he had my email address in his contacts database. But more than that, I was sad that he had sunk so low to try to scrape up interest in his work by using such an approach. Hadn’t he seen the light? Read the writing on the wall? Didn’t he understand that we have to change or die?

So after unsubscribing from his bulk mail list, I sent him the following note. And no, his name is not “Joe.”

The world’s a different place now, Joe.

After writing 85 books and countless articles about using computers, I haven’t written anything new about computers since 2012. I’m fortunate in that my third career took off just before that. Others in our formerly enviable position weren’t so lucky.

Not enough people need us as a source of computer information anymore. All the information they could ever want or need is available immediately and for free with a Google search. There are few novices around these days and only the geekiest are still interested in “tips.” Hell, even I don’t care anymore. I haven’t bought a new computer since 2011 and haven’t even bothered updating any of my computers to the latest version of Mac OS. My computer has become a tool to get work done — as it is for most people — a tool I don’t even turn on most days.

Anyway, I hope you’re managing to make things work for yourself in this new age. I’m surprised you think a newsletter will help. Best of luck with it.

And if you ever find yourself in Washington state, I hope you’ll stop by for a visit and a helicopter ride. I can’t begin to tell you how glad I am that I invested in my third career while I was at the height of my second.


Is it still possible to make a living writing about computers? For some of us, yes. But we’ll never be able to achieve the same level of fame and fortune we once achieved. Those days are over.

13 thoughts on “You Can’t Go Back

  1. Thanks Maria,
    I found your blog through your wonderful photos, one of which you allowed me to use in a short article for a local Brit newsletter with a tiny circulation. It was about a trip I made to Monument Valley and your photo from the heli was way better than any of mine.
    What you say here explains a great deal. I agree that writing is a strange ‘game’ these days. There is no money in it but people love to do it. I would sooner read your blog, and a few others, than study again the texts I had to known to pass ‘Eng Lit’ at age 16.
    People love to reach out to others. Few have the skill, vocabulary or syntax to do it in writing.
    For every Tolstoy, Pushkin, Orwell or Austen there are probably 4 million scribes who never earned a dime from their preferred craft.
    But that doesn’t matter. In two hundred years all our key-strokes will be stored and compared and who knows, we could all be bigger than Bob Dylan, somewhere in Korea.
    Remember the end of the film ‘Spinal Tap’?

    • I actually never saw Spinal Tap.

      I’m not saying that it’s impossible to make a living as a writer. I’m saying that it’s difficult to make a good living writing about using computers. I think that a talented writer who is driven to succeed can succeed. But things are different now than they were 10 or 20 years ago in the publishing industry. People who made a living back then doing what I did need to adapt or fail.

  2. The film ‘Spinal Tap’ described the descent of a talentless but very loud Brit rock band of the 1970’s. They went through every conceivable stage of disillusion, humiliation and despair until, in a nadir of abject self-doubt, they became famous again, for no reason, in Japan. And their reputation was thus reborn. Sheer chance, in other words.
    I see many hugely talented people fail and many one-trick ponies make it big. This is chance at work.

    Like you, I have always kept several irons in the fire and I have never spent a single adult day unemployed. Just takes basic planning and a sense of reality, IMHO.

    Many slices of the film are available on YouTube. The spoof band actually played Glastonbury in 2009.

    • That’s the trick: keeping lots of irons in the fire and keeping that fire hot. Whenever I was hard at work on a book, I had another book in the planning/contract stage. I’d finish a book, take a few weeks off, and get started on the next one. Before that, I filled spare time with training and consulting work. Even when book publishing began its downhill slide, I got busy with video work. Always a job to look forward to, always money in the pipeline. That’s the only way to survive as a freelancer or business owner.

  3. Agreed.
    Talking of business, have you ever thought of making then selling videos of your R44 work?
    You, Sean, your gyro CFI, me and a few others here know that flying a helicopter takes concentration and complete commitment to the task.
    To the general public they are exotic play things offering glimpses of the world most can only wonder at.
    I’m guessing that Joe Public would love to see Bryce or MV from 500’agl. Or cherry orchards from 10′, for that matter. I would guess that >95 % of people have never flown in a helicopter but most would like to know more about it.
    Maybe you are already doing this? If so, apologies.
    Some really niche products can make a profit.

    • I actually HAVE begun setting up to do narrated educational videos. I might shoot one on today’s flight to Salinas. Trouble is, the audio setup I have is far from optimal. I really need to work on it a bit more to make it clean.

      What I think folks like most is the communication between pilot and tower. I have a decent old video of me landing at PHX’s rooftop helipad with the controller saying “Wassup?” to an airline pilot. Funny stuff.

  4. Good luck with that project. One of my friends ‘cleans up’ digital sound files for the film industry, if that helps?
    But I imagine you will find your own solution.

    Yes, pilot/ATC chatter is an arcane language made famous by the film ‘Pushing Tin’. I still play that for the manic moments in the Long Island bunker. John Cusack vs Billy Bob Thornton, great rivalry.

    • I just want cleaner input so I don’t have to do any cleaning up in production. My audio in port was installed years ago for another system I have. I suspect the uninsulated wires are too close to other wires in the system or may have been damaged with the helicopters incessant vibration in flight. What I really need to do is pull that panel off and take a look. I might be able to fix it. Otherwise, I had another way I can get sound in from the audio panel; just need more cable and a proper jack. Might wait until after overhaul.

  5. If the videos are for education, would it be possible to add the voice-over after the filming, for absolute clarity of sound?
    If you want to do a live running commentary by recording your voice from your headset, then there is more or less bound to be some rotor and engine sound in the background. There are expensive headsets that minimise this but I still use David Clark. You wil know more about what’s available but I hear (sorry!) good things about Bose and Sennheiser.
    If the problem is intermittent then that’s probably some wiring or shielding issue.

    • What I’d like to do is commentary as I’m flying. My voice over the intercom with radio communications naturally breaking in as they would on a typical flight. I’m thinking of moving the camera to a mount I have up high between the two back seats. Then I SHOULD be able to connect the audio to one of the headset jacks back there for good quality sound without static. With direct audio input, the only sound picked up will be sound that comes through the intercom system or headset, so engine and rotor noise will not be an issue. If it wasn’t raining so darn hard, I’ll try to work up something today.

      I think you’re right about the current setup — the problem is likely either a loose connection or shielding issues.

  6. That seems fine, a high camera fixing on the bulkhead should give a good depth of field for forward and downward view, with pilot (your head) in shot. Some of your cherry-drying shots seem to have that perspective?

    But will an audio recording from the passenger headset jacks capture YOUR transmissions to ATC?
    When I have been in those back seats in Jetrangers or Eurocopters I have sometimes missed that part of the dialogue.
    That could be fixed, easy enough, I guess, for a unique task.

    • Unless I turn on the Pilot Isolation switch, all radio and intercom audio goes through all the headset jacks. So this should work.

      I spent part of today looking for the right headset jack adapters at local electronics shops. No joy. I wound up ordering one of these:

      This will make it possible to bypass my current “solution” and use any standard headset jack in any seat. Win-win, I think. I’m having it shipped to me here in CA and hope to try it out before I go home later this month.

  7. Looks as though someone has a solution to your very audio issue, and at $59 it seems reasonable.
    The reviews are overwhelmingly positive, I note, but ‘Paul'(SA) and ‘Bradley’ (BC) had plug compatibility issues.
    Given that the seller is very careful to describe situations in which the adapter won’t be compatible, perhaps those two guys ordered the wrong kit?

What do you think?