Snowbirding 2018: Reader’s Oasis Books

A visit to one of the “must see” destinations in Quartzsite.

Years ago, when I first visited Quartzsite, I stopped at the local bookstore. That’s when I discovered that the owner was a nudist.

Or as much of a nudist as he could be in public without getting arrested.

The only item of clothing he wore back then was a sort of sack that covered his penis and balls. And maybe a hat, but I can’t say I remember that for sure. All I remember was that he was very thin, relatively old, and had a very even, very brown tan.

On that first visit, I was with my wasband and his cousin. We didn’t stay long. I love bookstores, but I was more accustomed to the kind with lots of new books. This bookstore was old and dusty and disorganized. And it was run by a nearly naked man old enough to be my father. Which was weird. I know it was seriously weirding out my future ex and/or his cousin, so we left after being there only a few minutes.

Fast forward 20 or so years. I’m back in Quartzsite again — heck, I’ve been coming here nearly annually for the past 20 years. I never got around to visiting the bookstore again. Frankly, I thought it had closed. It wasn’t where I remembered it being. And surely that guy had to be dead by now.

Bookstore Ad
Here’s an ad for the bookstore in the local tourist information booklet. It’s definitely “must see.”

But I was getting some work done on my rig the other day at Solar Bill’s and got into a conversation with one of the women who work there. The bookstore came up in conversation. Did it still exist? I asked. Yes, I was told. But where? She told me it had moved to the east end of town. Then she told me that she’d recently sat next to the owner of the place at some sort of event in town and hadn’t recognized him because he was wearing clothes.

Oddly enough, the bookstore and its owner came up on Twitter yesterday. One of the folks who follows me (who I follow back) suggested I visit the bookstore. I don’t think he thought I knew about the owner’s eccentricities. We then tweeted back and forth about it; I’ll let you click the tweet to follow our conversation if you want to.

Later that afternoon, with nothing much else to do, I tucked Penny into my backpack, hopped on my bike, and rode over to Main Street. I turned right, heading east, and pedaled until I saw the bookstore on the north side of the road. I pulled in.

It was surprisingly busy for 4 PM on a Sunday afternoon. There was a bookmobile bus parked outside and a table covered with books by a local author who was sitting there for a signing — more about those in a minute. The owner of the bookstore was sitting on a chair on the porch. I was almost disappointed to see him wearing a colorful sweater, but then realized he wasn’t wearing brown leggings. Those were his legs. And when he got up to greet me, I could see he was wearing the same kind of penis bag — what the hell would you call that thing anyway? — I remembered. It was knitted or crocheted and as colorful as his sweater. I like to think it wasn’t the same one.

He had aged. Obviously. And although he was a lot thinner with a lot less muscle tone than I remember, he was still spry.

I let Penny out of the bag and put her on a leash since there was a loose cat around. Then I went inside to look at the books. He followed me in, pointing out that all used books, including audio books, were 50% off. Then some other folks came in and he went to greet them, leaving me to browse.

Although the bookstore was in a new (to me) location, it was a lot like I remembered it. There were a ton of used books — 200,000 of them, according to the advertisement in the local tourist info rag. They were mostly organized by topic in the various rooms of the small building and, within each topic, grouped by author. There were a lot of books and authors I’d never heard of, along with a lot of old paperback bestsellers. Most of the books were wrapped in plastic — I think that was an attempt to keep them clean in this very dusty environment.

I’ve been wanting to get into some fiction — mostly to keep me from fixating on the latest from the “very stable genius” who is being roasted daily on Twitter — so that’s what I was looking for. I stumbled into the spy thriller area and found the Robert Ludlum collection. Back in the 1980s, when I took a subway to work in New York every day, I used to read Ludlum’s books. I’m a very fast reader and went through two or three of them in a week. After reading about a half dozen, I realized he had a formula and that kind of spoiled it for me. Later, he didn’t even write his books. But the one I found was very old and there’s a pretty good chance I haven’t read it.

There were a few other shoppers around, including a woman a little older than me looking for books by a specific author and a young couple who seemed very interested in older non-fiction books. I was browsing in the same room they were in — looking at some first edition youth books from 1914 for a gift for a friend’s son — when I realized that the music I was hearing was live. I wandered out into the main room in time to see the owner sitting at a grand piano I hadn’t even noticed — it was covered with books and other items — playing a kind of ragtime song with wild hand flourishes over the keys as he sang. I had never heard the song before. There were three people there — all retirees — standing nearby, listening and laughing at the lyrics. The refrain:

If you want an icy cold beer
Set the can next to my ex-wife’s heart.

I wanted so badly to capture it on video and even had my phone out, but I thought it would be rude. I was going to ask if I could for the next song, but when he finished that and we all applauded, he closed up the piano. When asked, he told the folks around him that he was 75 and that he’d been playing for a long time. He wrote his own songs, so that was an original.

At that point, a bunch of us were ready to check out so we lined up in the only area that looked as if it were set up to take money. The young couple bought quite a few books. As he checked them out, he told them about the music that was playing — an old blues song with a female vocalist I’d never heard of — he’d apparently put the music on when he was done playing.

While I was waiting, I saw an old Nero Wolfe paperback from 1966 and grabbed that, too. I’ll definitely need my readers to see the tiny print on the yellowed pages.

Bookmark Front Bookmark Back
Here’s the front and back of the bookmark I bought. Sadly, Paul doesn’t look nearly as hot as he does in this photo. But add a sweater and he was dressed the same.

He was selling bookmarks for 50¢ and everyone was buying them. When I saw the photo, I had to buy one, too. He autographed all of them, which was kind of cool.

As he checked out my two books — for a total of $3.00 with the bookmark — he told me about the song that came on, another blues number by another female vocalist. It was great music from the 1930s or 1940s.

When I was finished, Penny and I wandered over to the bookmobile. It had been a school bus and had been painted black with the words The Road Virus painted on it. The front half was lined with shelves full of books in a variety of topics and genres. The back half was blocked with a temporary partition; it was the living space for a life on the road.

The owner of the bookmobile sat in the driver’s seat, turned around to chat with that young couple and me. She looked to be in her 30s maybe — I’m terrible with ages — and had hair partly dyed blue. She said that she and her partner had been on the road with the bus selling books for exactly a year. They’d been all over the country. They usually partnered with local bookstores or wax museums or other attractions and stayed for a short time before moving on. It was all about local — not chain — establishments. She probably had about 1,000 books on board and I found one — a mystery by an author I’d never heard of — to buy. I really like to support small businesses, especially when they’re run by folks with an alternative lifestyle.

A Young Cowboy's Adventures
Here’s the book I bought for my friend’s son. You can find it on Amazon for less — but not autographed.

Penny and I walked back to the bike. I had to stop at the table where the older gentleman was sitting with his books spread out in front of them. His name was Stu Campbell, he wore a cowboy hat and vest, and he looked to be in his early 70s. He told me that most of the books had been written based on his own experiences. One of them caught my eye: A Young Cowboy’s Adventures. I asked him if it would be good for a boy about 12 years old and he said it would be perfect. So I bought a copy for a friend’s son who has been helping me with a few things at home. I even had it autographed.

With a bag half full of books, Penny had to jog most of the way back. But when I realized she was getting tired, I managed to stuff her into the backpack with the books for the remainder of the ride. I could see her over my shoulder when I turned my head; she was riding high in the bag with her head sticking out into the wind. I knew she was uncomfortable, but it was a short ride back to our home on the road.

If you’re ever in the Quartzsite area — especially in January when it’s so crazy busy with winter visitors — I highly recommend a visit to Reader’s Oasis Books. You won’t find anything like it anywhere else.

It’s Not That Simple

A response to a reader’s request.

The other day, I got the following email message in my In Box with the subject line “Quicken 2017 for Mac”:

As I write these words your “Quicken 2002 Deluxe for Macintosh” book sits in front of me. The time has come, whether I like it or not, to update to Quicken 2017 for Mac from Quicken 2007 for Mac. Sadly, thee’s no good documentation to use. In fact, I haven’t found any good material since your 2002 book! For all I know, you’ve moved on and no longer write books such as the one published back then. That being said, I’d like to request you consider writing a new Guide similar to the one your wrote way back then. All the best to you whatever your future ventures may be.

First, I want to thank the sender for phrasing his request so politely and understanding that I might not be writing books like that one any more. A lot of the email messages I get regarding my writing work is a lot less polite and a lot more demanding, which partially explains why the Contact page on this blog seems to discourage communication from readers. (It’s actually toned down a lot more than it used to be.)

Now let me tell you a little bit about the rise and fall of tech publishing.

The “Old Days” of Tech Publishing

Dvorak's Inside Track
This is the first book I was involved in; I was a ghost writer on 4 chapters and am mentioned in the acknowledgements.

I got into the world of computer how-to book publishing way back in 1991. I’d left my last full-time job as a Financial Analyst at a Fortune 100 Corporation the year before and was trying my hand at freelance writing. Through an odd series of events, I wound up ghost writing four chapters of a book by John C. Dvorak, Bernard J. David (who I worked with directly), and others. That led to a book that Bernard and I co-authored, which led to another 80+ books that I mostly authored alone.

Back in those days, the Internet was in its infancy. Hardly anyone had a website — I didn’t have my first one until 1995 — and services like Google, which was founded in 1996 and wouldn’t become the powerhouse it is for years, didn’t exist. When people wanted to learn, they turned to books.

Software developers knew this. They provided printed manuals with their software products. Manuals for some software could be voluminous — I remember the one I had for a version of FrameMaker that had to be at least 800 pages. But despite the availability of these reference guides, users wanted something easier to read and understand. So computer how-to books were born. I happened to be at the right place at the right time to write them.

And I was very good at it. I had a knack for learning how to use software, breaking it down into simple tasks that built progressively through the book to more complex tasks, and writing it in a way that readers found helpful.

With a lot of competition, however, not many readers got to see my books and there wasn’t much money in writing them. No problem: I’ll just write more books. My publishers — especially Peachpit Press — really liked my work and my ability to meet deadlines. They kept me busy. I once signed six book contracts in a single day. One year, I wrote 10 books.

I wasn’t the only one cranking out books. Numerous publishers had tech imprints and dozens of new titles appeared every month. Bookstores — and there were a lot more of them in those days — had trouble keeping up, but they did. Publishers published these books and bookstores stocked them for one reason: they sold.

Demand only got higher as software developers stopped including lengthy manuals with their software, favoring Quick Start books instead. And then switching to digital only manuals that they might or might not include on the software CD.

Thus began the glory days of computer how-to book authors and publishers, a period that lasted from around 1995 through 2010.

Success Comes with Sales

Quicken 99 Official Guide
This was one of my first bestsellers. Revised annually until I gave it up after the 2009 edition, it was a major source of income for me.

My financial success as the author of computer how-to books didn’t come from writing a lot of books with average sales. It came from writing two particular books, revised often, that were bestsellers. My Quicken 1999: The Official Guide was one of these bestsellers.

Quicken 2002 Mac
I was very happy to be able to write about Quicken for Mac, since I was a long-time user.

The success of one book often spurs a series of books. Quicken Press (later Intuit Press), an imprint of Osborne-McGraw-Hill, soon began publishing other Quicken and QuickBooks books. That’s how I wound up authoring Quicken 2002 Deluxe for the Macintosh: The Official Guide, the book referred to in the email message above.

I was pretty happy about this. Truth is, I’m a Mac user and had been writing Windows books only because there were more Windows users so the sales potential was higher. I’d been using Quicken on my Mac for years and knew it better than the Windows version I’d been writing about since 1998.

But my Quicken Mac book didn’t take off the way we’d hoped — there were a lot fewer Quicken Mac users and Intuit still had viable competition to Quicken on the Mac OS platform. To complicate matters, Intuit didn’t revise Quicken for Mac as often as it revised Quicken for Windows. When the next version, Quicken 2007, was released, neither Intuit nor my publisher saw a sufficient market for a book about it. So I was never asked to revise my book for future editions.

Google and the Death of Tech Publishing

Meanwhile, as publishers and authors were churning out computer books as fast as we could, the Web was growing. People were writing how-to articles and publishing them on blogs, on software support websites, on user group websites, and in online magazines. Even I did this for a long while, mostly to help promote my existing titles. These articles were free and available immediately. When search engines like Google proved to be extremely effective in helping readers find the content they sought, people started thinking twice about buying computer how-to books.

After all, why go to a bookstore or go online at Amazon to find a book that may or may not answer your specific question when you could spend a few minutes searching with Google and find the answer you need? Why wait for a book you ordered online to arrive when you could find the information you needed immediately? Why depend on the voice of one author when you could access information provided by dozens or hundreds of them?

Book sales dropped off dramatically in the late 2000s. I could see it in my royalty statements; my income peaked in 2004 and 2005 and then began a steady decline. Books about software staples like Word and Excel, that I’d revise with every new version, were dropped one after another. Publishers who had once agreed to a contract for nearly every title I proposed now declined, saying they didn’t think there was a sufficient market for the book. There were fewer and fewer new software-related titles being published. Editors who’d worked on dozens of titles a year suddenly found themselves unemployed. Publishers or imprints merged or disappeared. The few brick and mortar bookstores that managed to survive the rise of Amazon reduced or even eliminated their computer book shelf space.

By 2013, all of my book titles were officially dead — not scheduled for revision. And I know I’m not the only tech author who lived and thrived through the computer book glory days to find myself without a book market for my expertise. There are lots of us out there. The ones like me who saw it coming had a safety net to fall into; others weren’t so lucky and find themselves struggling to stay relevant and earn a living writing words few seem willing to pay for.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m not saying that computer how-to books no longer exist. They do. There just aren’t many of them. And rather than appeal to the beginner to intermediate user I wrote for, they’re mostly written for a much higher level of user about far more complex topics. Or very narrow markets that are easy to sell to.

This Reader’s Request

Fast forward to today.

The very politely worded email request from a reader quoted in full above is asking me to revise my Quicken 2002 for Mac book for Quicken 2017 for Mac. If you’ve been reading carefully, you know why this is unlikely to happen.

There is not a sufficient market for such a book.

And that’s what it’s all about: being able to publish a book that will sell enough copies for the publisher to make a profit. It has nothing to do with the author; publishers really don’t care what authors make. Their contracts routinely minimize author royalties to help the book’s bottom line. That’s all that matters. They have spreadsheets that calculate breakeven and if a title can’t break even with a decent profit, they won’t publish it. Simple as that.

Would I write and self-publish a book about Quicken 2017 for Mac? Probably not. Even self-publishing such a book doesn’t mean I’ll earn enough money to make such a project worthwhile. Let’s do the math. It would take me a good 400 hours of time over two months to write the book and prepare the manuscript for publishing. Say I need to make a minimum of $25/hour. That means the project would have to net me $10,000. Even if I managed to net $5/book after fees paid to Amazon, Apple iBooks store, Nook, etc., I’d still have to sell 2,000 copies. Are there 2,000 people out there willing to buy a book about Quicken 2017 for Mac? I seriously doubt it.

And I’ll share a secret with you: I still use Quicken 2007 for Mac. I bought but decided I didn’t like the 2015 version and I haven’t even bothered to buy the 2017 version.

So if I — a loyal Quicken user since the early 1990s — haven’t bothered to upgrade, how many other people have? And how many of them want a book about it?

The answer is simple: Not enough for me or apparently anyone else to write a book about it.

This Explains It

And this pretty much explains why I don’t write books about how to use computers and software anymore. I can’t make a living doing it.

But I’m lucky: at least I’ve found something else to make a living at.

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.

Maria

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.