When Readers Think Their $4 Investment in Your Book Buys You

A rant.

iBooks Author Cover
The third of three books I self-published in 2012 as an experiment. Of the three, it did best.

Yesterday, I got an email from a guy who apparently bought my 2012 book, “iBooks Author: Publishing Your First Ebook.”

This book was one of three I self-published in early 2012 and it was available in a variety of ebook formats, as well as in print. It was the first book out about iBooks Author software and sold very well for the first year or so. Then, as most computer books do, it aged and pretty much died. I lost interest in writing for a while and never bothered to revise it.

I should mention here that it was the 84th book I’d written since 1991, so it wasn’t exactly my first rodeo.

The reader — who has the word “author” in his email address — sent his first message at 3:03 PM using the contact form on this website:

Hello,
Just spoke with Apple about how and where to publish iBook Author books and discovered that they can be viewed (read) not only on the iPad, but MacBooks and Mac Desktops and the iPhone. Your statement that iBook Author books can be viewed ONLY on the iPad is incorrect;

(Apparently some “authors” don’t realize that you end a sentence with a period (full stop, if you’re in the UK) and not a semicolon.)

First, I have to admit that I was surprised that anyone was still buying a five year old computer book. Second, I was surprised that anyone who would buy a computer book that old might think it had up-to-date information in it. I don’t know what version iBooks Author is up to — I don’t use it anymore — but I have to assume it’s past version 2.0. I wrote about 1.0 and my book was available less than a month after the software was released, when the only way to read an iBooks Author book was on an iPad. (The Mac OS app came later.) I responded:

That book was written for version 1 way back in 2012. That’s FIVE years ago. Things change. The book was not updated for changes.

Maria

Was I being rude? I don’t think so. But with all the time I spend on Twitter, I can’t even tell anymore. I deal with trolls daily and I half suspected I was being trolled. So I was only partially surprised when he replied 12 minutes later with:

Poor excuses. Doesn’t give you a whole lot of credibility

What the actual fuck? Seriously? This guy buys a 5-year-old book and thinks I don’t have credibility because the book is out of date?

I started to write a nasty response but deleted it. I went with sarcasm:

Whatever you say.

Maria

Eye RollingIt doesn’t appear in the message here, but I inserted the eye rolling emoji. I like that one. It sums up my thoughts about people who complain about things that they really have no right to complain about. Or when I encounter sheer stupidity. (I rolled my eyes a lot in the last few years of my marriage. Half the time, I didn’t even realize I was doing it, but it drove my wasband crazy.) I use it a lot on Twitter.

Eleven minutes later — this guy must have been sitting at his computer waiting for me to email him — he responds with a silly threat:

Perhaps I’ll simply return the book to Amazon and complain that it’s 5 years out of date and the so-called author doesn’t care.

This really cracks me up. Does he honestly think I care if he returns the book to Amazon? If he bought the $3.99 Kindle version, I only made $2.79 on it. I can’t even buy a cup of coffee for that, so it certainly isn’t going to break me. If he bought the $14.35 print version, the joke’s on him. I self published using print on demand and my printer does not allow returns. So Amazon has to keep the book and I don’t lose a dime.

And if he does tell them he’s returning it because the author doesn’t care, they’ll likely think the same thing I think: why the hell should the author care about someone dumb enough to buy a 5-year-old computer book and expect it to be completely accurate with the current version of the software?

Again, I started writing something nasty and deleted it. Instead, I went with this:

What do you expect me to do? Write you a special copy? Get real. You bought a 5 year old computer book and you expect it to cover the current software?

Return it.

Not exactly friendly, but who cares? I don’t make my living writing computer books anymore. I don’t know too many people who do. Did he honestly think his threat would get any action out of me? What kind of an idiot is he?

Anyway, that was the last I heard from him yesterday. I thought I was done with him. But in the morning, a new nasty-gram appeared in my email inbox:

You are so very typical of the slapdash, irresponsible, third-rate scribbler who never gets it quite right, doesn’t care, makes excuses and then plays stupid. Who was to know that the book was five years old and out of date? Why didn’t you update it? I would have. Sloppy.

Book Details
“Who was to know the book was five years old and out of date?” Anyone who read the book details on Amazon. Duh.

The sheer stupidity and obnoxiousness of this troll was beyond belief. He needed to be schooled and I was ready to do the schooling.

The kid gloves came off. I responded by saying exactly what I thought:

Wow! Your level of cluelessness is amazing. I’m trying to figure out why you include the word “author” in your email address. You can’t possibly be a real author.

For your information, I have written 86 books since 1991. I’ve worked with over a dozen publishers, including Random House, McGraw Hill, and Macmillan. (Ever hear of them?) I’ve had numerous bestsellers since 1998 — enough to finance the launching of a third career as a helicopter pilot. Yeah, the red helicopter that appears on my website is actually mine. How do you think I bought that? By being a “third-rate scribbler” selling “slapdash” books?

And now a dose of reality: publishers decide whether or not to update books based on sales potential. The book you bought sold relatively well in 2012 but as additional titles covering the same topic came out on the market, I determined that potential future sales for a new edition would not be sufficient to make the project worthwhile. If you were a REAL author, you would understand this basic principle of publishing as a business. But apparently, you’re just another writer who is going to lean on self-publishing as a vanity project. While you might be able to spend all of your time writing a book that no one will buy, I have much better things to do with my time. Hence, the book was not updated and is unlikely to be updated in the future.

I’d like to add here that your attitude really sucks and that it’s a good thing you’re exploring the world of self publishing because no real publisher would work with you.

Now return the book and go bother someone else. I’m done with you.

Maria

PS: Thanks so much for participating in this exchange of emails. It’s giving me something to blog about this morning. My readers are not going to believe this shit is real.

And then I blocked his email address so I wouldn’t get any of his crap again.

I can’t wait to see what he comments on this post.

I Have No Patience for Lazy Writers

A brief rant.

This morning, I got this email from someone who is apparently farming out parts of his books to people with better description skills than he has:

You are the perfect person to help me. I’m writing a book about birding adventures that I had in 2011. One tense incident happened along the Rio Grande when armed cartel waded across the Rio Grande. To make a long story short, for the next forty-five minutes or so two helicopters (border patrol) circled overhead. Here is my question:

How would you accurately describe the sound these helicopters make?

Border Patrol at Rio Grande
Photo of Border Patrol helicopter over Rio Grande from gallery on U.S. Customs and Border Protection website.

For the record, I’ve never been birding along the Rio Grande while Border Patrol helicopters circled overhead for 45 minutes. How would I know what it sounds like?

Yet this guy was apparently there and can’t describe it. He figures that since I’m a helicopter pilot and a writer, I can describe it for him. So he sends me this email message.

Here’s a tip: if you can’t accurately describe something with words, you shouldn’t be a writer.

And yes, I addressed this in my blog back in 2009: “Writing Tips: Writing Accurate Descriptions.” If you do read that post, pay close attention to the first paragraph under the heading “Do Your Homework,” since it pretty much covers my thoughts on getting email messages like this one.

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.