Not a good day day yesterday. Taxes, of course, but it went downhill from
there. Barbara had a meeting of her library Friends group yesterday afternoon.
About 5:30 yesterday afternoon, Barbara's father called to say that their
next-door neighbor, Ann Sloan, was not expected to live through the night.
She has been fighting cancer for a long time and had chosen to die at home
rather than spending her last days in the hospital or hospice.
Ann is a lot more than a next-door neighbor to Barbara. Barbara thinks of
her as a second mother. When Barbara was a little girl, her mother spent
a lot of time in and out of hospitals. Ann took care of Barbara and her sister
as though they were her own children, so Barbara grew up with two moms. Although
we knew that Ann would eventually lose her last battle, that phone call still
came as a surprise. Barbara had thought that Ann was stable, so this rapid
downturn was unexpected.
I called the library and asked them to pull Barbara out of her meeting. I
gave her the message, and she asked me to call her father to tell him that
she was leaving immediately and would get over there as soon as she could.
I told Barbara not to worry about anything here, and just to go and stay
as long as she needed to stay. I was expecting Barbara to stay at her parents'
house overnight. I knew she would be very upset and didn't want her driving
home in that state. Barbara ended up staying over there through late evening,
and coming home about 11:15.
She called her father this morning and learned that Ann is still holding
on. Ann's son, Cam, is a Winston-Salem police officer. As of yesterday afternoon,
he was up in New York City doing forensic work at the World Trade Center
crime scene. He managed to get a flight back to Winston-Salem late last night,
and was due in about the time Barbara arrived back home. Barbara thought
that Ann was hanging on to see him one last time.
Brian Bilbrey wrote
about a home truth
the other day. In part, he said:
except for top authors, the pay for book writing ... um ... sucks. So who's
going to do it? Do you want competence in your books (or entertainment, or
information or whatever)? Or do you want it written quickly. You see, to
make a minimal living at today's advance rates, I'd have to write 5 or 6
books a year.
He was basing that on the lower advances being paid nowadays,
except to established authors. And even for established authors, advances
have gotten smaller. For my first book, back in 1995, I signed on for an
advance of $8,000, as I recall. Nowadays, a first-time author would be very
lucky to get even that much. I've heard of authors being offered $5,000 or
less for a book, and not a small one either. That's simply ridiculous. In
effect, it puts all of the risk on the author without commensurate return
on that risk. Royalty rates are also lower nowadays. I've heard of offers
as low as 6% on net. That means a $40 list price book that sells to distributors
for $20 actually earns the author $1.20 per copy sold. After the advance
is recouped, of course.
A typical computer book might sell 5,000 copies, so that means the author
might, if he's lucky, earn another $1,000 or so in royalties beyond the $5,000
advance. Of course, you just about have to have an agent if you don't want
to sign your life away, so that $6,000 turns into $5,100 net. In order to
earn an ongoing $30,000 per year at those rates, an author would have to
write, as Brian says, five or six books a year. Say one every couple of months.
Fortunately, my advances have been higher than that, as have my royalty
rates and sales numbers. I can't remember the last book I did that didn't
"earn out" (recoup its advance) or nearly so on the first quarter's royalty
statement. But even at that, I'm not earning anywhere near what I could be
or should be.
So the question becomes, should I continue beating my head against the wall?
And I think the answer to that is that I shouldn't. The computer book market
as a whole tanked last year. When I talked to my agent on the phone yesterday,
he compared it to an airliner nosediving toward the ground. It's gotten a
bit better lately, but not a lot. As he said, the airliner has leveled off
now, but it's clipping the treetops. People just aren't buying many computer
It's becoming a vicious spiral. As sales volume drops, it becomes harder
and harder tor authors to justify spending much time on a book. As authors
spend less time on books, the quality of the books drops, which in turn further
reduces sales figures. Many computer book authors have stopped writing, or
at least stopped writing computer books. Of those that remain, many are rushing
toward the perceived hot areas, security being one of them. So we end up
with a slew of me-too books saturating a segment. Linux is dead. No one is
making any money writing Linux books, either about the OS or applications.
My agent suggested that I consider doing some white papers. The money is
decent. The problem is the client. I don't want to write white papers for
Microsoft. I actually tried doing that once, a few years ago. Microsoft wanted
a white paper to point out the advantages of Windows versus NetWare. As I
recall, they were looking for a 30- to 45-page document and were paying $30,000.
I eventually abandoned that project, the only time I've ever done so. Several
factors led me to walk away from that project, but one of the big ones was
that although the goal of the white paper had been presented to me as an
objective, even-handed treatment of the comparative advantages and disadvantages
of Microsoft versus Novell, that turned out not to be the case. My name was
going to be on that document, and I wasn't about to sell my name for $30,000.
I may be a whore, but I'm not a cheap whore.
So I don't think I want to write white papers for Microsoft. I'm not at all
sure I want to write computer related stuff at all. Oh, I'll keep updating
PC Hardware in a Nutshell
as O'Reilly is willing to stick with it. I hope to do an annual update for
years to come. But I don't think I'm going to pursue any new computer book
Maybe I should pursue a life of crime. I remember when I was growing up a
lot of boys read Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories. They all wanted to
be Sherlock Holmes. Me, I wanted to be Moriarty.