The MWL 2020 Asia Tour

Yep, I’m a big star now, touring Asia and everything! Sort of. Two countries. Two cities. The world’s most minimal tour. I’m a big star, in a really really tiny universe.

19-22 March 2020, I’ll be at AsiaBSDCon. I’m presenting a four hour tutorial on FreeBSD jails, as well as attending the conference.

The fine folks at HasGeek are sponsoring me on an accompanying trip to Bangalore, India, for three events. (Cool fact of the day: they’re not conferences in India, they’re events, because a “conference” apparently involves the Indian government and this isn’t a government thing.)

25 March, I’m offering a public lecture on Where is the Sysadmin Today at Juspay’s offices. I have rants thoughts. Oh, do I have rants thoughts.

27 March, I’m attending Netconf. This is an Unconference (Unevent?), so the program won’t be set until it starts. I’ll be proposing my new SNMP talk. I could also give any talk I’ve given before. If you’re attending and want me to give a specific talk, please comment or use the contact form to ask me to submit it.

28 March, I’m doing a reading of git commit murder at Champaca Bookstore, as well as a Q&A with Swapneel Patneka and anyone else who opens their mouth.

Why do this trip, when I loathe travel? Over the last twenty years, I’ve promised several folks that I would one day attend AsiaBSDCon. I keep my promises. I’m looking forward to being there, but not to getting there. The Bangalore trip is serendipitous. Presenting technology is how I built my career. Bangalore is a technology center and obviously a place I should present in. HasGeek asked if I would be interested, I said “if you could put an event by AsiaBSDCon,” and those folks actually went and did it. I’m simultaneously amazed and honored that they’ve gone to such trouble.

Plus, HasGeek opened discussions by promising gelato. They did their research.

I’ll have a couple free days in each place, yes, and I’ll take advantage of them. I’d rather like to attend a few classes at the Hombu Dojo, but… Fly across the world, teach crowds of strangers to whom English is a second language, talk to folks about areas I’m an expert in? Sure. Set foot on Ueshiba’s tatami? I’ve only practiced martial arts for eighteen years, there’s absolutely no way I’m worthy.

And India’s history is thousands of years deep, plus there’s elephants and tigers and… and… everything. I can’t decide what to see.

I’ve mentioned before that I’m cutting down my traveling. This trip will cost me at least a week of writing time before the trip, and probably two weeks of writing time afterwards as I recover. It’s at least a month of proper writing, all told, and probably more. I can’t authoritatively say that this is my final trip to Asia, no matter what. I can say that I’m not planning to travel so far again. If you’re on that side of the world and want to meet me, this is your best opportunity.

I will do Penguicon and BSDCan in 2020, but otherwise, I’ll be home making words.

A different sort of interview, on tabletop RPGs

Obscure MWL historical trivia: I got my start writing tabletop role playing games. It seems they have greater staying power than I ever thought they would.

The Plus Or Minus podcast interviewed me about my TTRPG Gatecrasher, which came out in 1995. A good time was had by all.

Also: 1995 was a quarter of a century ago. Not quite half my lifetime. Dang. I’m old. When did that happen?

Me, talking SNMP at Semibug: 21 January 2020

The headline pretty much covers it. I’ll be talking SNMP at the semibug.org meeting next Tuesday. 7 PM, Altair Engineering.

I use the semibug presentations to dry-run talks that I’ll be presenting elsewhere. The next place I’ll give it will be at HasGeek in Bangalore. So, if you’re in North America and want to see it, I highly encourage you to attend.

Also, semibug encourages heckling. Creative heckling, that is.

“SNMP Mastery” cover reveal

I’ve been working like a maniac to complete “SNMP Mastery” before AsiaBSDCon. This means I haven’t had time to do my usual year-end roundup, the book cover reveal, or any of my usual beginning-of-year crud. The book went to copyedit today. At 60,000 words, it’s the biggest Mastery title yet. It’s bigger than I wanted, but SNMP is bigger than I want it to be, so I guess it evens out.

This means I have time to show the cover, done after Caillebotte’s Paris Street, Rainy Day.

SNMP Mastery wraparound cover

Why’s Beastie the one holding the umbrella? Because he’s a bloody gentleman. Also: hands.

(Purists will note that the ISBN sticker is not right. That’s because it’s not the final ISBN. I just assigned ISBNs today. I won’t have the real barcode until close to completion. You don’t have to email me about the inaccuracy, I remember from last time. Seriously.)

2019 Income Sources

I occasionally see authors arguing about what channels to sell through and how to structure their business. I frequently say that I don’t consult. I don’t rely on affiliate or speaking fees. My whole career is built on writing books and getting them in front of readers.

Accomplishing that means making the books available in all possible channels.

Here’s where my money comes from.

2019 income sources

For those who want a little more details, here’s the breakdown. (Numbers not exactly 100% due to rounding.)

  • 33.7% – Amazon KDP
  • 29.2% – Traditional Publishing
  • 12.32% – Direct Sales at tiltedwindmillpress.com
  • 7.0% – Patreon
  • 6.6% – Nonfiction Book Sponsorships
  • 5.1% – IngramSpark print distribution
  • 2.5% – Gumroad
  • 1.2% – direct sales at cons
  • 0.9% – Apple iBooks
  • 0.6% – Kobo
  • 0.4% – tip jar
  • 0.3% – draft2digital
  • 0.05% – Barnes & Noble

A couple minor sources of income aren’t included–I made about $200 on Amazon affiliate links from my site, and a whopping $6 on Kobo affiliate links. But here’s some rough conclusions.

Amazon is the Big Beast, but it’s not inviolate. It’s not even the majority.

Trad pub certainly sells a bunch through Amazon. Traditional publishers put even more effort into diversification than I do. I’m going to assume that they’re at least as successful as I am, and roughly one-third of my trad pub income comes through Amazon. This means Amazon backs roughly 42% of my income.

I use both IngramSpark and Amazon for print distribution, because IS reaches places Amazon can’t. Last December, someone in China bought both Prohibition Orcs stories via IS. I sell titles in countries I’d never heard of before, thanks to IS.

Direct ebook sales via my web site, Patreon, and book sponsorships combined make up about a quarter of my income. These are clearly worth continuing.

And yes, if you see me at a con, and you want a book, I’ll sell it to you. The income is negligible, but I use direct contact with folks to help build my readership.

You might look at Apple, Kobo, and draft2digital and say “Why bother?” That’s a fair question. The answer is, I want readers. When a reader is intrigued by an author, they go to their favorite bookstore and check out their titles. I want that reader to find my books when the whim hits them, because thirty seconds later they’ll have forgotten about me.

The tip jar is negligible, but costs me nothing to run, so I’ll keep it. It doesn’t encourage me to set up a kofi account, though.

What’s more effective than the tip jar is the “name your price” feature on tiltedwindmillpress.com, which allows folks to pay more than minimum price for a book. Sadly, the NYP plugin I use doesn’t have a feature to separate out how many buyers include extra, but I can say that I frequently see folks offer an extra few bucks. I appreciate every one of you.

Dear Barnes & Noble: please develop life signs. Thank you.

The general summary is: if I was to lose any one income source, I would survive. Losing a big one would be hard. My family relies on my income to pay bills. (My wife works, but if I don’t bring in real money I need to go find a job.)

I find these numbers reassuring. After five years as a full-time writer, I am completely unsuitable for employment.

“SNMP Mastery” tech reviewers wanted

I’ve just finished the first draft of SNMP Mastery, and I’m looking for folks interested in pointing out my mistakes and misunderstandings.

If you’ve got the time to read the book and comment, please drop me an email at mwl at mwl dot io saying:

  • your degree of SNMP expertise
  • that you won’t share the draft manuscript. (I don’t need piracy of unproofed manuscripts to ruin my reputation, the finished books do enough harm, thank you.)

I would need all comments back before Monday, 13 January 2020. All comments need to be in plain text with enough context that I can find the bit you’re talking about, or annotations on the PDF. While I appreciate the madman who took the time send me PostScript diffs, I am insufficiently geeky to cope with them in the time allotted. With luck I’ll have it in time for AsiaBSDCon and HasGeek in March.

This book is written with a Lovecraftian cosmic horror motif. Because

We’re left with a protocol that’s incredibly powerful and flexible, but bears all the scars of its history. SNMP lets you invoke ancient standards from the void. It grants you incredible system-changing power, and can destroy everything you’ve worked for. SNMP exposes the secrets of your servers, and—if you’re thoughtless—reconfigures them into unspeakable nightmares. It’s like something out of an HP Lovecraft tale, without the rampant xenophobia but with all the alien system topologies.1

1The topologies were there all along. Your shallow human mind was blissfully incapable of perceiving them.
This whole analogy is disturbingly apropos.

Here’s the Table of Contents

  • Introduction
  • SNMP Essentials
  • Authentication
  • Queries
  • The Management Information Base
  • The Net-SNMP Agent
  • Logging
  • SET
  • Proxies, SMUX, and AgentX
  • Access Control
  • Extending snmpd(8)
  • Monitoring
  • Traps
  • Afterword

What comes next? I’ve been writing twelve hours a day for the past two weeks to finish this book on time. What comes next is a heartfelt faceplant. Hopefully onto the couch, but if I hit the bed of nails that’s okay.

Proof I Am a Monster

One of the high points of the annual BSDCan tech conference is the charity auction in the closing session. We habitually support the Ottawa Mission, right down the street from the venue. After walking past the mission every day to find breakfast, the attendees are highly motivated to donate. The auction is especially amusing because the contents of the lost and found get auctioned off. More than once auctioneer Dan Langille has announced “I have here a power supply for an Apple laptop” only to have an audience member groan. It’s become a point of honor that people buy their stuff back, and folks delight in running up the price to twice what a replacement costs. We auction off everything from “the last cookie from the lunch buffet” to novelty pens to entire servers that dealers don’t want to take back to the States. (git commit murder’s auction scene is stolen wholesale from BSDCan.) Really, it’s an excuse to collect charity cash from well-paid IT workers.

In early 2019, I declared that I’d auction off the mostly complete manuscript of Terrapin Sky Tango at BSDCan. This was mainly to give me a deadline to finish writing the dang book.

I made it with thirty hours to spare.

Time in the auction is tight, so I elected to do a silent auction for the “mostly complete Terrapin Sky Tango” manuscript at my table. Competition quickly narrowed down to two people, Bob Beck and Kristof Provost. But at 4 PM Saturday, an hour before the closing session, my bid sheet disappeared. I couldn’t end the auction.

The closing session ends at 6 PM, and Bob had a flight out at 7PM. He’s in the closing session with his suitcase, coat over his arm, ready to charge out the door the moment the session ends. (You can do this when flying in a civilized country.)

You can see what happened on the video and skip ahead to my pics for the coda, or just read on.

What should turn up in the main auction but my silent auction bid sheet? It went for $40.

Turns out the last bid was Bob’s, for $189. Kristof runs him up to $200. A good laugh is had by all. Bob throws money at the secretary and bolts for the door.

Dan announces the next auction item: the last 27 pages of TST.

Bob freezes in place.

That bit where I said the manuscript was mostly complete? It sounds like it just needs editing, right?

Yeah. I suck. Stealing the last 27 pages of a thriller is downright mean.

That person on the video screaming LUCAS? Bob’s got a real good set of lungs on him.

Bob remains to bid on those last pages. He’d blown his wad on the main manuscript, though, so Kristof handily outbids him. Kristof tucks the envelope containing those last pages under Bob’s arm as he heads out the door. Kristof gets a well-deserved round of applause for his good sportsmanship. I’m told that the flight attendants didn’t actually bruise Bob’s butt slamming the airplane door behind him, but it was a close thing.

Time passed. Visualize those calendar pages flipping past as TST goes through copyediting, into production, and hits the bookstores. I sent Bob and Kristof ebook copies as soon as they were available. It really was the least I could do. The very least. Seeing as they paid hundreds of dollars for parts of an unedited manuscript, though, I decided I should ship them a signed print copy.

For reference: here is a photograph of the hardcover edition cover. The paperback edition is the same, but more difficult to photograph.

Here’s the paperback I shipped Bob and Kristof.

TST, Beck Edition

Both put it on the shelf, or in the recycle bin, and sent me a nice thank you note. Neither noticed the blank back cover, or thought anything was amiss with the book.

Two weeks later, I sent this.

TST Provost Edition

Each had a sticky note on the front that said “OOPS, MY BAD ==ml”

Yes, the first book they received was missing the last 27 pages.

Four copies of the Beck Edition and the Provost Edition exist. Bob and Kristof each got one. I’m keeping one. The fourth will be auctioned off at BSDCan 2020.

I love being a monster.

The Six Prequels to “FreeBSD Mastery: Jails”

I’ve said a few times that I needed to write six books before I could write FreeBSD Mastery: Jails. Some were for the reader, because I didn’t want to take a break from the jails content to explain a seemingly unrelated topic. Some were for me, because I didn’t know everything I needed about a topic to effectively cover jails.

I thought which six books those were was obvious. I have heard from more than one person that it’s not. I chose to not put a title-by-title course of study in the front of the jails book. Seems I was wrong about that as well.

So: without further ado, here are the six prequels to FreeBSD Mastery: Jails.

  • Networking for Systems Administrators

    People want to bridge their jails, or VNET them, or NAT them, or otherwise play tricks with their network. You can’t set up a virtual switch if you don’t understand what a switch is. You can’t network your jails if you don’t understand netmasks. Every time your first virtual network grows, you have to troubleshoot everything.

  • FreeBSD Mastery: Storage Essentials

    Jails are all about storage. You can implement one or two jails without knowing what you’re doing, but eventually they’ll ruin your day.

  • FreeBSD Mastery: ZFS
    FreeBSD Mastery: Advanced ZFS

    ZFS is incredibly jail-friendly. It doesn’t suit all deployments, but if you want to implement jails at scale you’re almost certainly exploiting ZFS.

  • FreeBSD Mastery: Specialty Filesystems

    Any non-trivial jail implementation requires understanding devfs, nullfs, and memory filesystems. Many use iSCSI, NFS, and/or autofs. By the time I put all that in a book, I might as well add in namespace filesystems and HAST and completely cover special-purpose filesystems.

  • Absolute FreeBSD, 3rd Edition

    By the time I wrote all of the above, FreeBSD had changed enough that the second edition wouldn’t suffice.

Yes, I planned this. Every book I write is ordered internally in much the same way. I look at the material for each chapter and say “What must the reader understand before reading this?” I often revisit my chapters as needed, or even split them. Chapters 17 and 19 of AF3e were originally part of early chapters, but I had to split those chapters and put parts of them later because the reader would lack the context to understand the material.

Mind you, this is only what you need to get jails working. Managing jails is the pinnacle of systems administration practice, so I’d certainly recommend you learn about SSH, PAM, and sudo. Really, though, I’d suggest get a job at the gelato shop. You’ll be happier.

Full-Time Writing: Five Years In

On 8 October 2014, I announced my new career as a full-time writer. The actual decision coalesced in the preceding month, but as the public announcement was the Point of No Return, let’s go with 8 October.

This makes 8 October 2019 my five-year anniversary. For one thousand eight hundred twenty seven days, my family has relied on my writing to pay the mortgage. Some of those years, I bought health insurance as well. I do not consult. I do not provide publishing services or rely on affiliate fees. I barely advertise, and that only in the last few months.

I make words. I sell them. That’s it.

I’ve recently come across a bunch of posts about people hitting their one-month or three-month mark as full time writers, like this one from Sacha Black. These posts bring back all the heady delirium of those early days, when I’d finally achieved The Dream.

But the years learn things that the days and months will never know. And here’s some things that time has either taught me, brutally reminded me of, or tattooed on my soul. I’m sure that Lawrence Block, Joe Lansdale, and Lilith Saintcrow would look at my list and say “Oh, he’s adorable,” but I have a ways to go to achieve their longevity.

1) Learn Business and Money

Once your craft becomes your career, you need to manage your craft as assiduously as you would a sandwich shop. This doesn’t take away from the joy of writing. Rather, it can be a different sort of fun. Business and taxes are the world’s most complicated table-top role playing game, under a lackadaisical Dungeon Master who occasionally gets annoyed and goes for Total Party Kill. You best have all your character sheets up to date. Some of it’s tedious–I could do without scanning and saving the receipts for everything I buy. But they’re tax deductions, or potential tax deductions. Perhaps I can’t deduct everything right now, but if my income explodes in 2023 and I need to refile my last few years of taxes, I’ll be thrilled to have them.

If you’re in the US, start by reading Tax Savvy for Small Business.

No, start by reading The Copyright Handbook. I reread this book every year, and I buy every new edition. It’s that important. Remember, authors don’t sell books: we create and license intellectual property. This realization, way back in 1999, was key to me becoming a full time writer.

Wait–you absolutely must read Rusch’s How To Negotiate Anything. It turns the typical authorial introversion into a negotiating advantage. If you can’t negotiate, you don’t have a business.

Real businesses have multiple income streams, and add additional streams any time they can. If you rely on a single income stream, your business is inherently short-lived. Maybe exclusivity with one business has been good to you, but it puts you at the mercy of that company. I won’t sign on exclusively with Amazon. I won’t put all my nonfiction through No Starch Press, exactly as they would not agree to me becoming their only author. A single source of income is short term thinking. My largest single customer (Amazon) is less than a third of my income. Losing them would suck but I’d survive.

Before you make a thousand dollars a year writing, establish your writing as a business. Pick a company name and register it as a DBA in your county. Use that to get a bank account for your business. Deposit all writing income in that account, and use that account to pay for writing-related expenditures. Withdraw money for you and your family as owners’ disbursements. This might seem like overkill now, but you have no idea what’s coming…

2) Plan For Success

Most small businesses fail in their first year. The survivors often fall to their own success.

Treat your writing business like a business from day 1. If the tax man comes knocking on your door you need to be able to demonstrate that you’re treating this part of your career seriously. This means setting up a bank account for the business, and treating that bank account like it belongs to a separate entity. Yes, you can use writing income for vacations but you must account for it.

It’s much easier to convert your DBA to some sort of corporation than to spin one of those entities out of the fabric of your life. Why is this important?

3) You Have No Idea What Will Sell

You never know what readers will react to. You have less idea what will bring in new readers. My most successful book is a novelette of satirical Linux erotica. My new crime novel is doing far better than I expected. I could never have predicted this.

Meanwhile, the technology book I spent six years working on? The one I literally wrote seven books to learn how to write? The one people requested, demanded, and beseeched me for?

Sales-wise, it’s dead on arrival.

You never know. It’s uncomfortable. Learn to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. Sow all your seeds, and harvest whatever grows.

4) Try Weird Things, in Craft and Business

I wrote the aforementioned satirical Linux erotica in a single day. The Muse came upon me. He had a whip and a chair and demanded that I perform. I went with it. It succeeded. Other ideas, written similarly, did not. It happens.

Most of us feel just fine with craft experiments, but avoid experimenting in business. What’s the worst that can happen if a business experiment fails? Obviously, the Art Police show up and suspend your license to write.

Or maybe you just lose money.

Financial losses happen in business. Decide how much you can risk, and set up your experiment within those boundaries. I’m experimenting with Amazon ads right now, within clearly defined financial limits, and they’re making me money so far. Book sponsorships work for my nonfiction readers. Patreon works for some of my readers.

And those business experiments can give you room for artistic experiments. The SSH Mastery sponsorships gave me the funding to experiment with hardcovers. The SNMP Mastery sponsors are letting me do something unspeakably squamous with that book.

I wrote a nonfiction book for the deliberate and explicit purpose of telling men’s rights activists that I would continue to use both male and female pronouns in nonfiction. This experiment worked, both in a business sense and for getting those people to stop trying to enlist me to their cause.

“Nobody would buy a cozy mystery set at a Unix conference!” I wrote git commit murder anyway. It’s a slow but steady seller.

Experiment. Sometimes, good stuff happens.

5) Grab Success

You can’t predict success. Except when you can.

The key component of success is being myself. To put myself in my books, as forcefully and explicitly and gleefully as I can.

In other words: I speak the truth.

In my nonfiction, people accuse me of making jokes. I do not. It’s just that the truth in technology is offensive, outrageous, and downright obscene. People must laugh about it, because the appropriate degree of piteous sobbing takes too much time and runs up the cleaning bill.

I do the same in my fiction, but in a completely different way.

And it’s led to financial success.

When that success appears, be ready to grab it. I’m still not making near as much money as I would have if I’d stayed in the technology field, but if I’d stayed in tech I’d have drowned in my own bile by now, so it’s a wash.

I am at the point where I need to reorganize the business, to switch from little old me to a corporation. I’m actively hunting an accountant who understands how creators and licensors of intellectual property can arrange their business to maximize effective income. Turns out those people are mostly on the coast, not here in Detroit. (If you know of one, I’d appreciate a lead.)

When that happens, though: my business is set up and ready to convert to a massive C-Corp.

What will you do if your new book takes off and a million bucks lands in your bank account before New Years’ Eve? Hopefully the answer isn’t “panic.”

6) Keep Writing

Amidst all of this, keep making words.

Writers get opportunities to travel. My books have taken me to Canada, Massachusetts, Oklahoma, California, Oregon, Virginia, Washington, Arizona, Canada, England, France, and Malta. Next year they’ll take me to Japan, India, and back to Canada. In the last year, these trips have taken more and more of my time.

A four-day trip ruins the week before and the week after for writing. Some folks recover more quickly than I do. Good for them. I just got back from a trip to a city in my own time zone. Not only did I lose the time of the trip, I lost four work days before and ten work days after it.

I hereby resolve to stay home and spend more time making words. To stop “Being A Writer,” and to just write.

Over the years, I’ve promised to go to a bunch of cons. The last few years I’ve tried to fulfill all the promises Younger Lucas foolishly made. I have one final set of promises to fulfill, in Asia next March. And then I’m done. I’m not promising any more “sure I’ll come, one year” trips.

Will I travel? Sure. But rarely. If I don’t write, there are no books. And traveling prevents writing.

7) Forgive Yourself

I write fiction at about a thousand words an hour and nonfiction at about half that. If I treat my writing as full-time a job, and split my time between the two, I should produce a million words of fiction and half a million words of nonfiction every year.

That’s not realistic.

First, you must allocate time to run your business. When I use a publisher, I have to manage that relationship. When I self-publish, I must spend time publishing. No matter what, I must balance the credit card statement every month and deal with the accounting.

And experienced employers know that even the most solid employees are useless 5% to 50% of the time. Marriages, births, divorces, illness, car troubles, exploding toilets, and the other Randomly Falling Meatballs of the Flying Spaghetti Monster disrupt us all. It’s called being alive. Being human.

As authors who have finally achieved The Dream, it’s easy to beat ourselves up for our shortcomings. Things happen. In the short term, it’s infuriating and frustrating and can drive us to tears of rage.

But our craft means nothing if we lose our friends and relationships and all those things that make life worthwhile.

Despite thyroid failures and anemia and cancer scares and family members suffering time-consuming medical problems over the last five years, I’ve written dozens of books. The bills are paid.

Forgive yourself.

I shouldn’t forgive myself, mind you, because I know in my heart that I’m a slacker and I should be writing twelve hours a day, seven days a week, and use the time left over for business. But that’s a separate matter. You must forgive yourself.

8) Keep Learning Craft

This is the key to everything. It’s the most important thing you can do.

Learn. Study. Practice.

Practice is how we learn. I treat everything I write as deliberate practice. In my current fiction project, because of the nature of the project, I’m practicing point of view. Yes, I have decent point-of-view chops. They can be better. In my current nonfiction project, I’m practicing clarity. The baroque language of SNMP lends itself to such practice.

Yes, I’m a full time author. People pay me for my words. I rely on those payments to pay the mortgage.

But I either get better or stagnate. And my readers will go “oh, it’s more of the same” and move on to someone else.

I must grow with my readers. It’s the only way I’ll keep the ones I have, and draw in new ones.

Finally:

9) Don’t Ask How You’re Getting Away With This

The universe might catch on and put you back in your place.

Hear Me Read Without Leaving Your Chair

Last winter, I sold a story to a Pulphouse Magazine anthology called Snot-Nosed Aliens. Shortly thereafter, I read the entire story at Penguicon 2019. It was caught on video.

Now that Snot-Nosed Aliens is out, I’ve uploaded the video.

I’m told by a parent that this tale is PG-13; comic violence and a couple of “hells,” but no f-bombs or people being eaten alive by their spleens or whatever. So, consider yourself warned.

Patronizers, I’ll have the rights to the story back in a few months and you’ll get your spiffy ebook.