What follows is the most common flow of email conversations with readers. If you have a different question, you can ask in the comments in the bottom of this page. You could also try email, but I’m bad at email. Try Mastodon or Twitter instead, I’m much better in a quick format.
Your Opinions About My Books
- You: You write good stuff.
Me: Thank you, I appreciate it. That’s always nice to hear. It’s awesome to know that my work helps other people. That thought keeps me going.
- You: You write awful stuff.
Me: That’s fine. Books are about taste, and you’re not my reader. Try another writer.
- You: No, really, your books are awful. Stop writing.
(rolls eyes, deletes email)
- You: I want to nominate one of your books for an award!
- You: I have lots of thoughts about one of your books! SO MUCH THOUGHTS!
Me: Cool! Don’t tell them to me. Tell other people.
Seriously, I’m glad I made you think. Telling any author your thoughts about their book is not only unhelpful, it actively harms the writer. Senior authors have learned to let such things pass harmlessly through their ears without involving their brain. I’m not there yet.
But authors do want you to talk about books! To other people. Write reviews, positive or negative, and post them on bookstore sites and social media. Tell people about this great Lucas book you read, or this hideous Lucas book you attempted to hate-read. These discussions simultaneously bring us great joy and new readers. Great joy is cool. New readers are cooler.
Me: I’m utterly chuffed that you like my book that much. Please don’t nominate me for anything, though. Awards are cool and all, but my career and business are designed such that awards are of no benefit to me. (This isn’t a goal, but an accidental consequence.) The world is full of worthy writers who could leverage awards into better careers, though. Please nominate one of them. If this makes me eligible for “Dumbass Of The Decade,” well, go ahead and nominate me for that.
- You: When will your revise your tech book X?
Me: When the technology changes enough, when I have sufficient time and attention, and when the business environment permits.
- You: When is your next Y novel coming out?
Me: As soon as I can write it.
- You: Any chance of an Absolute OpenBSD 3rd Edition?
Me: See above. AO3e requires a specific business environment. You’ll know it’s coming when I publish several small OpenBSD books in succession, much as I did with the FreeBSD Mastery books and AF3e.
- You: What are you writing now?
Me: Check my main page for my current projects.
- You: Will you write something on topic Z?
Me: Probably not.
- You: How can I buy your books to put the most money in your pocket?
Me: Thank you for asking. That’s a hard question, so let me start with the short answer: I appreciate that you’re buying my books and helping me buy groceries, rather than getting illicit copies off BitTorrent. Anywhere you buy is good enough; if it wasn’t, I wouldn’t sell my books there. (That’s why the novels and Mastery titles are not on Google Play.) And truly, that’s all I ask. But if you’re really looking to send me extra money, here’s a decision tree based on format and publisher.
- “Absolute” titles, Network Flow Analysis, and other No Starch Press titles – use the coupon code ILUVMICHAEL and buy direct from No Starch Press. You get 30% off and I get commission. This coupon is good for all print or ebook NSP titles, so if you need a copy of Practical Packet Analysis (which you do) you can save money and throw me a couple bucks. You pay shipping, though, which eats up the cost savings if you’re in New Zealand.
- Other print, fiction or nonfiction – I don’t have a direct sales operation, so buy anywhere you like.
- Mastery ebooks – buy direct from me at tiltedwindmillpress.com.
- Fiction ebooks – I don’t sell fiction direct, so buy from your usual ebookstore. (Why don’t I sell direct? The algorithmic visibility boost I get from you buying in a store is more useful than the extra buck from direct sales.)
- If you want to give me money – I have a Patreon and a tip jar.
- What I really ask for – that you buy the books from a channel that pays me for them. If you tell others you liked them, that’s gravy.
- You: How can I get a signed book?
Me: By showing up at an event I’m at. I’m almost always at semibug, Penguicon, and BSDCan. Once or twice a year, MUG asks me to speak. Or you can hang around the Roseville, Michigan Costco for a couple weeks; I’ll probably show up.
- You: You sell ebooks directly, why not sell signed print books?
Me: Because that would take time and attention away from my writing. If I ever hit the point where I need to hire a lickspittle an assistant, I’d reconsider. A real direct sales operation requires sales tax.
- You: Can I get a print/ebook combo of your Tilted Windmill Press books?
Me: No, because that would require hiring the lickspittle mentioned above. My books are in Amazon’s MatchBook program, meaning you can get the ebook for cheap when you buy the print book, but that’s tied to Amazon so I don’t promote it.
- You: Can I get a print/ebook combo of your No Starch Press books?
Me: Direct from No Starch Press! They ship from the US, though, so the cost in other countries might be prohibitive.
- You: What tools do you use to write?
Me: Microsoft Word. I format ebooks with Jutoh (nonfiction) and Vellum (fiction). To format nonfiction print books for self-publishing, I use InDesign. For formatting fiction in print, I use either Vellum or Indesign depending on the project. (Vellum produces pretty print books, but it’s a poor choice if you need to hold page count down and write short chapters.) My main desktop runs whatever I’m writing about, FreeBSD at the moment. I use Windows for InDesign and Microsoft Office.
- You: “Microsoft Office? InDesign?” Really?
Me: Yep. Many publishers, publishing tools, and self-pub platforms expect bug-for-bug compatibility with Microsoft Word. While LibreOffice is good enough for novels, using a product other than Word for complex documents gives iffy results. Can LibreOffice produce a nice looking ebook? Sure. Can LibreOffice produce a nice looking ebook that survives going through dozens of different ebook retailers in dozens of countries, many of them using back-end software that expects to see Microsoft-specific gunk somewhere in the file? Not reliably. And a 1% error rate means that I spend hours of my time troubleshooting an ebook problem that only shows up in one title for readers in Farawayistan. And then some other retailer changes their back end, and I do it all again. Worse, it’s work that I’m not interested in and don’t want to do.
With every title I publish, that risk increases. As of 2017, I self-published over 50 titles in print and ebook. That’s a whole different scale than the folks with only a handful of titles or who only sell in a subset of stores.
Bug-for-bug compatibility with MS Word and InDesign is essential. I wish it wasn’t. But the business reality is, LibreOffice gets me reader complaints. Word doesn’t. LaTeX gives me interoperability problems. InDesign doesn’t.
- You: But LibreOffice/LaTeX/other free solution!
Me: Look. I have been sending my work into the world since 1991. I know this business and the technology. Do you think I like being stuck in Microsoft-Adobe Hell? And you know what makes it worse, is some random dude (because it’s always a man, always) on the Internet telling me I’m wrong. It’s like going up to one of the OpenBSD folks and questioning their basic commitment to secure software.
I use BSD as a desktop. No, not TrueOS, not macOS. Raw OpenBSD or FreeBSD. I can make LaTeX and LibreOffice work just fine. Other industry folks can’t work with them.
If I pointed you to this FAQ, it means: I am done being civil on this topic. I lack time, energy, and desire to educate you on the elementary basics of my chosen profession. Additionally, I owe you zero explanation. Further discussion will be counterproductive. Please drop it before I block you.
- You: I have a joke about your choice of writing tools.
Me: After years of scorn on this topic, I have lost my sense of humor about it. I can no longer tell if people, especially folks I don’t know, are serious or joking. Joke at your own risk.
- You: Why do you waste your time writing fiction, when I’ll pay you for your next tech book?
Me: I enjoy writing fiction. Why don’t you stop doing what you love in favor of things I’ll pay you for? Plus, when I write only nonfiction my writing speed drops precipitously. Switching between them keeps my mind relaxed and eager for work.
- You: Why do you waste your time writing tech books, when I’ll pay you for your next novel?
Me: I like eating, clean clothes, and heat in the winter. Should my novels take off and meet those needs, I’ll reconsider.
- You: What are you writing after the books you’ve announced?
Me: Whichever project looks most ripe when I’m ready to start.
- You: Please tell me when you announce your next book sponsorship!
Me: My feeble brain sabotages all of my efforts in this regard. That’s why I have a mailing list exactly for potential sponsors. Sign up, and I’ll mail you!
Also: I love you too. But not in a creepy way. Okay, maybe it’s a little creepy, but only in that socially awkward middle-aged-guy-who-doesn’t-like-to-make-eye-contact way.
- You: What’s your secret to writing so many books in a year?
Me: The number of hours I spend at my desk, writing. That’s the entire secret. Also, you’re wrong.
I can write tech books at about 500 words per hour, and fiction at about 1000 words per hour. If I split working full time evenly between the two, I should have ten novels (1 million words) and ten Mastery (or two Absolute) books per year (500,000 words). But let’s be generous, and say self-employment sucks up half of my time, what with paperwork and doing my own book layouts and such. I’m still slow and lazy.
- You: Will you read something I wrote and tell me what you think?
- You: I have a great idea for a book! I’ll give you the idea, you can write the book, and we’ll split the money.
Me: I have an even more awesome idea! Keep your idea, write your own book, and keep all the money.
- You: I have a great idea for a book, but asking you to write it would be unfair. Would you co-author with me?
Me: Thanks, but no. I don’t play well with others, and I have all the work I can possibly handle right now. I tried this once. It turned into two books. They were excellent books, but very time-consuming.
- You: Do you believe in ghosts?
- You: But you say elsewhere that you live in a haunted house!
Me: I used to live in a haunted house, but moved out. Not because of the ghosts, but because of the living.
- You: Will you write something about your haunted house?
Me: I have. Figuring out which book or tale involves that house is your problem.
- You: You’re a writer? How do you really make money?
Me: I don’t consult. I don’t provide services. I don’t teach or offer seminars. I barely advertise, and that only since 2019. I put words in a row, place those words in front of readers, and they give me money. That’s it. That is the only thing I do. And it pays my mortgage.
- You: How do you make a living as a full time writer?
Me: Read this post and this post.
- You: Why aren’t your books in Kindle Unlimited?
Me: Because KU is an actively terrible business decision, unless you’re a short-term thinker. I will not participate in that program as it is structured now.
- You: What do you think of your nonfiction publisher, No Starch Press?
Me: No Starch Press is the kind of publisher that existed before the big companies bought up the publishing industry. They’re small. They’re nimble. Every book receives the attention it needs to be successful. Any employee who lasts longer than 60 days is completely awesome. They are open to suggestions. Their contract is better than any other tech publisher contract I’ve ever seen, and their royalty rates are the best in the business (if you choose to receive high royalty rates, which you should–remember, advances are advances against expected royalties). They’re like a small brewery that’s been in existence for twenty years; they know their business and they still give a damn. If you want to write a technology book, I highly recommend them, even if you’ve never published a book before. And if you email me to ask “no, really, privately, just between us, what do you think?” I will refer you here. (Or just delete your email, because you’re obviously not listening to me.)
- You: Why do you still use a publisher? Authors no longer need middlemen between them and their audience.
Me: Different books need different support structures. I’m both self-published and traditionally published. I’ll use both again, depending on the book, the audience, and the business requirements.
- You: Should I self-publish or traditionally publish my book?
Me: I can rant on this until the caffeine runs out, but let me simplify it.
Do you want to be a writer? Or do you want to have published a book? If you want to write a book for professional reasons, such as establishing your credibility in your field, and you don’t expect to be churning out books regularly, use a trad publisher.
If you’re going to be a pro writer and release books regularly, which should you use? I’m gonna paraphrase Blaze Ward here: Do you wanna be famous, or do you wanna be rich?
A contract with a big publisher can get your name out there. They’ll keep all rights to your work forever, and most of the money, but you might find that a worthwhile trade-off. Remember: you do not write books. You produce and license intellectual property. Until you understand that in your bones, you won’t make a living. Unless you win the publishing lottery that is, but that’s like getting hit by lightning, twice, on a dry cloudless winter day. On the Moon.
Independent publishing requires understanding how the publishing business works. You need to learn the technology, and when to deploy it. You need an entrepreneurial spirit. I chose to self-publish my first two books, because the publishing industry is insane. They bombed. After a dozen trad-pubbed books I self-published again in 2011, when better tools were available. It worked… sort of. As an experienced author, I needed half a dozen self-pub books before I started getting it mostly right. Yes, it’s fairly easy to dump a book on Amazon, but that’s not publishing. That’s surrendering any hope of a long-term career in the hope of winning the hit-by-lightning-only-once lottery.
Learning this stuff for a single book? And keeping up on it for the lifespan of your one book? You must update the format of your book, if not the content, every few years. Not worth it.
Yes, today I leverage trad and indie publishing. Which I use for what project is entirely a cold, hard business decision. I make that decision based on the available tools for publishing that kind of book. You can’t print-on-demand an eight hundred page book in a nice binding… yet.
- You: Will you teach me how to self-publish my book?
Me: No. I spent years learning this complicated business, and it changes constantly. It’s like you asked me to teach you how to program in assembler via email, if the underlying hardware constantly shifted. People teach courses in this. Take several.
- You: Will you publish my book?
Me: No. Go hire someone who wants this work. Many people and companies will happily take your money and do an excellent job. I won’t recommend anyone, because this year’s grand expert is next year’s problem child.
- You: I want to license one of your books.
Me: Cool! You can buy a physical license by buying a book, or a single-user electronic license by buying an ebook.
- You: No, I mean at scale, for use in an application or film or some other transformation.
Me: I am open to this discussion. (For those following along at home, writers do not sell books. We create and license intellectual property.) In general, my rates licensing nonfiction vary with your number of expected users and how broad a license you want. My rates for fiction licensing are pretty much industry standard.
- You: When will one of your books be turned into a movie?
Me: Either when someone buys and executes on the film rights, or when tech hits the point I decide to hire a bright film school posse to film git commit murder. I estimate 2025 or so.
- You: I have a technology problem that you wrote a book about. Please help me.
Me: I’m sorry, I cannot help everyone on the Internet. I can’t even help everyone who’s bought one of my books. You outnumber me tens of thousands to one. Please ask in a project-specific or operating-system-specific mailing list, user group, or forum.
- You: Do your books have DRM?
Me: No. Because DRM is stupid.
- You: You use WordPress to manage your sites? Why not pure HTML as $DEITY intended?
Me: My web site was static HTML until about 2009. You can still see the old version, but the FDA has required me to warn you that you might claw your eyes out.
My long-term business strategy requires that I sell ebooks directly. So I need web site tools that lets me do that. That means some web framework. I chose the least appalling option.
- You: Will you please call it GNU/Linux?
- You: Call it GNU/Linux or else!
Me: Fine. Do you prefer Debian Else, or Red Hat Else?
- You: What is your opinion on X?
Me: My opinions are my own. I publish those that I believe are both coherent and well thought out. I will not defend an opinion in email unless I have argued cogently for it elsewhere. And that argument will have to stand on its own. While I might publish a followup at some point, I will not defend my writing.
Oh, you literally mean X? It’s fine, if you have OpenBSD’s cwm(1). Avoid KDE, Gnome, FVWM, or other bloated window managers.
Work and Money
- You: Are you looking for work?
- You: Will you write something for me or my organization?
- You: Please help me me promote my cool new project.
Me: My time is completely occupied doing things important to me. I have zero capacity for new projects.
- You: Please help me promote my new commercial venture that competes with free software you’ve written about.
- You: Will you write for free?
Me: Sure. Check out my blog, or my occasional bits for other sites such as undeadly.org. I even do a column for the FreeBSD Journal.
- You: No, I mean, will you write for me for free?
Me: No. I’m sorry, that’s weak. Hell, NO. Why would I write for anyone for free, when people are willing to pay me? If you think about asking anyway, go read my response letter and save me the trouble of deleting your mail.
- You: I’ll pay in exposure!
Me: People die of exposure.
- You: I’ll pay in advertising space?
Me: How about you pay me what you charge for that amount of advertising space?
- You: Will you ghost-write/work for hire for my cool project?
- You: But I’ll pay you real cash to ghost/WFH on my cool project!
Me: Not enough. Not nearly enough. As of 2017, you’d have to offer six figures for me to idly contemplate the idea before telling you no. I have more writing that I want to do than I have lifetime to write in, and writing your project would mean sacrificing something I want to work on.
- You: But money!
Me: If money was my goal, I’d be back as a full-time IT guy. I could triple my income and get my choice of work conditions.
- You: But that’s not fair!
Me: No. That’s me rejecting the idea that money is the most important thing in life.
- You: What do you look like?
Me: This. For the record, that is my happy face.
- You: Are you available to speak about our event?
Me: Maybe. It must be an event that interests me, meaning something in literature or open source technology. See my travel and conference policy for details.
- You: Gelato?
Me: Yes, please!