A DVR without a subscription or monthly fees

What if I told you that you could have a DVR without a subscription that worked with free over-the-air antenna-based TV, and it cost less than $35, saving those monthly subscription fees month after month?

It’s called the Mediasonic Homeworx HW180STB. If you want to record and time-shift television without loss of quality and without paying a fortune in subscription fees, it’s a tremendous value. You have to provide an antenna–which you can even make yourself–and USB-based storage, but it means you can get whatever capacity you want, and if you fill up a drive, just get another one.

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Replacing bad capacitors in failed electronics

If you’ve had a piece of electronic gear fail in the last few years, there’s a good chance it’s due to one or more bad capacitors inside. The problem most infamously reared its ugly head on motherboards produced in the middle of the previous decade, but that’s just a place where it’s highly visible. If you had a DTV converter box, a DVD player, or some other device fail in the same timeframe, it may have had the same problem.

If I had a failed motherboard, I’d probably just swap the motherboard. I’m more inclined to fix an LCD monitor or a DTV converter box. Read more

Missing the playoffs because News Corp. and Cablevision are greedy? Build an antenna!

So Cablevision and News Corp are arguing about money, and the result is Fox is dark on cable in New York and Philly tonight, and for the foreseeable future.

Build an antenna. No, seriously, build an antenna.

Over-the-air HDTV looks better than cable, because they have to compress and recompress the signal in order to bring you those 432 channels nobody ever watches. And DTV reception isn’t like it was in the analog days. With a good antenna design, reception is much better than it was a few short years ago. Build a Gray-Hoverman antenna out of $10 worth of readily available materials, and you’ll never miss a local broadcast again. In fact, you’ll probably wonder what’s wrong with your cable provider.

And yes, Game 1 of the NLCS is a pretty good game so far. Definitely not worth paying to miss.

Rupert Murdoch delenda est.

The Gray-Hoverman antenna

I threw together a Gray-Hoverman antenna tonight. It’s literally two pieces of bent copper wire taped to a piece of plywood, connected with a 75 to 300 ohm transformer like this one, stashed behind the entertainment center. I’ll pretty it up at some point.

This $6 transformer is the most expensive part you need to build a quality antenna

I now get 15 channels of over-the-air TV. With my old antenna, I only got 10.

With some tinkering, Antennapoint suggests I should be able to get channels from as many as 9 nearby cities, including, potentially, Springfield IL, and Jefferson City, MO.

I’m definitely hoping to pull in a couple of additional distant PBS stations, since they tend to vary their programming a little bit more. It would be nice to get an additional PBS Kids station, since the local PBS Kids stopped carrying a couple of shows my oldest son liked.

A basic cable TV package only gives you 20 channels, and most of them are stuff you wouldn’t want to watch anyway. And they usually don’t include the extra DTV channels. For instance, the local PBS channel also broadcasts a channel that alternates between home improvement and cooking, a kids channel, and a news channel. All are better than their cable equivalents, and they’re free. A couple of the other stations broadcast syndicated programming on a secondary channel.

I eventually want to build a better one and possibly mount it in the attic or even outdoors. But it’s amazing what 30 minutes with a piece of scrap lumber and $2 worth of wire yielded.

How to become a millionaire in 10 years (safely)

I saw a blog post today called How to become a millionaire in 10 years. The majority of commenters dismissed it outright.

I don’t like that attitude. The plan makes some assumptions that aren’t always true. But having the plan is an important first step. What’s impossible now might not be impossible in a few years, so it makes sense to do what you can now.The plan, in brief, is this: Invest $996 a week, get a 12% return, and in 10 years, you’ve got a million bucks.

Let’s look at the first objection. It is optimistic. Unfortunately, the guy who floats that figure the most frequently is exaggerating. But you can come close by tweaking your strategy a bit. Twelve may be a bit optimistic, but it’s probably close enough. If you’re pessimistic, use a figure of 7% and adjust the rest of your math.

It may be tempting to try to do better. I suggest not. Average returns are all you need. Warren Buffett has said repeatedly that it’s better to spend your energy increasing your earning power rather than trying to outperform the market.

The second objection was that the numbers were just too unreasonable, so how do you become a millionaire in 20 years?

That’s easy. Save less. According to this handy calculator, $1,100 a month for 20 years at 12% more than does the trick.

Or you can save $2,000 a month for 15 years and pass the million mark.

So the math is sound. Let’s tackle that really big objection: How in tarnation do you come up with $996 a week to save? (And no, you don’t have to already be a millionaire in order to do it.)

The key is the same as paying off debt quickly. Don’t try to do it all at once. Take some baby steps. If the best you can do is half that, you still reach the goal in 15 years. Start by saving what you can, then ratchet it up when you can.

I set out to find a large number of common ways that people can save $996 per week (or more). Step one is the big kahuna, which will save most people a cool $24,000 a year right off the bat.

Step one: Pay off your cars and your mortgage. Between a house and two cars in the driveway, it’s safe to say most families are spending $2,000 a month. Some are spending a little more, others a little less. The trick here is the debt snowball. Look at your statements, pick the car you can pay off the soonest, then scrape together whatever extra cash you can and pay that much extra every month until you have that car paid off. Then take what you were paying on that car, and apply all that money to the other car. After that, apply all that money to the house.

Chances are very good that you can pay all of that off in less than seven years. The biggest reason why is because banks generally won’t loan you more money than you would be able to pay off in that timeframe. The reason for the subprime mortgage crisis was because banks started ignoring that rule and giving loans to pretty much anyone.

If you are a middle class family that manages to pay the bills somehow, some way every month, I’m reasonably confident in saying that you can pay off all your debt in seven years, then dump that car and mortgage money into an index fund and be a millionaire in another 20.

What about cars in the meantime? Drive the paid-off cars as long as you can, then replace them with the least expensive vehicles that are practical. Given a choice between driving a Lexus and looking like a millionaire, or driving a Toyota Corolla and being a millionaire, personally, I’d choose the latter.

So this gets you roughly halfway there. Let’s see if we can nickel and dime our way to the other half.

Step two: Live off one salary. If you’re married and your spouse works, try as much as possible to live off one salary and bank the other. This was the strategy my in-laws used to pay off their debts (rather than the debt snowball). If one of you brings home $26,000 a year or more after taxes, that gets you the other half immediately. Congratulations.

If step two is impractical or impossible, or doesn’t quite get you there, here are some smaller steps to get you there.

Step three: Put your raises and windfalls towards savings, rather than lifestyle changes. Someone I know was talking just yesterday about a job opportunity that paid a cool $30,000 more than he makes currently. “Lifestyle change!” he said excitedly.

Personally, I’ve never been able to make that kind of a jump, although I’ve made a couple of much smaller jumps since 2006.

Unfortunately it’s often difficult to get much of a raise from a current employer–the money comes when you change jobs. If you’re able to, say, move to a new employer and get a raise of around 10 percent, that takes care of a few of your 52 weeks. Do that every 2-3 years, and you can work your way towards the goal.

This strategy can take care of about four weeks.

Step four: Bank your tax refund. If you get a tax refund every year, instead of using that money to buy something, put it towards the goal.

In most cases, I would think the tax refund takes care of anywhere from 1-3 weeks.

Brown-bag your lunch. Early in my career, I ate out pretty much every day. My day started with a cup of coffee and a doughnut in the cafeteria ($2), and on a good day, lunch cost another $5. Eventually I realized these habits were costing me almost $1,400 a year. Brown-bagging isn’t free, but I figure brown-bagging every day costs less than $400 a year.

That’s another week, or possibly two.

Cut the cable and phone. My local cable provider charges up to $70 per month for some of its packages. Basic cable costs $40, which is still outrageous. If you can live without cable altogether, you can get anywhere from half a week to 3/4 of a week right there. If not, cut back as much as possible.

So how do you live without cable? My wife and I rent movies from Red Box about once a week. It costs a dollar. Other than that, we watch over the air TV. Sometimes there’s nothing on, but when I visit people who have cable, a lot of times there’s nothing on at their house either. The DTV changeover means there’ll be more local channels–many PBS stations are broadcasting on several frequencies, and DTV stations have a range of about 120 miles, so there’s a decent chance you’ll be able to pick up stations from nearby cities that you couldn’t get before.

So try it. If you can’t live without it, cut back as much as you can.

The same goes for your phone line. Are you paying for Call Notes? Cancel it and get an answering machine. Call waiting? Cancel it unless you can’t live without it, but in this day and age when everyone has cell phones and e-mail, I’ll bet you can. Call forwarding? Cut. If you buy everything Southwestern Bell tries to sell you, you can easily pay $50 or more per month for your phone line. When I ordered phone service, I asked for just a dial tone, and repeated the request every time they tried to upsell me. I pay just a shade over $20 a month for my dialtone. I can receive all the calls I want for free, and make all the local calls I want for free too.

By cutting back on cable and phone, most people should be able to save another $996 a year.

Take a long, hard look at the cell phone. Do you have two cell phones with $99 ulimited talk plans? Do you really need two?

Cricket offers an unlimited talk plan for $35 a month. But you may be able to save even more by cutting down the number of cell phones you have, or just getting pay as you go phones for emergency use and sharing phones as much as possible.

And keep in mind that a landline lets you make all the local calls you want. Ditching the land line and going all cellular may be trendy, but it’s not always economical.

My wife and I have one cell phone with a plan that costs us $30 a month, plus a pay-as-you-go phone that we refill as needed, for $25 a pop. It ends up costing us $10 a month, on average.

I can see how someone could potentially save another week’s worth by getting stingy with the cell phones. Maybe more.

Save on your utilities. Buying a programmable thermostat and setting it to not work as much at night and to minimize heating/cooling during the hours when we’re not home saved us a bundle. To the tune of $100 a month.

Weatherproofing the house helps too. Put film on the windows during the winter, and put weatherstripping on all the doors. I also went into my basement, where the utilities come into the house, and found a number of holes for wires that are much larger than they need to be. I filled those in with putty to keep the elements out.

If you really want to be a stingy Scottish miser, invest a few hundred dollars in a whole-house fan. These fans can replace all the air in your house in a matter of minutes. So in the morning when it’s coolest, you can open some doors and windows, run the fan for a few minutes, then shut off the fan, close the house back up, and give your air conditioner a big head start.

Also, for some reason society says we should keep our houses at 70 degrees in the summer and 80 degrees in the winter. Why? We keep ours at about 75 during the summer and between 70 and 75 in the winter. Once you get used to it, it’s comfortable. The savings aren’t exactly peanuts.

Using fans can help keep the air moving, making those temperatures more tolerable.

Squeezing the utilities ought to take care of another week or two.

Go out less. I know some people who easily spend $100 a week going out on Friday nights. Rent a movie from Redbox, have a couple of drinks at home, and save the difference, which is five weeks’ worth.

Cut the Starbucks habit. Do you start off your day with the stereotypical $5 cup of coffee at Starbucks? That’s $1,050 right there. Bank $996 to cut off another week, and you have $54 left to buy a coffee maker (if you don’t have one) and a year’s worth of reasonably good coffee.

Cut the bottled water habit. If you drink three bottles of water a day, that’s commendable because it’s healthy, but you’ve also fallen for the biggest scam in recent memory. Cut the bottled water, buy a water filter, and bank a thousand bucks.

Cut back on expensive hobbies. I’d rather not think about what I used to spend on my Lionel train habit. I know some people spend five figures a year on theirs. I was never that bad, but at its peak I know I was spending more than $1,000 a year on it. I’ve cut back, and the last two or three years I’ve probably spent a couple hundred.

I think it’s safe to say that most households have at least one or two expensive hobbies that could be cut back and still be enjoyable. Buy less and try enjoying what you have. Or buy used instead of new.

Or perhaps they could (gulp) be eliminated, for the time being at least.

Call this one another week’s worth.

Use the library. I know someone who is a voracious reader, which is admirable. She reads a couple of books a week, easily. That’s admirable, but the problem is she buys all these books at retail. A book collector might perk up and call it an investment, but there’s very little collectible interest in Nicholas Sparks and Nora Roberts. She buys the books, reads them once, and then they sit on the shelf until she gives them to someone.

She probably could save $1,000 a year by using the library instead.

Eat out less. Eating out once a week at $20 a pop easily works out to $1,000 a year. Cut that back, whether it’s by eating somewhere less expensive or just eating out one less time, and you’ve got another week’s worth of $996.

Use public transportation to go to work. The average person commutes about 20 miles a workday. That’s $2,436 a year if you go by the IRS standard mileage rates, which factors in depreciation and maintenance on top of gas. The savings wouldn’t quite get me a full two weeks’ worth due to the cost of a monthly pass, but it would get me close. Call it two weeks.

Buy used and generic when possible. I’ve read that the poor are less likely to buy generic than the wealthy, out of fear of being ripped off. The fear is usually unfounded. Generics usually are made in the same factory right alongside one of their brand name competitors, and the only difference is the label that gets put on in the end.

But let’s talk used. Last week my wife and I bought my son about $80 worth of toys, but we paid $4 for them. They came from a church rummage sale. They were a bit dirty, but we ran them through the dishwasher to clean and sanitize them (they’re plastic). The swing was missing the strap to strap him in, but we replaced it with a belt from a thrift store, which cost another dollar. It fits perfectly.

At the same rummage sale, I bought myself a button-down shirt for a dollar. It looked new. I remember paying $20-$25 in a store for something comparable.

I bought the shoes I’m wearing right now at an estate sale. They didn’t look like they’d ever been worn, and I checked the fit before I bought them. I’ve been wearing them for more than a year now. I paid $3 for them. They would have cost me $50 in a store.

Most people buy a new computer every three or four years. I buy off-lease business computers every three or four years instead. They’re better built so they’re less likely to break (I’ve never had one break on me), and a $100 business PC that’s a few years old will be about as fast as a new computer that costs about $500. So I figure this practice saves me about $400 every three or four years.

I once saw someone in line ahead of me at a department store try to drop a thousand dollars on new clothes. He had several nice shirts, some nice pants, socks, some nice ties. I was pretty impressed with his haul. The problem was he tried to buy them on credit, and was denied. My work clothes mostly come from secondhand sources. They don’t look as nice as what that guy had, but what good does it do to look nice if you can’t pay your bills?

I figure it’s pretty easy to save a thousand or two a year by buying generic and used stuff.

Be careful with the flex-spend account. Back when I was single, I was annoyed because every year HR made us attend a meeting trying to coerce us into signing up for a Flexible Spending Account (also known as a cafeteria plan). These plans made no sense for me whatsoever. Some years my medical expenses were $100. Some years they were $200. Other years they were $20. So if I put $1,000 in, as they tried to convince me to do, I would have been wasting a lot of money. Being in the 14% tax bracket, at best I stood to save $28 if I had a $200 year. But if I put in $200, then I might turn around and have a $20 year and waste $180.

Now I’m married and my wife is diabetic. In this case it’s a no-brainer. We sat down and figured out how often she goes to the doctor, and what she spends on supplies in a given month. Her expenses are predictable, and high enough to make it worth doing. Between her expenses and having a son, I put the maximum in, since babies are always needing various FSA-eligible things, and they go to the doctor on a regularly scheduled basis.

If you’re in the 28% tax bracket and you put $3,000 into an FSA, being able to use pre-tax dollars for those medical expenses saves you about $840 a year. Not quite a week’s worth, but close. You can probably scrape up the other $156.

But if your medical expenses are always really low, you can save a bundle by not putting anything in such a plan. Employers love these plans because people frequently don’t track them very well, and anything left in the kitty at the end of the year goes to the company. It’s a great way to steal from your employees, frankly, and that’s why HR departments push them so hard. If you don’t need one, don’t put the money in, and pay yourself instead.

I think it’s safe to chalk up judicious use (or non-use) of an FSA as another week’s worth.

Be careful with AFLAC. AFLAC is a similar thing. My employer’s HR loves to push AFLAC on us. “I have three kids. I know I’m going to make at least one trip to the ER every year, and that pays for my AFLAC,” the pitch goes.

Think it through. I have a peculiar talent for injuring myself with sharp objects. But I’ve found that my best bet is to go to urgent care when it happens and put it on my FSA. Urgent care always gets to me faster than the overburdened ER, and it costs half as much. I did the math, and AFLAC just didn’t make sense. One trip to the ER didn’t cover a full year’s worth of AFLAC.

Maybe when my son gets older and starts playing sports and stuff, AFLAC will make sense. I’ll revisit it then. But do the math yourself, rather than just taking HR’s pitch. They’re salespeople. Their job isn’t to help you, their job is to make the company money by taking back as much of your salary as possible.

Making the right decision on AFLAC isn’t going to save you a full week’s worth, but it can make up for a shortfall.

Get a side gig. I’ve come up with more than 26 week’s worth of common ways to save $996, but not all of them will necessarily apply to everyone. Having a side gig is a good way to make up the shortfall. I can tell you to mow lawns or fix bicycles or make quilts, but I’d rather let you find something more ideal, since the best thing for you to do probably isn’t the best thing for me. Here’s a series of questions to ask yourself to help you find a side gig.

What do you enjoy?
Is there some service that you can provide at a better value than your potential competitors, whether it’s because you’re cheaper, or because your work is higher quality?
Is there some product that has resale value that you know how to find and then resell some way, after making any necessary repairs?

Basically, you need to find a product or a service that you already know well and enjoy that allows you to add value to it. Don’t quit your job to do it; do it on weekends or evenings with the goal of making a bit. If you can make $50 a week, that works out to $2,500 a year. That’s a reasonable early goal, then build it up from there. Some side gigs grow into full-time jobs but others don’t. Your chances of succeeding are much better if you don’t try to rely on it as a full-time job.

Start small, then let it grow (hopefully) to fill whatever number of $996 shortfalls you have in a year. And as you gain skill and experience, it could potentially grow beyond that, either allowing you to reduce some cutbacks, or achieve the ultimate goal more quickly.

So there you have it. Not everything in this list applies to everybody. But I would say the majority of these things do apply to anyone who can call themselves upper middle class. Such a family can take this list, find 52 things, and join the ranks of the wealthy in a decade or two, if they’re willing to let savings take priority over keeping up appearances.

But I also suspect that pretty much anyone who owns a home and two vehicles can probably take this list and find lots of things they can cut. They might not be able to find a full $996 a week for all 52 weeks of the year. So it will take them longer, but it’s possible. Making some sacrifices now in order to have financial independence later is worth it.

The most important thing is to put everything on the table. The year 2005 was my turning point. I lost my job, and it seemed like everyone who needed IT people couldn’t afford them. Stretching the pennies was necessary for us to stay afloat when I was in between jobs. Eventually I found one. The cutbacks that allowed us to make ends meet while my best source of income was doing odd computer jobs also allowed us to pay off our house early after I regained steady employment.

With the house out of the way, financial independence certainly is my next goal. I’m not sure that this formula is precisely what I want to follow in order to get there. But it’s important not to dismiss such formulas immediately just because they seem difficult or nearly impossible.

The key to success, financial or otherwise, is to take difficult problems and find solutions, rather than dismissing them immediately as impossible. One strategy is to break the problem down. This problem conveniently breaks down into 52 smaller problems. I’ll admit I had to sit and think a very long time to come up with 52 smaller answers.

I just have one more thing to say. Please try. I’m currently reading a financial book written in 1975 that said the average U.S. household headed by someone aged 24-34 had $2,500 in savings. In today’s dollars, that’s a shade over $10,000. Today, the average household has zero savings and around $10,000 in credit card debt, on top of car payments and rent or a mortgage. That has a lot to do with why our economy is such a wreck right now. We can’t buy any more stuff because we’re paying too much in interest.

It’s not too late for one or two generations to rise from these ashes and buy our country back. So let’s do it.

Memoirs of writing a book

Book memoirs. I got e-mail yesterday asking me to reflect back on dealing with a publisher while writing a book. I’ll never talk publicly about specifics, and I’m not even positive how much I’ve told my closest friends, for that matter. But it got me thinking.
And, as it turns out, it was two years ago this month that I sent my manuscript off to O’Reilly, and it was in late October that I got a set of PDF files to read and correct. In hindsight, I should have asked for a hardcopy, because I would have found more mistakes. But in hindsight, I’d do a lot of things differently.

First, I’d ask for more money. That’s not as much about greed as it is about raising the stakes. Supposedly, my advance on my first book was on the high side for first books in the computer field. Whether that’s true or whether that was my agent trying to stroke my ego after the fact, I’m not sure. Fact is, I took their first offer, and I’m pretty sure I took it the same day. Big mistake. I was staying up nights wondering if O’Reilly was interested in me. Nothing a first-time author can do will make an editor do the same thing, but the author needs to give the publisher a little time to wonder. I’m sure if I’d been sitting at my desk when the offer came in, I’d have responded immediately.

Don’t do that. Sleep on it. Then, I’m inclined to suggest you should make a counter-offer. What are they going to do, withdraw the offer if they don’t like your counter-offer? Get real. If they offer you an $8,000 advance and you demand $120,000, they’ll be insulted, yes. They’ll probably tell you you’re being unrealistic. Me, I hate haggling as much as I hate schmoozing, so I can’t give you any meaningful advice on how to dicker. It’s like asking a girl out. You go with your instincts and hope you don’t send off unwelcome I-want-you-to-have-my-children signals. Just as I wouldn’t trust anyone who claimed to have a sure-fire way of asking girls out, I wouldn’t trust anyone who claimed to have bulletproof negotiating technique.

I wondered if any publisher would be interested in me, and that was why I bit so quickly. Once again, a dating analogy helps. If one girl seems semi-interested in you, chances are there’s another girl somewhere who’d be semi-interested in you. Maybe I didn’t realize it at the time, but having O’Reilly interested in me was like having a Prom Queen candidate come sit down at my lunch table. Any overconfident and annoying stud knows when that happens, he’s got a chance with any unattached pretty girl in the room. And there are a lot of pretty girls who were never a candidate for Prom Queen. Likewise, there are a lot of good publishers who aren’t O’Reilly.

I found that out after publishing the first book. Macmillan wouldn’t give me the time of day before then. They were an early candidate for my second. IDG wanted to do my third book, but they wanted it to be a Dummies book and I wanted it to be a standalone, so that one never got beyond proposal stage. No Starch and Sybex also expressed interest in my work at one time or another. That experience made me realize that I didn’t have to marry O’Reilly. Just one date was enough to bring plenty of other suitors.

The issue of representation comes up. I had authors tell me I was a fool for writing my first book without an agent. That makes sense. An agent is better-equipped to play hardball than you are. He knows what his other clients get. He knows what else the publisher is working on. He knows what the publisher’s competition is working on. He’s emotionally detached from the work, so he can afford to make an editor sweat a little. And he knows what risks are worth taking and what he has to do beforehand. (I just realized I implied there are no female literary agents. There are. Every agent I’ve worked with happens to be male.)

But there’s something to remember about agents. Your agent doesn’t just work for you. Your agent has to maintain a good working relationship with every publisher in the business in order to stay in business. So when things get really ugly, your agent might not stand beside you the way you’d like. And no, I’d really rather not elaborate on that, other than to say I worked with an agency, but recently I’ve negotiated all of my magazine contracts myself, sealed deals my agent never would have, and I feel like I got a fair deal on them considering the amount of work required on my part.

I guess the other mistake I made was not talking about the book enough. Sure, all my friends knew about it. Pastor announced it in front of the congregation a couple of times (and he still introduces me as “Author Dave Farquhar” sometimes but not as often now that there’s another author in our congregation who’s published a lot more books than I have), so it seemed like the whole church knew about it. That was the problem. Everyone knew what I thought of the book and its prospects, except my publisher. Yeah, my editor and I talked about the prospective market, and we argued about the title. I backed down way too quickly–I still hate that title, and it takes an awful lot for me to hate something enough to put it in blinky text. Sorry Netscape users.

My editor and I should have talked a lot more about it. We talked some during the negotiating period. We talked briefly about the title once the ink was dry on the contract. I wrongly spent the majority of my non-asleep time just working on it. The result was a critically acclaimed book that sold about as many copies as it would have if I’d hawked it myself on a streetcorner. I should have sat down for three hours, written down every possible title that came to mind, and e-mailed it to my editor. I should have had the courage to suggest that hey, I know it’s not The O’Reilly Way, but this book is targetting consumers, not sysadmins, so why not do a more consumer-oriented cover? Sure, sysadmins will buy it based on the publisher, but there are a lot of consumers out there, and they don’t know Tim O’Reilly from Adam Osborne (sorry, that was bad).

A guy who’ll post every bizarre idea that’s ever crept into his head on his web site should have been willing to send a few bizarre ideas to Cambridge and Sebastopol and be shot down. The idea isn’t so much to get your way as it is to make everyone else think. There’s a fine line between insanity and genius, and it doesn’t matter much which side of the line you’re on, as long as someone involved in the project ends up on the right side.

So yeah. I should have been talking to my editor about the book. I should have found out who the marketing director was and talked to him or her once or twice a month, so that each of us knew what the other was thinking. I still don’t know who the marketing director for Optimizing Windows was. I never did.

Once the thing was on the shelves, I made another mistake. One of the marketing gals got me a gig on a talk radio show. I don’t remember which one anymore. The host flaked out–dropped off the face of the earth the week before my scheduled appearance. He wouldn’t return my calls or hers. As soon as the possibility of being on the show arose, I should have asked for a phone number. That’s fine if she wants to make the arrangements, but I should have talked to the guy–or at least someone with the show–at least once. That way he knows I’m serious, and he’d better be serious.

A little while later, ZDTV’s The Screen Savers came calling. They wanted me to appear, but they wanted me to pay all my own expenses. Well, flying to San Francisco from St. Louis on short notice isn’t cheap. Neither are the other accomodations. I asked her if the appearance would sell enough books to justify the expenses. She talked it over with the rest of her cohorts and said it’d be a ton of fun and I’d get to meet a bunch of interesting people and my Web site counter would go ballistic, but I’d be lucky to sell a couple hundred books based on the appearance.

I turned them down, and rightly so. They had nothing to lose if they bumped me, and then I’d be out the money and everything else. But in retrospect, once again, I should have talked to someone at ZDTV. That way, we’d have at least gotten a feel for how serious the other was.

It seems to me that authors who sell lots of books spend an awful lot more time on the phone than I did. I assumed that if I put my time and effort into making a quality product, it’d sell itself. I underestimated how many titles it was competing with. There are plenty of mediocre (or worse) books that outsold mine, and by a landslide. And it’s pretty obvious why. Their authors were more serious about selling books than I was.

I guess there’s one other question worth answering. What publishers should you work with? I’m hesitant about big publishers. They tend to pay less, and they market whatever they feel like marketing. For every Dan Gookin (DOS for Dummies) and Andy Rathbone (Windows for Dummies), there are plenty of authors who sold fewer books than I did. The stakes aren’t high enough. When you publish hundreds of books a year, only a few of them can be bestsellers, and the potential blockbusters seem to get all of the marketing effort. They can afford to take a chance on a long shot, and you might get your hopes too high. Or they can afford to pick up a book just to keep a competitor from getting it, which is what I suspect happened with my second ill-fated book. That’s not to say I wouldn’t work with a big publisher, but it wouldn’t be my first choice.

Unfortunately, I think O’Reilly’s gotten too big. The stakes weren’t high enough with Optimizing Windows. A company like No Starch publishes a dozen titles a year. Realistically, every title, or nearly every title, has to make money when you publish in those quantities. I think that’s part of the reason why O’Reilly doesn’t release nearly as many new titles now as they did two or three years ago, and why they’ve pulled out of certain markets. Too many titles were losing money, and the big sellers weren’t making up the difference.

If I had it to do all over again, I’d probably still go with O’Reilly on my first title, for the same reason that everyone wants one date with the prom queen. Everyone craves prestige, and the sooner you get it, the better off you think you are. For the second book that never happened? Lots of possibilities, but No Starch seems attractive. No Starch is a cool company, and they’re smaller. Presumably, they’re nicer because they have to be. And while it was cool to be seen with the beauty queen, when there’s another girl who seems nicer, the smart guy will go see what spending time with that nice girl is like.

So when will I write another book and do it right this time? Keep in mind writing a book is like a bad relationship. It has a lot of high points, but nothing feels better than the moment it’s over. And keep in mind that after one bad relationship, I waited four years before starting my next one.

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