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Joe Kissell’s Reflections on His First 50 Take Control Books

When I tell people I’ve written well over 50 books, they tend to narrow their eyes in disbelief, as though waiting for a punch line. But I’m neither joking nor bragging; that’s just what happens when you write books one after the other, pretty much full-time, for 12 years or so. In any case, 50 of those books have been Take Control titles, and having reached that milestone, I think it’s appropriate to have a little celebratory party. That’ll happen on 23 May 2015, and you’re invited!

More on the party in a moment. First, I’d like to share a few thoughts about the unusual experience of writing Take Control books for a living.

The Story — I’d known Adam Engst since the mid-1990s, when I was working at Nisus Software, and I was already a long-time TidBITS subscriber. Adam was gracious enough to write the foreword to my 2003 book “50 Fast Mac OS X Techniques,” and a few months after that book was published, he called me to see if I might be interested in joining him, Tonya, and several other Mac authors and editors for a little “experiment” in electronic publishing. He described the vision for what would eventually become Take Control, and I thought it sounded interesting. I’d recently been laid off from Kensington (where I’d managed software development), meaning I had time on my
hands and needed extra cash.

So I wrote what turned out to be the first book in the series, “Take Control of Upgrading to Panther.” Much to my astonishment, it was an instant, runaway hit. Since that book was so successful and I still didn’t have a job, I agreed to start on another book, about Apple Mail, immediately thereafter. That book was so long that we split it into two titles (one of which dealt exclusively with spam). Those sold well too, so I kept at it. I’d finish a book and immediately start writing another one. Within a few months, I gave up looking for a job, because I was earning a healthy living from Take Control royalties, and I got to work at home, on my own schedule. Although I did other stuff on the side (like creating a briefly popular
Web site called Interesting Thing of the Day), writing Take Control books soon took up most of my time and produced most of my income.

I’ve lost track of the figures over the years, but I think I’ve written somewhere between a quarter and a third of all the titles Take Control has published. That’s not due to extraordinary effort but rather the fact that it was the path of least resistance. People kept buying my books, so I kept writing them. And along the way I began writing for Macworld and other publications, speaking at conferences and user group meetings, and branching out in other interesting ways. It even enabled me to spend five and a half years living in Paris — and then move back to California and buy a house. It’s been a pretty good gig!

Take Control of Security for Mac Users” is my 50th Take Control title. (It depends on how you count, but I’ll explain how I came up with that figure at the end of this article.) That’s hard even for me to fathom sometimes, but as I look back on all those books, all those thousands of pages of text, I find that it’s been quite a learning experience.

What I’ve Learned — In no particular order, here are some of the things that come to mind as I scan my Take Control titles:

  • Apple products still aren’t as easy to use as they should be. For a company that has historically been so obsessed with user interface, Apple’s standards have slipped in recent years. Every time a new version of an Apple app appears, I can find something that’s more confusing or obscure than it was before, as though the designers are deliberately trying to irritate users. And… that’s fantastic news for me! I used to worry that Apple would make its software so easy to use that no one would need to buy my books about it anymore. Luckily, someone there cares enough about my career to make products that are increasingly inscrutable, thus requiring an endless series of third-party books like mine. Thanks,

  • No writer is an island. Everything I’ve ever published has been improved by editors (most often, by three or four different editors per book) and tech reviewers. No matter how carefully I try to check my own work, other people always find mistakes, awkward phrases, and sources of confusion. I try to notice the sorts of things editors correct so that I can make fewer mistakes the next time, and I think I get better as time goes on. [And he has! -Adam] But the process will never end. (I’ve also discovered that unedited prose written by other people sticks out like a sore thumb.)

  • Outlining is my superpower. Every book I write starts with an outline, and figuring out what topics to put in what order is the hardest part by far. Even though outlining isn’t much fun, I’m pretty good at it, and I’m nearly always happy with the result. Once the outline is done, the rest of writing the book is just filling in the (sometimes chapter-long) blanks, and that’s much easier for me.

  • My idea of fun has evolved. Some of my Take Control books were, to be honest, awfully boring and tedious to write. For example, I hate to say it, but writing about Apple Mail year after year is just excruciating for me. On the other hand, writing about Mac automation, the command line, and passwords (to pick just a few examples) is loads of fun. I’ve discovered that I especially like writing about topics that involve experimenting and learning entirely new skills. Speaking of which…

  • You learn by teaching. More than once I’ve agreed to write about a topic I didn’t understand well, because I knew that by figuring out how to explain it, I’d be forced to learn it thoroughly. Even when I think I understand something, trying to teach it to someone else makes me think about it in a different and deeper way.

  • They can’t all be winners. I’ve had best-selling books, but I’ve also had books that sold embarrassingly few copies and were commercial failures (notably “Take Control of Thanksgiving Dinner,” sigh). It’s not that the books weren’t good, but for whatever reason they failed to find their audience. Maybe the marketing was inadequate, maybe the timing was off, or maybe the topics weren’t interesting to the people we were able to reach. And although it’s always disappointing to put a lot of effort into something that doesn’t sell, I’ve stopped taking it personally. I write the best books I can and do what’s in my power to spread the word. Beyond
    that, it’s out of my control. Life is too short to get hung up on a project other people don’t love as much as I do. On to the next.

  • Take Control readers are great. I can’t tell you how many thousands of readers have written to me over the years. It would be a strange day indeed if I didn’t hear from at least a few. I’ve also had the privilege of meeting many of my readers at Macworld/iWorld, on MacMania cruises, at user group meetings, and at other conferences. With rare exceptions, the people who write to me about my Take Control books are intelligent, polite, and interesting — people I’m delighted to interact with. Readers ask great questions and make insightful suggestions that frequently find their way into updates of my books. And yet…

  • Inquiries often turn into tech support. As much as I enjoy talking to readers (and solving problems), I seem to have inadvertently given the public the impression that I offer free, unlimited tech support on any topic I’ve written about. It’s incredibly difficult to draw a line between “answering questions about this book” and “helping you solve specific problems related to the topic of this book.” And it’s frustrating because I don’t like saying no or turning anyone away, but I have only so many hours in my day — and I don’t get paid to answer email messages. (For perspective, if I were charging my regular rate for consulting, what I earned from that $15 book you bought would pay for about two minutes
    of my time.)

The Future — Take Control is constantly evolving and trying new things, and I’m sure it will look much different in five or ten years. I plan to keep on writing Take Control books for as long as the ratio of time to money makes sense. However, I have to say that writing books at this pace (and keeping a large selection of them updated over a period of years) is exhausting. Last year I wrote seven new Take Control titles, plus updates and new editions, and that’s just not sustainable — even for me.

So I’m trying to shift to an approach where I write fewer titles but work harder to sell more copies of each. Part of that is giving titles a longer shelf life by choosing topics that won’t go completely out of date with the next version of OS X. “Evergreen” titles like “Take Control of Your Online Privacy,” “Take Control of Your Passwords,” and “Take Control of Your Paperless Office” are becoming more attractive than those I know will be all but useless a year from now.

Along the same lines, I’m starting to favor platform-neutral books. Some titles will always be Apple-specific, but when I can write about something like passwords or the cloud in a way that anyone can benefit from, regardless of which devices they use, I give myself an opportunity to expand my audience that much more.

And, although marketing is not my idea of a good time, I’m trying to learn more about it and try new approaches to publicizing and advertising my books. If I could write a mere two or three books a year and sell enough copies to make a living, that would be a pretty relaxing pace for me!

I’m also branching out into new areas, such as my fledgling site Joe On Tech. My long-term plan is to use that site to attract readers that are outside the current demographic for TidBITS and Take Control.

Party On — By my rough count, I’ve sold about 196,000 Take Control books since 2003. I don’t have the patience to figure out how many unique customers that works out to, but let’s just say many tens of thousands. I wish I could invite all of them over to my house for a barbecue to celebrate Book #50, but since that might pose some wee logistical challenges, let’s do the next best thing and have a virtual party!

On Saturday, 23 May 2015, from roughly 10:45 AM to noon Pacific Daylight Time, I’ll be in a Google Hangout, to which you’re all invited. You’ll have to supply your own food and drinks, but I’ll provide what you might call “party favors” for all attendees. I’ll tell stories, show you some interesting artifacts, and answer questions about anything (Mac stuff, writing, food, my time in France, whatever). There will also be guest appearances from other TidBITS and Take Control personalities. If you’ve ever wanted to hang out and chat with a very slightly famous author, this is your golden opportunity.

To join the party (which you can sign up for ahead of time), go to Joe Kissell’s 50th Take Control Book Party on Google Hangouts On Air. Once there, you can click the Yes or Maybe buttons to indicate that you want to attend. We’re not entirely certain what happens after that, but we anticipate that Google will send you reminders if you sign up early. (If you don’t want to log in with a Google account, it seems that you can just start the video at the appropriate time, but you won’t be able to comment or ask questions.) It would be good to have Google Chrome installed (since it’s likely to work better than Safari or Firefox), and you’ll probably need the Hangouts plug-in, if you want to install that ahead of time. Once the party starts, click the triangular Play button on the video to join in, and you can click a grid-like icon at the top of the screen to reveal the Q&A app’s sidebar, from which you can ask and vote for questions.

And now, a coda about the confusing task of counting books.

A One, and a Two, and… — Although I’m comfortable saying I’ve written “over 50” books, I can’t give you an exact number. Counting my own books is a curiously difficult undertaking, especially when it comes to Take Control.

After my first book was published in 1996 (“The Nisus Way”), I could say unambiguously that I had written one book. (Unless you want to count “Arnold and Sam, the Two Dragons,” which I wrote when I was seven, or my Master’s thesis in Linguistics from 1991. We’ll ignore those.) My second conventional book (“Cyberdog: Live Objects on the Internet”) had a coauthor, so I wasn’t sure if I could claim to have written two books at that point, or 1.6 books. But by the time I’d written “50 Fast Mac OS X Techniques,” I felt that rounding up to a total of three was reasonable. (Add “Mac Security Bible” from 2010, and we’re at a solid four old-fashioned, printed books.)

When Take Control came along, we had a number of discussions about whether these newfangled ebooks (some of which were also available in print-on-demand form) even counted as “books” at all. Part of me wanted to downplay their significance; after all, there is a qualitative difference between a 600-page paper book put out by a major mainstream publisher and a 90-page PDF from a tiny, unknown publisher in Ithaca, NY. But the process of writing, editing, and publishing a Take Control ebook is almost identical to what I’d gone through with conventional books, the only difference being the very last step of how (or whether) the book is printed. The quality is arguably better, because a number of experts weigh in on the text before
it’s published. And length is irrelevant; just count the number of pages in a Dr. Seuss book! So I quickly came around to the position that Take Control titles are every bit as deserving of the term “book” as anything else I’d written.

Nevertheless, the math started to get weird almost immediately. When a Take Control book is updated, is the update a new book, or the same book? And, is the answer different depending on whether it’s a minor update or an entirely new edition? Does a translation of one of my books count as a new book? What if a couple of my Take Control ebooks are republished as a printed title from Peachpit (like “Take Control of Apple Mail” and “Real World Mac Maintenance and Backups”) — does that print title count as an additional book? What if Peachpit publishes a printed compilation that includes ebooks by myself and several others (like “Take Control of Panther, Volume 1” and “Take Control of Tiger”)? What if a new book is based
on an earlier one, but with a new title and heavily reworked contents (like “Take Control of Upgrading to _” and several others)? And what if a “book” is in fact a series of live video presentations, with a companion PDF that’s basically a list of notes and links (like “Take Control Live: Working with Your iPad”)?

So, you could pretty much pick any number and make a case that I’ve written that many Take Control books, but the way I came up with 50 was by counting distinct titles. Here they are, in the order in which they were published:

  1. Take Control of Upgrading to Panther
  2. Take Control of Spam with Apple Mail
  3. Take Control of Email with Apple Mail
  4. Take Control of Mac OS X Backups
  5. Take Control of Upgrading to Tiger
  6. Take Control of Now Up-to-Date & Contact
  7. Take Control of Apple Mail in Tiger
  8. Take Control of .Mac
  9. Take Control of Maintaining Your Mac
  10. Take Control of Running Windows on a Mac
  11. Take Control of Thanksgiving Dinner
  12. Take Control of Passwords in Mac OS X
  13. Take Control of Troubleshooting Your Mac
  14. Take Control of Upgrading to Leopard
  15. Take Control of Easy Backups in Leopard
  16. Take Control of Apple Mail in Leopard
  17. Take Control of MobileMe
  18. Take Control of VMware Fusion 2
  19. Take Control of the Mac Command Line with Terminal
  20. Take Control of Upgrading to Snow Leopard
  21. Take Control of VMware Fusion 3
  22. Take Control of Easy Mac Backups
  23. Take Control of Getting Started with DEVONthink 2
  24. Take Control of Apple Mail in Snow Leopard
  25. Take Control of Mail on the iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch
  26. Take Control Live: Working with Your iPad
  27. Take Control of Mail on the iPhone and iPod touch, iOS 4 Edition
  28. Take Control of Your Paperless Office
  29. Take Control of Speeding Up Your Mac
  30. Take Control of Upgrading to Lion
  31. Take Control of Backing Up Your Mac
  32. Take Control of iCloud
  33. Take Control of CrashPlan Backups
  34. Take Control of Apple Mail in Lion
  35. Take Control of Upgrading to Mountain Lion
  36. Take Control of Apple Mail in Mountain Lion
  37. Take Control of Calendar Syncing and Sharing with BusyCal
  38. Take Control of Your Passwords
  39. Take Control of Dropbox
  40. Take Control of Your Online Privacy
  41. Take Control of 1Password
  42. Take Control of Upgrading to Mavericks
  43. Take Control of Apple Mail
  44. Take Control of the Cloud
  45. Take Control of Automating Your Mac
  46. Take Control of Beta Testing Yosemite
  47. Take Control of FileVault
  48. Take Control of Upgrading to Yosemite
  49. Digital Sharing for Apple Users: A Take Control Crash Course
  50. Take Control of Security for Mac Users

And yes, I’m already working on Book #51! I have no idea how high this list will eventually go, only that I’m not planning to stop any time soon.

Hope to see you at the party on May 23rd!

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