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:
- Take Control of Upgrading to Panther
- Take Control of Spam with Apple Mail
- Take Control of Email with Apple Mail
- Take Control of Mac OS X Backups
- Take Control of Upgrading to Tiger
- Take Control of Now Up-to-Date & Contact
- Take Control of Apple Mail in Tiger
- Take Control of .Mac
- Take Control of Maintaining Your Mac
- Take Control of Running Windows on a Mac
- Take Control of Thanksgiving Dinner
- Take Control of Passwords in Mac OS X
- Take Control of Troubleshooting Your Mac
- Take Control of Upgrading to Leopard
- Take Control of Easy Backups in Leopard
- Take Control of Apple Mail in Leopard
- Take Control of MobileMe
- Take Control of VMware Fusion 2
- Take Control of the Mac Command Line with Terminal
- Take Control of Upgrading to Snow Leopard
- Take Control of VMware Fusion 3
- Take Control of Easy Mac Backups
- Take Control of Getting Started with DEVONthink 2
- Take Control of Apple Mail in Snow Leopard
- Take Control of Mail on the iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch
- Take Control Live: Working with Your iPad
- Take Control of Mail on the iPhone and iPod touch, iOS 4 Edition
- Take Control of Your Paperless Office
- Take Control of Speeding Up Your Mac
- Take Control of Upgrading to Lion
- Take Control of Backing Up Your Mac
- Take Control of iCloud
- Take Control of CrashPlan Backups
- Take Control of Apple Mail in Lion
- Take Control of Upgrading to Mountain Lion
- Take Control of Apple Mail in Mountain Lion
- Take Control of Calendar Syncing and Sharing with BusyCal
- Take Control of Your Passwords
- Take Control of Dropbox
- Take Control of Your Online Privacy
- Take Control of 1Password
- Take Control of Upgrading to Mavericks
- Take Control of Apple Mail
- Take Control of the Cloud
- Take Control of Automating Your Mac
- Take Control of Beta Testing Yosemite
- Take Control of FileVault
- Take Control of Upgrading to Yosemite
- Digital Sharing for Apple Users: A Take Control Crash Course
- 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!
Thanks so much for your writing. I've gotten a ton of help from the CrashPlan, 1Password, and iOS mail ones, and others that I'm forgetting now. Congrats on this milestone, and I hope you find lots more enjoyment from writing (and other stuff) in years to come.
Thanks kindly! I'm so glad you've found the books helpful.
Joe, thanks for this wrap-up - and even more for your excellent books. Looking at the list, I was astonished to realize that I read most of them.
Here´s a quick question concerning your superpower: What is your favorite app for outlining? I´m just considering to buy Omni outliner..
I hope this isn't disappointing, but I outline in plain text. Sometimes in BBEdit, sometimes in Nisus Writer. I just use tabs. That's it. Copy/paste or drag/drop when necessary. No special keystrokes, fields, collapsing/expanding, promoting/demoting, or anything else. I find all those bells and whistles distracting rather than helpful.
And, after all, it IS a superpower, so I don't need the utility belt.
What I'm about to share obviously isn't Joe's favorite app, given his answer, but we've had serious trouble collaborating on outlines with other authors. Google Docs does them poorly at best, and until recently, we'd heard of nothing else that was any good. (OmniOutliner is great, but trading files around is so clumsy and last century.)
That said, a friend just turned me on to Workflowy, and I plan to try it the next time we need to collaborate on an outline.
I enjoyed working with you on the Now Up-to-Date & Contact book. I hope that wasn't too painful of a process!
Keep em coming!
People keep asking about that book—in fact, someone wrote to me about it just yesterday!
"His first 50 Take Control books"... without a hint of irony in the shiny-faced optimism that obviously there will be fifty more. Gotta love TidBITS.
I don't know that there will be 50 more (in fact, odds are against it, if I'm writing fewer books per year), but there will certainly be more than 50 :-).
One factor that doesn't come out in your article or the comments, one of the biggest reasons for your success is that you have the uncommon ability to make highly technical matters accessible to those of us who aren't so inclined for one reason or another. You do mention the organisation of your books, and the results ticks another box for me. It's logical and encourages the reader to keep going to the next topic. Good on ya' mate. I'm a fan and that's saying something for a cynical old fart like me.
That's very kind of you to say, thanks!
Great work, Joe! You are perfect for this career you've carved out for yourself. Did you know the New price on Amazon for 'Take Control of Apple Mail: Solve Problems, Work Smart, and End Spam' (Oct. 23, 2004) is $223.93! If all 50 of your books become valuable collectibles like that one you should start stockpiling them now. Sorry I can't make it to the online bash, but it would be nice to someday meet you in person.
Hahahaha. What a bizarre thing. I can't imagine anyone paying even $1 for that book at this point in time, since it's 10+ years out of date.
I hope we can run into each other some day.
I loved the Thanksgiving book. Guess I was the one who bought i? :)
Congrats and looking forward to #51.
Thanks! You weren't the only one who bought that book, but it didn't become anywhere near as popular as our other titles. #51 will be pretty good too :-).
A nice thing about the Thanksgiving book is that holidays change far more slowly than operating systems. In a few more years, sales from this title may catch up with a few of our other less popular titles. We did update the ebook at some point, not so much to change the content but to put it through a more advanced production process. That way, it now has a more polished look-and-feel for the EPUB and Mobipocket versions.
Unfortunately, the Thanksgiving book didn't have the same relevance to those of us outside North America.
Which leads me to a tangental thought: do you know what percentage of your sales have been outside the USA?
I've certainly bought many of your books with the most referenced one being the Paperless Office. I'm still working towards this utopia after several years of endeavour!
Anyway, just adding my congratulations (from Australia) on your work and success, and that of your Take Control host, TidBITS. It has of been great help to me.
For Take Control as a whole and for Joe in particular, 31% of our sales have been purchased by people in countries other than the United States.
Love your books Joe. Thanks much !
Also, mostly, I love your attitude towards technology, and towards life.
Thanks so much. I really appreciate that!
A reader asked us in email about whether the Google Hangout would have a problem because of supporting only ten people. In case anyone else is wondering about that, I wanted to clarify that since we'll be using Google's Hangouts On Air system, the number of people who can view the party should be unlimited. But, indeed, only ten people can broadcast. So, the broadcasters will be Joe and a few other Take Control people -- including myself!
Well, if I made an accurate count, I have 18 of your books. Keep up the good work and I look forward to more.
Thanks so much for your support!
Joe, you & Jeff Carlson are my 2 favorite gurus (Mac mavens?), especially since you've presented twice to my MUG, MacinTech. Your books are popular door prizes at club meetings & I often appreciate the help, too. Keep up the excellent work!
Thanks so much!
Joe, ever since I learned about TC in 2004, I have been buying their books. A few weren't very useful (like Thanksgiving Dinner, because I'm no cook; but I gave it to my son), but one thing was certain--Your book would always be highly valuable. You are my favorite author, by far. So, as long as it's fun, keep on writing. And thank you for your help the couple times I wrote you.
That's so kind of you to say. Thank you! (And…you're welcome!)
Well, I missed the hangout, but am still a happy subscriber to Tidbits and buying from TakeControl. It was the easiest way I learnt the Command Line, and now they are the first books I install on any of my devices.
Thanks for the great wisdom, you bestowed on us Joe, and here is to the next 50 TCBooks . . . .
PS: I have 11 books at last count. I was late to the OS X Family :)
Thanks so much for your support and your compliments!
Thank you, Joe.
I live in Japan and your books have helped me learn more about the Mac at my own pace. You are right about things not always being so intuitive is right on the mark. I am happy there is someone like you writing the how-to books and manuals that should be part of the package.
Best of luck with the next 50 titles.
That's very kind of you to say! May I quote you on my website?
Drat! I missed it. Congratulations! Keep writing, I don't know what I'd do without your insight. Printing the reflections to see just how many of the 50+ I actually have. ? I remain, your most avid, yet most silent fan.
You can still watch the video of the party here:
And, thanks for your support!
I understand perfectly about not wanting to become tech support! However (you knew there would be a however, didn't you) can you recommend someone to help me with a problem I'm having with an ebook I just did for my hubby that keeps crashing in iBooks? I'm willing to pay.
Grace, if you're creating an EPUB you might want to run it through the EPUB Validator at http://validator.idpf.org/
If it's in iBooks Author, Apple Support would be the best avenue to ask.