Picture this: you might think my journey in publishing was a straight shot to the stars, all sunshine, and rainbows. Well, think again.
For the past two years, it’s been a whirlwind of non-stop writing, delivering manuscript after manuscript to Sams and McGraw-Hill. But amidst this frenzy, doubts began to creep in. Was this marathon of effort leading me to a treasure trove of success, or was I sprinting towards a cliff of colossal failure, possibly bankruptcy? The thoughts haunted me. Should I have stuck to college, delving into the world of Physics? What about starting a family? Life’s crossroads were never more bewildering.
In the midst of this personal and professional quandary, the 1980s were painting a tumultuous picture on the canvas of American history. It was a decade marked by the aftershocks of John Lennon’s assassination, the Soviet Union’s bold strides into Afghanistan, the explosive wrath of Mount St. Helens, Ronald Reagan’s presidential oath, and the world grappling with the onset of the HIV/AIDS crisis.
Yet, in this maelstrom of global chaos, the 80s were also the cradle of a technological renaissance. Amidst this digital revolution, I found myself not merely as a bystander but as a potential trailblazer in the narrative of computer technology. This era was a fascinating blend of chaos and promise, a dichotomy as challenging as it was intriguing.
On one hand, the world’s turmoil tempted me to retreat, to seek solace in the simplicity of a cabin in the woods. On the other, it was as if destiny had unfurled a path before me, one that promised not just success, but a journey of unprecedented creativity and innovation. Maybe I just had to learn to live with the turmoil.
And now this career rooted in authoring computer books, was undergoing a seismic shift.
Beyond Writing Books
No longer was I merely a writer; I had transformed into a wellspring of ideas and manuscripts, a machine producing content at a pace that left my primary publisher, Sams, scrambling to keep up. Each title was a testament to this new era of digital enlightenment, and here I stood at its helm, navigating through the storm of the 80s, while seeming to forge a legacy in the annals of publishing.
I reveled in this.
Surprisingly, my partnership with McGraw-Hill, involving a four-book deal, didn’t diminish Sams’ trust in me. Instead, it amplified their interest in my ideas. I discovered that having more than one publisher worked like dating woman, two at a time set up potential jealousies, which might not be good for intimacy but sure helped with creating demand for my books. I exercised a lot of caution as I did not want to get anyone angry with me or feel manipulated.
It took a while, but I found myself creating a different kind of publishing business. I was not printing books, so I was not really a true a full-blown publisher. Yet I was delivering everything a publisher needed: proposals, authors, manuscripts and hitting the deadlines I promised. In the industry such a task master was called a “packager.” But writing chapters I could only produce about 4 books a year. If this was my new future, I clearly needed more of a specialized team to get these products produced in quantity. The tech world calls this “scaling.” So, I set out to find associates and friends that could help me double or triple my output. I did not have to look far.
I began by recruiting friends who were computer nerds like me. Michael Pardee, who had been a loyal coauthor for many years, was growing tired of computer books. Plus, he was not that excited about the PCs future as I was. I needed fresh blood.
From Sea to Shining C
While searching for potential authors, an exciting area of software growth in the early 1980s was programming languages. Businesses were witnessing a renaissance when VisiCalc, created by Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston, was released in 1979 for the Apple II. Soon after, Lotus 1-2-3 was released by Lotus Development Corporation in 1983 for IBM PCs running DOS. These programs became indispensable tools in the workplace, and so programming these PCs opened up a very lucrative career path. So, I began searching for new and different computer languages on the scene. Then, in 1982, the Lattice C compiler danced onto the stage, and in 1983, Microsoft released their first C compiler. The C programming language was developed by Dennis Ritchie at Bell Laboratories between 1969 and 1973. It was designed primarily as a system programming language for writing operating systems, notably for the development of the UNIX operating system. C represented an evolution from earlier languages like B, BCPL, and ALGOL. Its design emphasized simplicity, efficiency, and flexibility, making it popular for a wide range of applications.
But C syntax was weird when compared to the simple BASIC language. It was cryptic, you needed a manual to understand it. It had all kinds of special characters to learn. But C compiled into super-fast code, almost as fast as assembly (machine) language. (Assembly language was the ultimate in primitive coding, you were talking directly with the processor chip.} Strangely this encouraged me, because I thought if C becomes popular because of its power, that means teaching it will be even more important, and this means good books should sell well for the next few years. Its greater complexity compared to BASIC was thus a benefit as it would challenge writers to make the subjects more accessible, and this was a skill I knew I had. At least was my hope.
I had 3 challenges: learn enough C to write an outline/proposal for a Primer, find an author and secure a publisher.
Calling All C Programmers
I was not a party animal, my group of friends was limited, so I reached out to people I knew were smart, and first up was my college professors. Don Martin, my physics professor when I started College of Marin, had shown a great deal of compassion, during a time I was trying to reboot my life. He had become a mentor which gave me a meaningful boost in the trust department that I had lost due to the death of my wife.
I approached Don Martin about helping me write a book on the C Programming Language, which was beginning to filter down from the Unix running in universities to the personal computer running in people’s homes. Don was reluctant, since he had never written a computer book. I showed him the series of successful books I’d written and sold, and with those results Don agreed to take a chance. Don Martin pointed out that if I wanted a manuscript in under 6 months, he would need help with the writing. He suggested an astronomy instructor, Steve Prata, to help. I had my doubts about Steve Prata, he was a man of few words, so it was hard to believe he could write to the level of beginners we focused on. But I was attempting to keep judgment out of the selection process and let the facts tell me the story, so I told Don Martin to see if he was interested and explain it’s a huge commitment. I was comfortable that Don could finish, after all he was an amazing instructor, one of the best at explaining complex concepts I had met.
A Writer’s Dilemma: Securing a Publisher
It took about week to get a C compiler running on my DOS microcomputer, teach myself how to program in C, and another week to put a proposal together. A week was not enough time to do a really deep dive into all the nuances of C, but with the help of a good trade books, I felt learned enough. Then I hit a wall.
All the four publishers I contacted turned down the idea for a book on C. The common refrain was “C is too complicated, it’s too much like assembly language, it’s too new and there are not enough people who want to learn it.” This was the first time I had hit a wall selling a book idea, and I did not know what to do next.
So, I followed my mantra at the time, “when in doubt, move a pawn.” Which means start small and move up the latter. I started by tracking down sales of the Kerrigan and Richie book, which turned out to be over 100,000 copies in just 6 months. Then I visited a few universities and interviewed progressor’s teaching computer science. What I found was sobering. First, they had been teaching C along with courses on using Unix for many years and the courses were growing in student size. Second, they all agreed that C was the perfect computer language, because C produces highly efficient code, provides low-level access to memory and system processes, can easily be moved to different machines, has a minimalistic set of keywords and so is not overly complex, supports modular programming, and has a rich set of built-in functions and operators that can be used to write complex programs. Most importantly C had wide acceptance and a rich developer community: They all agreed C would soon filter down from time sharing minicomputers in universities to microcomputers in people’s homes.
Armed with these powerful selling points, I rewrote my proposal, and made a presentation to Sams, who I had left out of the sales attempt because I was trying to slow down my dependence on them. Janet, the new marketing directory, loved the proposal, and we were almost off to the races. I just needed to negotiate the royalty and advance.
Around this same time, I was more convinced than ever that there was a future in computer book “packaging,” which is what I was doing, and mainly because sales of my books kept going up, publishers were contacting me to write new books, I was getting better at delivering, and computer tech was booming. I also saw my competition was heating up, in fact a few pubs had already copied the ideas of my successful books. How could I differentiate our unique approach and band of excellent writers? Essentially, I wanted to know how to make our books stand out from the onslaught that was coming. It took someone who knew nothing about books to give me the answer.
The Brand-New Answer
Enter Bobbi-Lee, the woman who captured my heart. An artist with an edgy sense of humor, she was a whirlwind of contrasts. One day she walked into her mom’s houseboat on the Greenbrae Boardwalk while I was appreciating her newest oil paintings. Bobbi was also an artist, and I easily connected with that creative part of her. The only discordant was the way she dressed like a hippy flower child from the 60s, beads in her hair, a granny dress with paisley prints. I was so in absorbed in writing C Primer Plus, and I didn’t see her again. Months later a woman walked towards me on the boardwalk, dressed to the nines, and as she got closer, I saw a shapely blond in a tight black mini skirt, with lots of leg showing. My blood simmered. When she was about five feet away, I realized it was Bobbi, who had undergone some sort of transformation that could put her on the cover of Vogue. She’d found working as a waitress didn’t cut it, and had a new job in Sausalito, working for a computer start up. Hence, she had to dress the part. She had me at “computer startup” — I was smitten.
We started dating. One day over lunch I explained my struggle getting our books to stand out from the competition. She pointed out all the ways that companies distinguish themselves: labels, logos, unique names. She concluded, “You need to sell your writing process as a brand, how about some kind of logo for the book.”
And that was the eureka moment! Design a logo for “The Waite Group” name and negotiate it into each book contract. The logo would need to not distract from the title, or the publisher, but rather confirm the title was the right one by making it more legitimate. I found a designer who suggested a penned script rather than block letters, so it looks like a signature. We mocked up the C Primer Plus book cover with the logo and sent it to Janet at Sams, with a note that this was the idea we had to distinguish our Primers.
Again, Janet the marketing director, she thought it was fine, but had to sell it to the conservative board, which turned into a battle. The old geezers felt our logo distracted from the Sams name as the publisher. The more progressive folks said people don’t care who publishes the book, it’s the authors that matter. Youth won out and the logo was approved. The logo became more than just an emblem; it symbolized our identity in the publishing world. I was liking Sams more and more.
Now Write the Book…Please
Getting a finished manuscript proved to have its own twists and turns, welcoming me into the role of not just editorial advisor but now dealing with writer’s personality quirks. Little did I know how much ego was involved in writing a book, and that solutions would require skills I did not yet process.
I expected Don’s chapter to be as great as his lectures, but for Steve, I assumed I’d be working a lot to fix his output. Just the opposite happened. Steve’s chapters were eloquent, fun to read, informative and perfectly paced. His included quizzes were thought provoking. I was impressed. Don on the other hand gave me half his quota and it was difficult to plow though. It had all the right information, but pace was jerky, the examples boring. Now what to do?
I tried getting Don to speed up and write like Steve, but that didn’t work. I proposed giving Steve’s most of my 1/3 of the chapters, so he had close to 2/3 of the book and Don had 1/3. I also suggested that Steve edit Don’s chapters to get them consistent with his own style. There were bruised egos at first, but Don got over his lack of speed, Steve accepted he had more work to do. Adjusting workloads and styles, we finally found our rhythm.
I managed to talk Sams into using cartons from Robert Gumpertz in the book and a including fold up C Reference Card in the back.
The logo on the books was a strategic move that paid off in unexpected ways. The inclusion of the logo on our book covers had a lasting impact. It wasn’t long before readers started seeing The Waite Group as more than authors – we were a brand.
The book’s release was nothing short of a triumph, solidifying our place in the world of computer language books. That year, my income skyrocketed, and the path ahead was brimming with opportunities.