This month I speak with renowned writer Steven Schwartz, author of such books as Macworld FileMaker Pro 3.0 Bible, 1996; FileMaker Pro 4.0 Bible, 1997 (cross-platform), Macworld ClarisWorks 4.0 Bible, 1995, Macworld ClarisWorks Office Bible, 1997, The Lord of the Rings Official Game Secrets, 1994 and Parent’s Guide to Video Games, 1994, to name a few.
So, if you’ve been wondering what it’s like to be a writer,
Steve Schwartz will take the time to fill you in. Relax, sit
back and enjoy your visit to Lizard Spit, Arizona with Steve.
Oh, and the picture to the right is a shot of Steve as he relaxes
between writing books and being interviewed by My Mac.
My Mac: Can you provide our readers with some background on yourself, your work and how you first became involved with the Mac?
Steve: I started with computers-mainframes, actually-when I was in grad school in the early 1970s. As a would-be research psychologist, I didn’t like the idea of handing my data over to a computer expert and simply hoping that he/she knew how I wanted the statistical analyses done. I taught myself SPSS and BMD (two popular stats packages) and soon found myself analyzing all my classmates’ data for them.
In 1978, I purchased my first micro-an Apple II Plus. Determined to find some way to make some money with it, I started writing for many of the early micro magazines, such as Nibble, inCider, and Popular Computing.
I have been with Macs since the beginning. I was hired in the mid-1980s by Software Digest (a software review book/newsletter) to be the Editor-in-Chief for a Mac publication. Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough software in any category to warrant comparative reviews, so I became the PC editor. In 1985, I joined Funk Software (a small PC utility company in
Cambridge) as its Technical Services Director (technical support, quality assurance, documentation, contract programmer management, etc.). Since I wanted to continue writing for the computer magazines, I decided that I could avoid a conflict of interest by writing exclusively about Apple II and Mac products.
I have written for many of the major Mac magazines (several — such as MACazine — have long since disappeared) and have been a regular contributor to Macworld since the early days.
My Mac: How did you get started writing books for and about Macs? How many books have you written?
Steve: I’ve been writing articles for computer mags about Mac hardware and software since shortly after the Mac was introduced. It was a simple decision for me to switch from writing about the Apple II to the Mac.
To date I’ve written about 35 books (including translations). Half of those were game strategy guides for the Mac, PC, and various video game systems. After the game book market took a decided turn for the worse, it was only natural that I turn to computer titles. For the Mac, I’ve written two titles for Macmillan/Prentice Hall (“9-to-5 Mac” and “Help! The Mac Answer Book“) and two best-selling series for ClarisWorks and FileMaker Pro (“Macworld ClarisWorks Bible” and “FileMaker Pro Bible“). There have been about 8 editions of the last two titles and the FileMaker Pro Bible has recently gone cross-platform.
My Mac: What type of Mac do you use at work and at home?
Steve: I use a Radius 81/110 for all my writing, DTP work, and software testing. While it’s no longer the speediest machine on the planet, it suffices for the type of work I do. I use a PC for all Internet-related computing and for game playing. (I only trust Macs for my REAL work.)
My Mac: What are your favorite pieces of shareware/freeware that you would consider essential for Mac users?
Steve: Of all the shareware/freeware programs I have, I use ZTerm the most. Because I now work cross-platform and am too lazy to set up a network, I’ve run a serial cable between my Mac and PC and use a pair of communications programs to shuttle files between the machines (ZTerm and HyperTerminal). And although I’m not a big fan of Microsoft, I am very grateful that they saw fit to give us this lovely Internet software (Internet Explorer and Mail).
My Mac: What are your favorite software programs? Why?
Steve: I’m very partial to Photoshop. I’m no graphics wizard but find it invaluable for cleaning up screen shots and working with Web graphics. I use Microsoft Word and PageMaker for creating my books. Word’s styles import nicely into PageMaker, so it makes the task of writing a lot easier for me. I use InControl (now defunct) to track my progress and Capture (Mainstay) for screen shots.
My Mac: What would you consider to be the “ideal” Mac for you?
Steve: I’m ready for a G3 RIGHT NOW!!! I also miss my dual monitor setup (there’s no room on my work table for a second monitor). Beyond that, I consider the following equipment essential to an ideal Mac setup: a CD burner; a fast tape backup system; an optical or Zip drive for chapter submissions; a Kensington Turbo Mouse; a scanner; a LOT of hard disk space (6GB or more); and 40-100MB of RAM. I’m also due for a new printer. I’d really like a 600 dpi laser with duplex printing. For Internet work, I could also use a faster modem, ISDN, or my own T1 line (classify this as “wishful thinking”).
My Mac: Can you explain to our readers how you get the ideas on what to write about and how you go about preparing and then writing the book?
Steve: When I first started writing books, I specifically chose topics that held great interest for me-assuming that others shared those same interests. I quickly discovered that this is an excellent way to starve. Now, I try to focus more on fulfilling what I perceive to be major user needs; i.e., I’m “market driven.” With the current move by many software companies to omit manuals from their products, for example, there is a real need for easy-to-follow books that explain in depth how a program works, what its features do, why you would use one feature rather than another to accomplish a particular task, and so on. In most cases, help files are no substitute for decent documentation. And if there’s no documentation at all, this is often a great reason to write a book.
Whether I am writing a software or game book, the process is always basically the same. I start by beating the program to death. I try out every feature and work through all the existing documentation (manual, tutorials, and help files)-exactly the same as if I were reviewing it for a magazine. The difference, however, is that I want to discover more than how the program works. I want to understand WHY you would use particular features in a given situation, how the features work together, and so on. Understanding a program entails much more than simply knowing how each feature works.
The next step is to figure out how to best organize the material (preparing a tentative table of contents). Finally, I begin the actual writing. Although I tend to do one chapter at a time, I do not write them in any particular order. I find that it’s easier for me to write about whatever I am interested in at the moment than to write the book in chapter order.
My Mac: What was the hardest book for you to write? The easiest? Why?
Steve: The hardest book for me to write was an early Mac business computing title called “The 9-to-5 Mac.” It was actually a fun book to write because it let me learn about and discuss over 100 major programs of the day (and I LOVE playing with software). The hard part was the fact that the publisher was using work-for-hire editors (rather than in-house personnel), and they kept quitting to pursue other lines of work. Over the course of the project, I ended up with seven different editors-and each wanted the book to have a completely different tone/style. Thus, I had to completely rewrite and re-edit the book for all seven editors. Rather than taking four months to write, the personnel changes made it drag out for more than seven months. Since a writer’s advance money doesn’t typically changes after the contract is signed, I received two month’s income for seven month’s work. This scenario is a writer’s worst nightmare. [Shouldn’t that be ‘four’ months income?]
The easiest book I ever wrote was “Help! The Mac Answer Book”- coincidentally, for the same publisher. It was a troubleshooting guide for novice Mac users. Because I was a tech support director for five years and had been writing about Mac software and hardware since close to the Mac’s beginnings, I was able to write most of the book off the top of my head. Unlike the typical computer book (which normally takes months to write), I completed the entire manuscript in three weeks.
My Mac: If you could, what would you really want to write about? Why?
Steve: For the last 9 months, I’ve been trying to interest a publisher in a book on chat (on the Internet). Even with all the attention that the media has given to chat and the fact that it is one of the hottest Internet topics, I haven’t been able to convince a publisher that there is a market for such a book.
In general, it’s easier for me to write about topics that I am enthusiastic about, but as a writer with 20 years of experience, I can write about virtually anything at this point.
My Mac: If you were able to collaborate with any writer, who would it be and what would you write about?
Steve: Out of 35 books, I’ve had co-authors or co-writers on only three that I can recall. Because people’s writing styles can differ dramatically and having co-authors/co-writers can be a management nightmare, I prefer to work alone.
If I WERE to collaborate on another title, it would likely be on some topic that I was weak in-where the co-author could provide some strength/material that I could not.
My Mac: What would you like to see developed for writers, software or hardware-wise, that would assist you in doing your job?
Steve: I’m pretty satisfied with the writing tools that are available now. The days of waiting for a word processor to catch up with a fast typist and entering control codes to turn boldface off and on are long past. All I really dream about is a hardware/software combo that doesn’t crash at the most inopportune times. There’s nothing more upsetting than losing a chapter (or even a paragraph) of carefully crafted text to a software or hardware glitch.
My Mac: Would you be interested in the development of better speech-to-text software?
Steve: I hadn’t really thought about it. Although it would be wonderful to be able to speak my manuscript rather than type it, I’d like to see a speech recognition program (or even a word processor) that also could do a decent job of handling grammar and punctuation.
My Mac: With all the typing that you do, how do you keep from suffering from repetitive stress syndrome or fatigue?
Steve: The nice thing about writing computer books is that it is NOT a continuous process. Although I may put in 12-14 hours a day, 7 days a week at my computer, I do not type non-stop. Between taking screen shots, jumping between my word processing program and the software I’m writing about, and roaming my house in search of coffee, there are enough breaks so that repetitive stress syndrome is not an issue.
My Mac: With your background on both sides of the computing world, what are the pros and cons of each platform as you have experienced them?
Steve: Because of its greater stability, ease of use, and simplicity of troubleshooting, I prefer using a Mac for all critical work. I write and lay out all my books on a Mac-regardless of whether it’s a Mac, PC, or video game book.
The bottom line is that I don’t rely on PCs for serious work. The design of Windows makes it virtually impossible to troubleshoot many problems. Do I really want to entrust my living to a machine where the typical fix for problems is to reformat your hard disk, reinstall Windows, and then reinstall every program you own (hoping, in the process, that you don’t also mistakenly reinstall a program that caused the problem)? While PCs have decidedly superior Internet software and games, neither of these benefits are sufficient to make me want to use them for business computing.
My Mac: What direction do you believe computing is headed for?
Steve: At the moment, we’re clearly headed for an all-Windows world. Although there are still a wealth of impressive Mac apps out there and currently in development, it’s getting tougher and tougher for developers to ignore the size of the Windows market. As a predominantly Mac writer, I’ve even started doing Windows books.
Don’t misunderstand me… I don’t LIKE the direction in which computing is heading, but I can’t ignore it. As long as users are willing to accept buggy software resting upon a flaky, poorly-designed operating system, we will continue down the same path. Whoever thought that there would come a time when we would accept as a matter of course that our computers would regularly crash, that we would lose data, and that poorly documented (or undocumented) programs would be the norm? I really pity the new Windows user.
My Mac: Your thoughts on Apple?
Steve: I truly hope that a few years from now Apple hasn’t faded from existence. I LIKE having a choice of platforms.
My Mac: If you had it to do all over again, would you do the same or follow a different path?
Steve: This may sound funny, but I sometimes wish my second book (COMPUTE’s Guide to Nintendo Games) hadn’t been a best-seller. Based on the royalties that it generated, I made the assumption that most of my subsequent books would do as well. As a result, I severely over-estimated the income potential of the typical computer book. I don’t have any industry statistics, but I suspect that fewer than one out of every 15-20 computer books actually earns an author additional money beyond the advance.
If I had it to do over again, I might have put off the switch to full-time writing for an extra year or two. That would have given me time to see what kind of income the TYPICAL book generated. If I had done that, I might have stuck to writing as a sideline rather than as a full-time career.
[Writing, on the other hand, has many benefits over a normal 9-to-5 job. You do set your own hours (although you also get the chance to work 14 hours a day) and are shielded from company politics.]
My Mac: For all the aspiring authors out there reading this, what words of advice can you offer them?
Steve: Writing is a tough business in which to make a living. I spent many years establishing myself as a writer (doing articles for various computer mags) before tackling my first book. If I had been relying on writing income to sustain me, I would have starved-even in the best of those early years.
The smartest way to get into writing is still by doing articles on the side- whether for a computer magazine, Net magazine, or a local users’ group. Establish yourself as knowledgeable and dependable, and consider whatever writing income you generate as a bonus. And before you take on a computer book, you should be well-versed in the craft of writing. It takes a lot of words to fill a 700-page book!
My Mac: Steve, thanks for taking the time out of your work to sit and chat with us for awhile.
For those of you interested in finding out more about Steve Schwartz, his work and the fictional town of Lizard Spit, visit his home web page at http://www.interworldnet.net/users/sschwartz. You can also email Steve at
Here’s a listing of some of the books that Steve has written:
Peachpit Press (Berkeley, CA)
Internet Explorer 3 for Windows: Visual QuickStart Guide, 1996
Quicken 6 for Windows: Visual QuickStart Guide, 1997
IDG Books Worldwide (San Mateo, CA)
FileMaker Pro 4.0 Bible, 1997 (cross-platform)
Macworld FileMaker Pro 3.0 Bible, 1996
Macworld FileMaker Pro 2.0/2.1 Bible, 1994
Macworld ClarisWorks Office Bible, 1997
Macworld ClarisWorks 4.0 Bible, 1995
Macworld ClarisWorks 3.0 Companion, 3rd Edition, 1995
Macworld ClarisWorks 2.0/2.1 Companion, 1994
Macworld Guide to ClarisWorks 2, 1993
Sirius Publishing (Scottsdale, AZ)
Treasure Quest: The Official Resource Guide, 1996
Prima Books (Roseville, CA)
Dust: A Tale of the Wired West-The Official Strategy Guide, 1995
Alone in the Dark 3: The Official Strategy Guide, 1995
Shadow of the Comet: The Official Strategy Guide, 1994
Virtual Bart Official Game Secrets, 1994
The Lord of the Rings Official Game Secrets, 1994
Parent’s Guide to Video Games, 1994
Return to Zork Adventurer’s Guide, 1993