Careers: Interviews
Internationally known and widely respected author, writer, consultant...

This week, Stephen Ibaraki, ISP, has an exclusive interview with Michael Miller, an internationally known and widely respected author, writer, consultant, and president of The Molehill Group (molehillgroup.com), a strategic consulting and authoring firm based in Carmel Indiana.

 

Michael, with a reputation for technical accuracy, and clarity, has more than 50 books to his credit.

 

Discussion:

 

Q: Michael, we appreciate you taking the time to do this interview.

 

A: Thank you for asking.

 

Q: You have a most interesting background. Detail the challenges you faced and your many successes.

 

A: I entered the publishing business back in 1987, when I joined Que Corporation, the publisher of what was then the best-selling computer book in history, Using 1-2-3. I joined Que as a copywriter, and stayed with and advanced within the company as it grew and was acquired by larger publishing companies. I eventually ended up as part of the senior management team for Macmillan Publishing, which in the mid-1990s was the world’s largest trade reference publisher.

 

I had been with Que for about a year when I was asked to be a technical editor on an upcoming book. (Technical editors read through a manuscript to make sure that it’s technically accurate – that all the keystrokes and mouse clicks work as described.) I did this, in my spare time, and found I liked it – and, more important, the editors liked my work. One thing led to another, and I soon started writing books of my own. (Totally freelance, of course; I still had my day job in publishing management.) My first book, Ventura Publisher Techniques and Applications (does anybody remember Venture Publisher?) was published in 1989, and I ended writing about two books a year over the next decade.

 

In January of 1999, after the company had been acquired for yet another time, I decided to leave and pursue a full-time writing career. In the five years or so since then, I’ve written about a half-dozen books each year, on a number of topics – computers, the Internet, music, and business. I’m fortunate to be able to make a living doing something I enjoy, and to be able to write about such a wide variety of different topics.

 

Q: Are there books that you are particularly proud of—what are their major themes?

 

A: I like all my books, of course, and heartily recommend every single one of them! A few do stand out, however — particularly my music books.

 

For example, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Playing Drums has turned out to be one of the best-selling drum books of all time. This book was a real gas to write, a lot of fun. In addition to providing basic percussion information and instruction, I got the opportunity to interview one of my long-time heroes, legendary session drummer Hal Blaine. That was a real treat, something I’ll treasure for the rest of my years.

 

Another music book, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Music Theory, was a real surprise success. I wasn’t sure there was a big audience for this book, but it’s sold so well it’s now one of the top ten books in the entire music category. I take great pride in helping so many young (and not-so-young) musicians expand their musical vocabulary and acquire the basic skills they need to advance in the world of music.

 

One of my most unique books — and best pieces of writing, IMHO — is Management Secrets of the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. This book showed what you can learn about business management from watching old Western movies. (Really!) During the course of writing the book, I had to watch more than fifty great old Westerns – everything from Stagecoach to Red River to The Wild Bunch. That was a real treat! I just pulled out a copy and gave it a new read through the other day, and I really liked my writing on this one; it’s as much a movie book as it is a business book. Unfortunately, this book is now hard to come by, as the publisher (Canadian publisher Stewart House) went bankrupt shortly after the book was released. (Not my fault!) You can still find copies in some Canadian bookstores and on Amazon, however.

 

Of course, I’m extremely proud of all my computer and Internet books. My books in the Absolute Beginner’s Guide series are all doing quite well, and I enjoy showing the average user how to get the most out of their computer hardware and software. In particular, I recommend Absolute Beginner’s Guide to eBay for anyone buying or selling in online auctions; I have a more advanced book, Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Launching an eBay Business coming out later this year for really serious eBay sellers.

 

I apparently have a talent for explaining relatively complex topics in a way that the average reader can understand. I enjoy using that talent to help people with whatever their needs might be at the moment.

 

Q: Writing is an interesting profession. You are one of the most prolific authors. How can a novice get into writing, what important lessons have you learned, and do you have shortcuts to speed up the process?

 

A: I can only speak for non-fiction writing; the world of fiction publishing is a completely different beast! With non-fiction writing, it’s important to be accurate, concise, and clear. Use easy-to-understand language, and explain things in a step-by-step, logical fashion. Don’t include anything that the reader doesn’t need to know, or that gets in the way of explaining the important points. And, above all else, make sure you think like the reader. You’re not writing for your own benefit; you’re writing for the reader. You have to put yourself in the reader’s shoes, figure out what they know and what they don’t, and be sympathetic to the difficulties they might encounter.

 

Getting into non-fiction writing is simple – just do it! I’ve met a lot of people who, when they discover what I do for a living, say “I’ve always wanted to write a book…” Well, writing isn’t for everybody; it’s a solitary profession, and you need a lot of self-discipline. But if you’re going to write, there’s nothing that can stop you from doing so. Just sit down with your computer, block out the time, and get to it. If you want to, you can.

 

Breaking into the business is another matter. As with all professions, it helps to have contacts. In my case, my contacts were just down the hall – it won’t be that easy for everyone. However, the path I took – starting as a technical editor – is a good approach. You can also get your foot in the door via copyediting or reviewing, anything to get your name known and to show publishers that you’re dependable and do good work.

 

If you have an idea for a book, look for a publisher that specializes in that kind of book, and then pitch it to an acquisition editor there. (You can find the editors’ names in the front of most books.) But do your homework — try to determine how big the market is for a particular topic, and definitely do something to distinguish your proposed book from other similar books already on the market. The world doesn’t need an umpteenth beginning-level Windows XP book — unless there’s something really unique about it!

 

Q: Why did your write, “Absolute Beginner’s Guide To Upgrading and Fixing Your PC?” Please share some tips from the book.

 

A: Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Upgrading and Fixing Your PC is actually the latest in a long series of “troubleshooting” books I’ve written over the years. The first book was written back in 1991; it was titled Oops! What to Do When Your Computer Goes Wrong. It was a strong seller in its day, and stayed around through three editions and a series of spin-off titles. In 1999 I revisited the topic for a book titled The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Fixing Your @#$! PC. So this new book is a kind of spiritual successor to all those books, with the inclusion of upgrading material as a bonus.

 

My biggest upgrading tip is a simple one – use USB! In the old days (not that long ago, actually), upgrading your PC entailed opening up the system case and installing an add-on card of some sort. Not all that easy, especially for the technically disinclined, and prone to all sorts of problems. Today, fortunately, upgrading is a lot easier. Most recent computers come with multiple USB ports, and adding a new USB-compatible peripheral is as easy as plugging it into an open USB port. Your computer and Windows should automatically recognize the new device, with little or no manual configuration necessary. In most cases, you don’t even have to reboot your PC! So if you’re planning an upgrade, go with a USB-compatible device, if you can. It’s really easy.

 

My big troubleshooting tip is equally simple. Believe it or not, most computer problems arise from user error. Not bugs, not viruses, not broken hardware, but plain old user error. So if your computer is acting funny in some way, think back through what you’ve done recently, and – if you can – undo it. That might mean uninstalling a piece of hardware or software, or just rebooting your PC. If you’re running Windows XP, use the System Restore utility to restore Windows to a previous condition before the problem cropped up. In other words, think “undo.”

 

Q: How can you determine if your PC needs an upgrade?

 

A: It’s simple. You need to upgrade – or, in some instances, replace – your PC when it can’t do what you want it to do. Whatever that might be. If your computer is doing its job, you don’t need to upgrade it.

 

Q: Can businesses and users extend the life of their PC investments?

 

A: Of course. Actually, most computers sold in the past 2-3 years, even the lowest-priced models, are more than powerful enough to run today’s most common applications – and should remain usable for several years to come. You don’t need a state-of-the-art multi-gigahertz computer to surf the Web and write letters in Microsoft Word – or even to download digital music and burn your own CDs. The most minimally configured PC has more than enough horsepower to perform these common tasks.

 

Most users only need to upgrade if they’re getting into digital video editing or if they play the latest high-octane PC games. (It’s funny that the most demanding PC applications today are games!) In fact, what most users perceive as a “slow PC” problem is actually the result of a slow Internet connection – and upgrading your PC won’t speed up your Internet connection! Better to spend the money on broadband DSL or cable Internet service; you’ll see some real bang for your bucks there.

 

Q: You must have both interesting and funny stories to tell from your many rich experiences—please share a few.

 

A: My favorite story concerns my brother, who is certainly not technically illiterate, but neither is he what you’d call a power user. He’s just your average computer user – who calls me up about once a month with some problem or another. He’s called me three times now with problems that we’ve tracked down to be caused by computer viruses, which he activated by clicking on attachments to e-mail messages. I keep telling him not to click on those attachments, but he keeps on doing it! I think he’s fairly typical in that regard; again, it’s our own behavior that causes a lot of our computer problems!

 

Q: What are the major hardware, operating system and application technologies today and can you predict the trends for the future? Who will win the battles?

 

A: The world of computer technology is a lot less vibrant today than it was a decade ago, when there were new software releases every 9 months or so; things have settled down a lot, which is probably a good thing for most users. Today’s major technologies are all Microsoft-based; it’s Windows XP and Microsoft Office and Internet Explorer, and there aren’t any real competitors, in spite of what some of the technogeeks in the trade press might wish. (Sorry, Apple and Linux users; the war is over – and Microsoft won!) As to who will win the future battles – it’s never a good idea to bet against Microsoft, as history as proven. Like it or not, the folks in Seattle know how to build products that a lot of people like.

 

I’m never good at predicting new technology trends, other than computers will keep getting faster and cheaper, and Microsoft will keep tossing in more obscure features into their software. I think it’s also a safe bet to say that wireless connectivity will become much more important over time, which means instant Internet wherever you are. How much you’ll have to pay for that wireless access, however, remains to be seen.

 

Q: Which resources do you find the most useful?

 

A: I just keep my eyes and ears open, and remain eternally curious. Every morning I visit CNET’s News.com Web site (www.news.com), as well as Wired News (www.wired.com/news/), and those two sites keep me up-to-date on most important technological developments. I don’t visit the real technogeeky sites; frankly, the super-technical “inside” developments don’t affect those of us in the real world all that much. I’m much more interested in how technology affects the average consumer – the folks I write books for.

 

Q: What drives you to do what you do? 

 

A: I like to write!

 

Q: If you were doing this interview, what five questions would you ask of someone in your position and what would be your answers?

 

A: I’m a writer, not a journalist. I’m not that good at asking questions like this!

 

Q: Do you have any more comments to add?

 

A: Readers can learn more about my current and upcoming books at my Web site, www.molehillgroup.com.

 

Q: Thank you again for sharing you valued knowledge and experiences.

 

A:  Again, thanks for asking me!

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