Internationally known and widely respected author, writer,
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.
Michael, we appreciate you taking the time to do this interview.
Thank you for asking.
have a most interesting background. Detail the challenges you faced
and your many successes.
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.
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.
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.
there books that you are particularly proud of—what are their major
like all my books, of course, and heartily recommend every single
one of them! A few do stand out, however — particularly my music
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.
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.
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,
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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!
did your write, “Absolute Beginner’s Guide To Upgrading and Fixing
Your PC?” Please share some tips from the book.
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.
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.
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.”
can you determine if your PC needs an upgrade?
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.
businesses and users extend the life of their PC investments?
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.
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.
must have both interesting and funny stories to tell from your many
rich experiences—please share a few.
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!
are the major hardware, operating system and application
technologies today and can you predict the trends for the future?
Who will win the battles?
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.
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.
Which resources do you find the most useful?
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.
drives you to do what you do?
like to write!
you were doing this interview, what five questions would you ask of
someone in your position and what would be your answers?
a writer, not a journalist. I’m not that good at asking questions
you have any more comments to add?
Readers can learn more about my current and upcoming books at my Web
Thank you again for sharing you valued knowledge and experiences.
Again, thanks for asking me!