If You Think Poker’s Risky, Try Writing Computer Books

Yesterday was the tenth anniversary of the publication of Special Edition Using Macromedia Flash 5, the book that put a cap in the eye of my career as an author of multimedia programming texts.

I’d gotten off to a bang with my Shockwave book six years earlier. It was the only book that I feel was an actual success (for me, if not for the publisher). It was supposed to be followed by a sequel that followed up on the improvements in Shockwave over the next eighteen months, but that was cancelled and my approach to a dictionary of Shockwave Lingo terms in that book turned into The Lingo Programmers Reference—probably the single most-well-received work I ever did—but which had the bad timing to hit the streets about the time the publisher was being consolidated into a new company. The birth of that monster book was difficult, I had to delve into Lingo I’d never used and try to figure out what it actually did. It went over schedule, the computer book publishers were already tightening up advances due to a glut of material, so what I was paid before publication was a lot less than I had on the Shockwave book and I never saw any royalties after publication.

My literary agent proffered me the chance to write the first official book on Flash, from Macromedia Press (he was representing them). It was a flat fee, no royalties were to be paid, it was the hot new technology. Macromedia had just bought Flash, and it was more of a design and animation tool than a programming platform at the time, so I wasn’t exactly the person you’d think of to write it, but I needed money after months of working on LPR for no return. But I found the Flash book demoralizing. I’m not a designer or an animator—at least not in any sense that really counts—and the samples I was producing looked like crap compared to the material out in the wild. Still the book probably sold more copies than anything else I ever did combined. Not that I was to see any of it. The publisher left my name on the Flash 3 version of the book but didn’t hire me to make the changes.

I worked on portions of a few other books, but the Flash 5 book was the last one I wrote more than a third of. It was supposed to be me and my office partner Peter Sylwester, with Pete handling the graphics and animation side of things and me doing programming, which had improved substantially over three years, but for various reason Pete had to leave the project and the publisher brought in Robert Cleveland to write the first half of the book. So far as I remember, I never met or even corresponded with Robert, or saw any of his material before the book shipped.

Every month for the past ten years, I’ve gotten a royalty statement from the publishing company’s parent. According to the most recent, the “Total Net Earnings Current Period” is -$658.70. That’s after ten years. The most recent statement month earned ninety-four cents. It was -$705.47 in January 2009. Just another data point in a graph of…something.