Charles Petzold on writing books, reading books, and exercising the internal UTM

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Big Changes for 2008

January 1, 2008
Roscoe, N.Y.

The year 2008 will probably witness the biggest changes in my professional life since 1985 — the year I left my job at New York Life Insurance Company to do full-time freelance writing for PC Magazine (and a little later, Microsoft Systems Journal and the first edition of Programming Windows).

Due to the extreme dwindling of the market for programming books — or at least the ones I write! — I can no longer rely on book royalties to keep me afloat. As of August, I have become available for consulting through Wintellect. Here's the press release announcing this news. If you need help with your WPF or WinForms programs, get in touch with them to work out the details.

I will still be writing books in my "spare time," of course, because that's what I like doing most of all. I hope to be lucky enough to be writing books for the rest of my life, and I hope to be correcting the pages of my last book on my deathbed. (I trust that even if the printed book dies, "non-fiction narratives of 50,000 words or longer" will still be viable forms of content provision.)

I suspect that the books I'll write in the future will not be programming books. Here's how I figure it: If I'm only going to make a tiny amount of money writing a book, I should probably be writing something with a potentially longer shelf-life than the typical programming book, and with possibly a broader audience, and offering greater challenges for me.

I am particularly interested in various aspects of the "pre-history" of computing — say from about the early 17th century up to 1940 — and I am most interested in writing books that explore episodes in this period from an historical, technological, mathematical, and philosophical perspective. I see the book that I'm finishing up this month, The Annotated Turing, as part of this enterprise, and I have ideas (and even chapters) for several other books along these lines.

One think I have to say about working in the computer industry: It never lets you get complacent!


I've enjoyed your programming books and owned nearly all of them.

I'm a bit sad that I likely won't be able to buy or read any more of your programming books.

I'm not much for history anymore (I don't mind reading excerpts, but longer stuff just isn't my cup of tea), so I probably won't be reading any of the new books you mention. (Sorry!)

Have you considered publishing smaller, more advanced e-books of some sort? There have been plenty of times that I'd nearly kill for an advanced WPF article on various topics -- but couldn't find anything of any quality. Real world topics are the most helpful to ISV and enterprise developers. Something in the 2.95 - 9.95 range per 3000-4000 words? Sort of the "beyond the basics" for WPF (or Windows Forms). Ah, just a thought.

Either way though, I wish you the best with your new endeavors.

Aaron, Tue, 1 Jan 2008 12:43:30 -0500 (EST)

Thanks, Aaron. What frightens me the most is that writing about a topic is a great way to learn it, and that's how I've learned the various Windows APIs over the years! How will I learn anything new if I'm not writing a book about it? (Maybe in bits and pieces like everyone else!)

I've thought about doing on-line tutorials and articles, but the money issue always stumps me. I personally don't like it when a Google search directs me to an article that I can't actually see unless I cough up some money, so I'm rather averse to doing that to other people! OTOH, I can't imagine that voluntary contributions would work either. The third option is papering my site with advertisements. As a resident of NYC (for most of the year) I already see a lot of my environment covered with ads, and I don't like seeing the web plastered with ads as well.

Who knows? Perhaps some brilliant publisher will come up with a way that lets me write a Silverlight book (for example) and pay my bills at the same time! — Charles

Mr. Petzold,

I am a big fan of your programming Windows books, but I'm also intrigued by the new direction you are taking and have already pre-ordered the Turing book from Amazon. (That said, I too would welcome the prospect of you continuing to write books about Windows technologies in the form of smaller, more advanced e-books.)

The Turing book appeals to me because I am interested in reading the foundational classics of science, but have found them hard to tackle without exposition targeted to the layman (e.g., something like this treatment of Newton's Principia:; or Smullyan on Gödel).

Curious to know what other works you might approach in similar fashion to Turing. Can you give us some idea? You can count on at least one buyer for these (maybe more than one, since I have been buying Code as a gift for friends and family).

— Ivan, Tue, 1 Jan 2008 14:42:59 -0500 (EST)

I have that book about Newton's Principia — another classic mathematics text that is almost impossible to read without some kind of guide. (Have you seen S. Chandrasekhar's Newton's Principia for the Common Reader? By "common reader" he means someone well versed in differential equations!)

Thanks for buying multiple copies of Code! I hope you'll be inclined to do the same with my future books, even if I can't discuss the specifics just yet. — Charles

I can see the computer technology genre is fading. Expansion of online forum documentation and api examples seems to be the current fashion.

Your Turing book is appealing to me as well. It seems to be in the category of John Derbyshire's "Prime Obsession" or "Unknown Quantity" which would fall into the math history for interested amateurs category. I somehow doubt that it is a very rich vein. Certainly not on the order of popular thrillers or literati novels, but very likely a broader appeal than "3D Programming for Windows." Math from a liberal arts orientation seems to attract popular authors so there must be a market. I'm thinking of David Berlinski for example.

randy, Tue, 1 Jan 2008 19:14:09 -0500 (EST)

Having another source of income besides book royalties is actually very liberating, because I don't have to worry about writing best sellers. I would surely prefer my books to sell lots of copies, but it's not as important as being pleased with what I've done — to have taken on a big challenge (and The Annotated Turing has been more challenging than I possibly could have imagined) and pretty much nailed it.

Unfortunately, I simply cannot make myself follow the "Stephen Hawking Rule," which is the one he claims a publisher told him about Brief History of Time: That every line of mathematics in the book halves the number of readers. Only one of my book ideas has no mathematics at all, but that one will have some rather complex engineering drawings. Oh, well! — Charles

Diversity is a good thing, but I have to say that as I read your post a bit of sadness crept into my heart.

The reason that I felt this is that I personally find in the software business, there's too much "whiz kid" marketing mentality that somehow promotes inexperience and youth over wisdom from experience and mastery of a subject.

The difference that I find in your books, over say a short blog from a more junior author or even an MSDN article from a seasoned professional, is both full coverage from the breadth of the text, but more importantly the long time depth of wisdom and mastery that your experience brings.

I for one believe that random quick and dirty software solutions just leaves dirty code. Such code will inevitably need to be followed by attempts to rewrite the deployed code to try to clean up the mess and in my opinion is the number one cause of unreadable code and the impression that code can't be made reliable.

Thus, in the end I feel that both the Microsoft development ecosystem and Microsoft developers lose when an experienced "Pioneer" fades into the background.

Maybe you should call up Bill G. and get a job with Microsoft as a book writing evangelist. If you do get him on the phone explain that to stop the defection of future alpha developers requires some nurturing from pioneers not just bigger IDE's.


— Anthony Tarlano, Wed, 2 Jan 2008 03:16:53 -0500 (EST)

Charles it will be a sad day when I cannot buy your books and tell junior programmers to read and code from them. You are trusted companion to my endeavours to see the world in paradigms. I look forward to reading your new works.

Happy new year

— Jason, Wed, 2 Jan 2008 05:56:11 -0500 (EST)

What are your thoughts in writing and publishing yourself in the form of PDF books?

— Rob FireGarden, Wed, 2 Jan 2008 19:31:22 -0500 (EST)

I self-published a free PDF called .NET Book Zero (available here). I get the impression it's popular. but I suspect that's a result of it being free. Whether I could actually charage money for something like that (and what the mechanism would be like) I have no idea. — Charles

Honestly, the best way to learn what might be valuable in a shorter-form e-book, PDF, etc., will probably be consulting jobs. It's such a great eye-opening opportunity to see what developers are encountering, what problems they're facing, and maybe what tools they could use.

Aaron, Thu, 3 Jan 2008 21:44:40 -0500 (EST)


Allow me to propose another idea for you. What if you opened your web site to a yearly subscription, something in the range of $100-$300 per year. For that fee, you would provide monthly articles, e-books, whatever on programming topics such as C+, WPF, etc. You could release the articles to public domain after an expiration period if you so desire. I suppose you could also have guest authors if you wanted. Without advertising, you could be completely unbiased and provide comparisons/alternatives/criticisms to MS - something like a Consumer Reports for the industry. You could take suggestions from subscribers but with no guarantees. Take a poll to see if there is interest. The industry needs you. Programmers need a reliable source to determine the best way given all ways. Who can do this better then you? The industry also needs a balance against the hype. Again, who better then you to do this? From my perspective, a years worth of your writing is surely worth an hour of your programming time – what Wintellect is charging. I’m sure many of us would consider this money well spent. Wishing you all the best in 2008…

— Lance, Sun, 6 Jan 2008 14:11:17 -0500 (EST)

Mr. Petzold,

I'm sorry to hear you're a casualty of the Web. I assume that's what's causing the slower programming book sales. It's strange, because I've bought more books in the past year than I had in the 10 before that in an attempt to keep up with technology. The pace seems to have ramped up considerably since .Net was introduced.

I've got your Programming Windows 3.1 book on the shelf next to me still, and I am waiting for your latest book on 3D graphics programming to arrive.

I know that WPF has been off to a very slow start, but I think it's got enough advantages that it will continue to grow in popularity. It's complex enough that I'm afraid that growth will be slow until the tools catch up.

I wish you the best of luck in the world of business. 2008 should be an interesting year for you. At least book writing and consulting are far enough apart that you'll be able to get a break.

— Ralph, Sun, 6 Jan 2008 17:14:23 -0500 (EST)


First, let me tell you that I really enjoy the no-nonsense format and content of your blog.

What is truly puzzling about the IT industry are the rallying cries of billionaires (Billy comes to mind) about "shortages of talent." Ever since C/C++ was proclaimed "complicated", IT industry attracted droves of semi-literate code jockeys. Semi-literate people do not read regularly, they poke around in various wizards, code templates and read semi-literate blogs.

I am looking forward to your more advanced books and remain a regular reader for over 15 years.

All the best with consulting. Over the years of consulting, I acquired more books about psychology than technology - and I definitely needed them to deal with Users.


— SDot, Fri, 11 Jan 2008 09:53:26 -0500 (EST)

I don't know if or how one could generate income from PDF books but I can tell you that after reading your excellent ".NET Book Zero" from beginning to end in PDF format I was then disappointed to find that I could not buy a printed copy from Amazon to put on my bookshelf. (I ended up buying "Programming Microsoft Windows Forms" though, so I guess you made something).

— Matthew Kendall, Sun, 10 Feb 2008 21:35:12 -0500 (EST)

Hi, I just ran across your blog will searching "intellectual biography of Warren McCulloch", and finding your library day entry. I studied with Arbib and Bill Kilmer at UMASS Amherst in the 70s, and have been applying McCulloch's later work on triadic relations and abduction, along with other ideas in the cybernetics tradition, as well as current ideas on complexity and chaos to problems such as cognitive development in infancy, scientific theory/conceptual change and hypothesis formation. Although much has been written about Turing, Godel, von Neumann, Wiener and Bateson, I have yet to see a full-fledged intellectual biography of McCulloch that does justice to him, aside from scattered discussions in books about others and journal articles such as Arbib's. Most of what there is focuses on McCulloch-Pitts, but there is so much more! I assume your library day research is incorporated in your new Turing book, which I look forward to purchasing. Any thoughts or additional information on these topics would be greatly appreciated. Thanks, Steve

Steve Meyerson, Tue, 12 Feb 2008 16:02:16 -0500 (EST)

Creating an ad-funded blog may allow you to retire to the Bahamas. :) Personally, I have no other option but to buy your books when I see them. I consider books by Sells, Box, Petzold, Rector, Kyte, and a few others to be required reading for all software developers.

While I agree that the benefit to authors for writing programming books is dwindling, the need for specific programming knowledge is exploding. This knowledge in online form allows for niche information to be gained quickly, but it also diminishes the overall value that can be gained from books. If you applied your considerable skills to building an online information source for programmers, it should be a reasonable source of income. From the looks of this website, you are already half way there (i.e. organize the information on your site like a book and slap some ads on it).

Luke, Sat, 2 Aug 2008 10:54:40 -0400 (EDT)

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