Friday, August 13, 2010

You Know You're Getting Old When: The Copyright On Your First Book Expires

According to British law the copyright on my first book expired last year, after twenty-five years. Not only does this make me feel ancient, but it compels me to recall the heady days of 1983, when I created my tome�"Master Your ZX Microdrive".

I was a nerdy University student who spent most of his time in Central London hanging out around the publishers of the early computer magazines & books. In the summer of 1983 the magazine Popular Computing Weekly got a scoop on some new Sinclair hardware: the ZX Microdrive. As with several of their scoops (e.g. the�QL)�it was a leak from the printers who were making the user manual. They got me a copy of the maunal, and I wrote a "review" of the ZX Microdrive that was published in July without even a sniff of the actual device. The�magazine appeared�on the very day the product was launched, which made the publishers very happy. I used a pseudonym of "Bill Hoskins" for the review, the surname coming from the family whose house I lived in during my student days. (The internet does not appear to contain a copy of this fine piece of journalism, which I will try and fix when I find my copy).

By this time I had done a bunch of articles and reviews for PCW and other magazines, and had built a rapport with the small staff of Sunshine Press who published PCW. To my complete surprise they suggested I write a book about the Microdrives for their rapidly expanding computer book business. This was despite that fact that�I had never written a book before and of course there were no Microdrives yet to be had. Naturally I said yes.

Around the beginning of August 1983 Sinclair shipped a review sample of the Microdrive and its Interface 1 to Sunshine, who sent it on to me. It was the summer, so I was living with my parents in their small hotel and I spent the next four weeks feverously working on my book. I had already read the (leaked) user manual numerous times but wanted to know so much more, so I took the next step: disassembling the ROM. There was 8K of Z80 assembler, which I dutifully printed out then analyzed, byte by byte, to figure out how the hardware did its thing and how the system was modified to support it. I have to say the design was cunning: no bytes of the original 16K BASIC ROM were modified. The book itself was written on the Spectrum, using what passed for a word-processor (Tasword). Each chapter was saved to a pair of alternating cassette tapes as I edited them, then printed on my dot-matrix printer every once in a while for more serious editing. Apart from writing the text, I was simultaneously writing sample programs to go along with the book. I felt it needed something meaty, so I modified a database originally written by another Sunshine author to work against these new "advanced" storage devices.

After four weeks I did the final printout, made a couple of photocopies and mailed them to Sunshine. Less than four weeks later the book was on the street, and proved pretty successful. I produced a 2nd Edition when the first run sold out, and in the end it sold around 10,000 copies and was translated into seven foreign languages. I made about ten grand out of it, which was about the same as a year's salary for computer graduates of the day. Someone in the old eastern block (Poland I think) once wrote to me and asked to translate the book into his native tongue, but he apologized he had no hard currency to pay me. Instead he proposed sending me some records (those vinyl things) of Polish music: I declined the music offer but said he was welcome to do it for free, so long as he sent me a copy. I never did see one.

Computer books were rather simpler back then: mine had about 140 pages and was about a centimeter thick: that helped me write it so quickly of course. The way the books were typeset was also primitive: the manuscript had to be manually re-typed into green-screen terminals at the typesetters. I did take my Spectrum there to see if we could somehow get the text out of the parallel printer port into their gigantic mainframe, but without success. The listings were entered as scans of my master printouts to avoid errors.

Eventually after some years the book got remaindered, and as per my contract I was offered the chance to buy the final copies on the cheap. I bought two hundred for a quid each, then did a deal with Your Spectrum magazine: they would advertise, sell and ship the books, having been autographed by me first, and we split the profit. A sweet deal, we sold 192 copies in the end.

The book opened useful doors to me: apart from publishing two more for Sunshine, I sent early proofs of the more technical chapters to some software companies so they could add Microdrive support to their programs. One of them, HiSoft, hired me for a summer job in 84 and I ended up staying there for seven years. As an advance for the second book I asked for an Apple Macintosh (which had just been released) and I wrote both other books using MacWrite 1.0. I contracted with Sinclair themselves to write some software that shipped on Microdrive cartridge: I was so green they had to tell me what to charge them, and I couldn't believe it when they suggested five grand. I should have haggled...

About a decade after the book came out I somehow ran into the artist who did the picture for the book's cover (and many other Sunshine covers). I asked if he still�had the art, and he did, so I offered to buy it. He gladly accepted, then told me to go to some bar the next night, give the money to the barman and I'd get the picture. Despite my skepticism I turned up at the requested location and got the original art, no questions asked.

A quarter of a century later (OK now I really feel old)�I still have the cassettes containing the chapters and the programs, but no way to read them. I somehow lost the original manuscript, which is very annoying, though�I recently discovered a PDF of the book that some unknown person has created. I have no idea why, but whoever you are, I thank you. Also when did I change from "Andrew" to "Andy"? I seemed to use both versions at this time. Who came up with the book's title? I have no idea. These and other mysteries will likely never be solved, ah well.

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