Silicon Insider: To Be an Author Again

Today, for the first time in the 21st century, I am once again an author.

My new book, "Bill & Dave: How Hewlett and Packard Built the World's Greatest Company," was officially published at midnight today, April 4, 2007, by Portfolio/Penguin.

Out of curiosity, I even checked at midnight on Amazon to see if the page for the book had popped over from "pre-order" to "order," and whether all of those pre-orders suddenly got counted and (hopefully) catapulted me up near the top of the best-seller list. (Yes, no.)

As with any milestone event in one's life, the publication of "Bill & Dave" offered a moment to reflect -- particularly on my first book, written almost a quarter-century ago -- and how that experience compares with today. It's a chance to ponder what changes have taken place in society, and in technology, since I wrote "The Big Score" in 1984.

I've written a total of seven, or 13, books. That indeterminacy is due to how one defines authorship. For example, I once hosted the public television series "A Parliament of Minds" in which I interviewed more than a dozen of the world's leading philosophers. The two university professors who produced the series and hired me to host decided to publish the book under their own names -- and indeed not to even tell me about it, despite the fact that almost every word of it is mine or my guests. So, even though you can't find that book under my name, I count it is as mine, dammit.

Then there is "One Digital Day," which was one of those classic "day in the life of" coffee table photo books created by Rick Smolan and his team. It's most assuredly his book, but since I wrote all the essays, I also count it as mine. And, of course, there are the three collaboration books -- "The Virtual Corporation," "Virtual Selling" and "Intellectual Capital" -- that I co-authored with pretty famous guys. They go on my list, but they also go on theirs -- and readers continue to assume that I was merely the dumb scribe (wrong) and they were the illiterate visionaries (also wrong).

In the end, it doesn't much matter. When you start out in the writing business, your dream is to get out of the day-to-day newspaper and magazine writing, which you assume gives your creations a limited life-expectancy, and finally get into the world of book writing, which is really important -- and immortal.

That dream usually dies when you first see your book on a remainder table. And if not then, then when you find a used copy for sale for a buck on eBay or Amazon -- worse yet, if it is a book you autographed for a friend. But worst of all is when you find one of your books being de-accessioned by your local library in a fundraiser. Until that moment, you always assumed that even if the public forgot you, that your work would still live on in a library somewhere, perhaps to be rediscovered and celebrated by some future generation.

One of the great ironies of the Internet age is that traditional ephemera, such as newspaper articles and diary entries, now live on forever in indexes and blogs. Meanwhile, given the short shelf life of modern books -- basically, six weeks nowadays -- and the decline of traditional library stacks, modern books only live on for a few years at most. Indeed, if you really want your prose to survive this century, you might be better off writing a successful blog that enjoys a lot of technorati links.

That certainly wasn't true in late 1983 when I was writing "The Big Score." Just the other day a reporter told me that book was still considered the best history of Silicon Valley. I suppose I should have been proud, but instead I found it depressing -- and not just because the sales on this "classic" were so low that I would have been better off spending those two years working at McDonald's. Rather, it was the fact that this book is now so old and out-of-date that I actually covered the first Apple Macintosh announcement -- arguably the moment modern Silicon Valley began -- the week after I sent in the manuscript of the book.

Looking back that near-quarter century, I'm struck by just how different it was to write and publish a book back then even using the most cutting-edge technology. I wrote "The Big Score" on an Apple III computer, beefed up to 128K of core memory, with a 5.25 inch floppy disk, and no hard drive. The keyboard was fixed to the CPU, and the whole thing weighed about forty pounds -- as I discovered when I lugged the thing up to Oregon to work on vacation.

I had a 14.4 kbaud modem, which I used to send out feature stories to the Boston Globe, Dallas Morning News (and later, The New York Times) in what must have been one of the first private newspaper syndicates. To send an 800-word story typically required me to call the newspaper's computer, and when I got the handshake sound, to switch the wire to the modem and quickly type in 30 or 40 numbers and symbols. The actual transmission usually took five minutes per paper.

Though I had played with the Internet at Xerox PARC (from which Apple was, at that moment, stealing the windows-based operating system, bit-mapping of displays and the computer mouse) and at my dad's office at NASA, I had no personal access to it. And though I'd used my computer to visit the "Well," there was no accessible online repository out there for the research I was doing.

So, for several weeks, I drove down to the Sunnyvale Public Library every day, pored through endless past issues of Business Week and Fortune, found useful articles, and spent 5 cents per page to duplicate them on the creaky old Xerox copier. For personal interviews, I visited local executives and other figures, and recorded everything on a cassette player. These were in turn transcribed by me or my soon-to-be wife using a another cassette player, this time with a footswitch. When an important interview with Intel's Bob Noyce was nearly lost because of a sticky tape, we transcribed one word at a time over the course of about 20 hours.

Having no real backup on my computer, and limited functionality, I was always at risk of an accident -- and late one night I hit the wrong couple of keys and lost two days of work. After literally banging my head against a wall, drinking two fingers of Scotch and taking a five mile, 3 a.m. walk, I went back to work.

Unfortunately, my book writing skills were as primitive as my tools. I spent more than a year gathering mountains of source material for "The Big Score," then found myself with no manuscript and a fast-approaching deadline. As a result, I spent 10 weeks, from Halloween night to mid-January, working day and night, missing Christmas, sleeping on my office floor -- and produced nearly 800 pages of manuscript. I broke my health in the process, and was bedridden right through my 30th birthday. I also had 10 dollars left in the world. We celebrated with a half dozen sliders and a liter of Irish Whiskey my folks had brought back from Europe the previous summer.

I printed out the manuscript on my clattering daisy wheel printer (it took, if I remember correctly, about 8 hours to print.) As an experiment, I sent one chapter via my modem directly to my rookie editor Adrian Zackheim, at Doubleday because he wanted to show his superiors what the future looked like. I copy edited the book on my honeymoon.

Roll forward 23 years.

I had an advantage with "Bill & Dave" because I started my career at HP, knew both men, and later, as a reporter, covered the company on and off for nearly 20 years. Being a member of the HP "family" (like real families, you never really leave it) and having attacked Carly Fiorina's leadership over the years in this column and the Wall Street Journal, I found myself embraced by veteran HPers as a prodigal son. Archives were opened to me, HPers happily shared their anecdotes about the founders and doors that had been locked to me three years before were now flung open.

This time, I conducted my interviews using a digital recorder the size of a pack of chewing gum, then downloaded the MP3 file on my computer, where I could manipulate the audio for clarity, and do my transcription on an adjoining file (in theory, I could even have automatically transcribed the files through DragonSpeak, but I didn't try).

Better yet, thanks to the Web, and its grandchild, Google, I was able to quickly traverse the entire planet, searching the remotest corners for information and anecdotes about Hewlett and Packard and the company they built. I found the most interesting stuff in the oddest places (did you know there is a whole site dedicated to early HP 9800 desktop computers?) It all went onto the 1 gbyte disk drive (my son Tad, with his Alienware monster, scoffs at such feeble numbers) on my IBM laptop.

Not only had the technology grown more sophisticated over the years, but so apparently, had I. I began the actual writing of "Bill & Dave" on Jan. 6 of last year. I also knew that my family and I were leaving for Africa on June 8. And so, in a breathtaking departure from my usual procrastination/insane frenzy pattern, I actually systematically sat down each day and wrote 1,000 words. I completed 180,000 words -- and "Bill & Dave" -- on June 6, 2006.

I then sent the entire manuscript (it took 20 seconds) as a file attachment, to Portfolio Books (an imprint of Doubleday/Penguin) and its director Adrian Zackheim -- the rookie publisher is now a major industry figure, and our careers have now come full circle. Only then did I dump the book onto a USB memory stick and drive over to Kinko's. And I was healthier when I finished the book than when I began.

So now once again, after an eight-year hiatus to run a magazine, to produce some television and to write this column, as well as help raise kids, I'm an author again. In 1984, that meant telephone interviews, visits to newspapers and book signings. This time around, my first priority has been to make sure my friends in the blogosphere get review copies.

Of course there is still the excitement that comes when the big box of author's copies of the book arrives on my porch. And there is still be the exhilaration that comes with the good reviews, and the taking to bed with the blankets pulled over my head with the bad ones. And for some reason it still takes nine months to get a manuscript turned into a bound book.

For all of the transformations that technology has brought to being a book author, and for all of my experience now with book writing, those are the things that will likely never change.

TAD'S TAB: is a constantly evolving music family tree, organized kind of like the game of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. Each band has a page that lists (most) of its albums and musicians that can be linked across all genres of music. Although BandtoBand claims to have almost ten thousand bands in its database, many upcoming bands like Arcade Fire and TV on the Radio are still suspiciously absent. But if you want to find a connection between Wilco and The Mars Volta in four moves, or which band seems the most connected of all (it appears to be King Crimson) then this is the place for you.

Michael S. Malone's new book, "Bill & Dave: How Hewlett and Packard Built the World's Greatest Company," has just been published by Portfolio/Penguin.

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Michael S. Malone, once called the Boswell of Silicon Valley, is one of the nation's best-known technology writers. He has covered Silicon Valley and high-tech for more than 25 years, beginning with the San Jose Mercury News, as the nation's first daily high-tech reporter. His articles and editorials have appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, the Economist and Fortune, and for two years he was a columnist for The New York Times. He was editor of Forbes ASAP, the world's largest-circulation business-tech magazine, at the height of the dot-com boom. Malone is best-known as the author or co-author of a dozen books, notably the best-selling "Virtual Corporation." Malone has also hosted three public television interview series, and most recently co-produced the celebrated PBS mini-series on social entrepreneurs, "The New Heroes." He has been the "Silicon Insider" columnist since 2000.