All about money
April 5, 2008—When I decided to take early retirement and become a fulltime RVer, I did my best to plan for financial security. A little one-page presentation I created for my friends at work summarized my ideas; you might want to take a quick look at it to see how I was thinking three years ago... a few months before taking the Big Step.
By selling my mortgaged condo and living in my motorhome (purchased with cash), I was able to cut my living expenses substantially. For example, with my New Mexico Annual Camping Pass, as long as I'm staying in NM state parks, my lodging expenses average about $140.00 a month, including water, electricity and sewer. Back in New Jersey I was shelling out something like $1,400 a month in mortgage payments, condo fees and utility bills... and of course that was just the beginning, with food, gasoline, phone bills and so on added to that.
I don't drive much—only about 200 miles a month on the average—so gasoline isn't a big expense. Of course, there are expenses like food, insurance, upgrades to my rig, and the occasional DVD. Based on the past year or so, it looks as if my total cost of living—lodging, utilities, food, fuel, internet and all—averages about $1,400 a month.
On the other hand, of course, I left a $75K job, which felt somewhat like jumping off a 7,500-foot cliff. To replace that salary, I had two sources of income: a small annuity (about $400 a month, after medical insurance and income tax withholding are subtracted), and my earnings as a freelance graphic artist and consultant (about $700-$900 a month). You can do the math: that left me several hundred dollars a month short. In a couple of years I can start tapping my IRA... but for now, my income is meager.
It was easy to overlook this when I had $90K in the bank—the profits from selling my condo. But after buying Skylark and pouring well over $15K into massive electrical upgrades, the nest egg was down to less than $10K and dwindling visibly month by month.
Of course in a situation like this, the first thing you do is look for ways to cut expenses. But my living expenses are already so low that there aren't very many places I can cut back. I don't drink, smoke, or gamble, I rarely eat out or visit attractions that charge admission, I don't have expensive hobbies... it's hard to find a way to save more money. So if I can't reduce outgo, I'll need to increase income.
I'd always known that I might not be able to break even in this period before my IRA becomes available, and that if that happened, I'd have to look for additional sources of income. I even joked that I'd make ends meet by selling "I Gertie" t-shirts and "Fulltiming Andy" action figures. But I knew I needed to do something to get back in the black.
My first thought was to get a little money from some of the software I've written. For example, the HughesNet satellite internet system that I use has a little yellow plastic signal-strength meter called an "OPI" (Outdoor Pointing Interface) that's supposed to help you aim the satellite dish. Trouble is, its LCD display is smaller than a postage stamp, and half the time it doesn't work at all.
So I wrote a program called SoftOPI that puts the signal strength on a Mac laptop's screen in gigantic six-inch-high numbers, so you can read them even from a distance in bright sunlight. Not only that, I made it speak the signal strength once a second, so you can aim the dish entirely by ear if you like. I know a lot of RVers with HughesNet systems, and I thought maybe if I asked for a $10 shareware donation, I could pick up a little money that way. So I polished up the program's user interface, added clear, illustrated instructions, and made a nice SoftOPI website for it. I even added a bonus program: "SigMon," a tiny window that you can leave parked in a corner of your screen if you want to keep an eye on the satellite's signal strength while you're online.
I announced my programs in the Datastorm users discussion group, where lots of HughesNet satellite users hang out, and got lots of enthusiastic compliments. The leader of the group, Don Bradner, liked the idea so much that he wrote a Windows version. People said they were using SoftOPI and loving it. And I waited for the shareware payments to come in... and waited... Well, to make a long story short, in the first year I received exactly six $10 donations. I wasn't expecting to get rich on SoftOPI, but this was pretty disappointing... and it certainly wasn't going to solve my financial problems!
Write a book!
I had always had in mind to write a book once I got on the road. In fact, I had several books in mind: a book about organizing your RV (expanding on the ideas in my "Improving Gertie" website); a book version of "Travels with Gertie"; and a special project with my friend Holly Knott: a book about how to photograph quilts. That last one may sound like a pretty narrow niche, but it turns out that textile art is exploding in popularity, and there are talented "art quilters" like Holly all over the world. Unfortunately, many of them are better artists than photographers, so the photos they post on their websites often don't do their artwork justice. Or they hire professional photographers to do the job, paying as much as $100 per quilt, believe it or not.
Well, Holly knows quilting and how to photograph quilts, while I know the technical end of photography, and we're both pretty good designers. So we figured we could write a book on the subject—with the emphasis on good but inexpensive photography—and fill a real need. We did a lot of brainstorming and outlining, and even spent a week shooting the example photos we planned to use. But a year after we had hatched the project, it was apparent that the book just wasn't getting written (mostly my fault; I was having too much fun RVing). The project was slowly fading away.
I thought to myself, "It'd be a shame to waste all the work we've put into this... what if we condensed the essentials down into a small website?" And that's what we did. The result, called "Shoot That Quilt!", has gotten rave reviews from textile artists everywhere for its simple, practical, jargon-free explanation of what can be a tricky business: photographing textile art. STQ hasn't made me any money, but I'm very proud of what Holly and I accomplished. And who knows... maybe someday we'll turn the website into a book.
Try, try again
Back around 1990, I wrote and illustrated a book called "The Macintosh Dictionary." The idea, suggested by my friend Gretchen Leahy, was that too many people were being intimidated by computer jargon... so a book that explained the terminology in plain English, with a lighthearted and irreverent touch, was needed. That's what "The Macintosh Dictionary" was, and after my friend and Mac author Sharon Zardetto took it (and me) under her wing, Addison-Wesley brought it out in paperback in 1992.
But that was fifteen years ago, and things have changed a lot in the computer world. Take my 1992 definition of "internet": "A large, international network of thousands of computers running the Unix operating system. Most internet users are affiliated with colleges and universities, a few with large corporations and government. Almost no individuals are on the internet; it just costs too much." Heck, when I wrote the book, the World Wide Web hadn't even been invented. Due for an update, wouldn't you say?
So when Sharon asked me early in 2007 whether I'd be interested in collaborating on a completely rewritten, up-to-date book along the same lines, I readily agreed. There's just as much of a need for a book that demystifies computer jargon as there ever was... and the money certainly wouldn't hurt.
When I wrote the Dictionary, Addison-Wesley paid an "advance against royalties" of several thousand dollars. In theory, I would have gotten additional royalties once the book sold enough copies to cover the advance, but in practice, I never did—A-W claimed the book never sold that many, although it went through two printings and was even translated into Chinese(!). The royalties would only have been about 15% of the wholesale price (which was half of the cover price) anyway, so I'd have been lucky to get a buck a copy.
The new book, "The Mac OS X Lexicon," is a different story altogether: it's an "ebook," meaning a downloadable PDF document. (A paper version is available.) The publisher, TidBITS, is well known for its line of "Take Control" Mac books. There's no advance, but TidBITS splits the cover price 50-50 with the authors. 50% royalties look mighty good compared to what the traditional publishing industry offers! Of course, Sharon and I collaborated on this one, so I only get 50% of 50% ... but that still adds up to more than three bucks for each ebook sold. And TidBITS has completely open sales tracking, so I know exactly how many copies are sold.
"The Mac OS X Lexicon" went on sale in late July of 2007, and was revised and expanded with the introduction of Mac OS X 10.5 ("Leopard") that fall. TidBITS also put a good-sized (39 page) sample online, so that folks can get an idea of what the book is like before deciding to buy a copy. It's really a pretty good book, if I do say so myself... you might want to take a look. :-)
Despite very favorable reviews, I must admit that sales of the Lexicon have been a bit disappointing: only 550 copies in the book's first eight months. I suspect that people who are looking for a book that explains computer jargon may not be people who are in the habit of buying books in PDF format and reading them on the computer. A paperback edition is available, but the $29.99 price is probably a deterrent, and the publisher isn't promoting the printed version anyway—their main business has always been selling PDF ebooks to computer experts, not selling printed books to average users. So perhaps the Lexicon simply isn't a good fit for their audience and their emphasis.
Eureka! At last, a hit
I spent the summer of 2007 hard at work on a CD-ROM called "Eureka! Bright ideas for your RV." It's crammed with illustrated hints and tips on how to make the most of your limited space, brighten up your interior, save money and make all kinds of large and small enhancements to your rig. Think of the "Improving Gertie" section of my website, but rewritten, updated and more than doubled in size, with lots of new ideas and projects, and you'll have the general idea.
The Eureka disc premiered on October 5th, and 385 people bought copies in the first six months. Better still, the comments from Eureka's buyers have been enthusiastic, and that makes me feel great. I plan to update Eureka annually, offering the expanded versions to registered owners for half price.
A couple of books
To test out current color publishing technology, I created a small photo book called "Quiet Waters." It turned out very nicely indeed! It's a dawn-to-dusk series of tranquil photos taken in my travels across the US. If you're curious, you can preview the first 15 pages. I don't expect "Quiet Waters" to be a NY Times bestseller, but it might be a nice gift for someone you know who could use a peaceful break from the busy-ness of daily life.
And I recently put together another full-color book, based on my experience making the transition from occasional RVer to fulltimer. Titled "From Camping to Full Time: Making the Big Jump," it's a retelling of the story you'll find on this website... but it would make a great gift for anyone who's planning to go full-time, or has made the transition already.
For my next project...
Having spent the summer of 2008 working on the massively updated Eureka 2, I'm planning to spend the spring of 2009 working on a book version of "Travels with Gertie" with lots of photos. And I want to release a matching audiobook at about the same time. A lot of people have written to me over the years to say how much they enjoyed the story of my initial experiences with RVing and fulltiming. I used to do voiceovers for videos and multimedia software, so I have some experience with that sort of thing. Audiobooks on cassettes or CDs are popular, but they're pretty expensive (for example, Steinbeck's "Travels with Charley" sells for $59 on CDs!), but I thought I'd offer my audiobook in downloadable MP3 format for fifteen or twenty bucks. I recorded a sort of teaser/test clip, and people tell me it sounds pretty good.
And after that...
"Travels with Gertie" for Playstation? Who knows? Check my new Shameless Commerce Page for the latest news...