The New Hardware Made Easy

A poet’s pun-filled primer leads the list of bestselling guides

Time Magazine

January 24, 1983 page 91

By: Philip Faflick

Reported by: Robert T. Grieves/New York

To a neophyte adrift in a computer store, it may seem a beacon of simplicity, sanity and humor. Amid all the intimidating machinery and densely technical literature, its plain white cover asks disarmingly, “What are those television-typewriters anyway?” Inside, it offers quaint woodcuts, turn-of-the-century ads and plenty of soothing printed words. No wonder that The Personal Computer Book, at $9.95, has become the fastest-selling computer guide on the market and has made its author, an erstwhile poet and promoter of Transcendental Meditation, something of an overnight celebrity. Peter McWilliams, 33, who wrote, printed and published the book, is currently negotiating with Universal Press Syndicate for a nationwide column on computers and preparing for a twelve-city publicity tour. Some 70,000 copies of his primer have been sold since its publication in November. The B. Dalton chain sold 1,623 in one week alone.

McWilliams’ TPCB, now being distributed by Ballantine, is not the only computer book that is thriving. Computers for Everybody (dilithium Press; $6.95) has sold an estimated 47,000 copies since its release in October. Apple II User’s Guide (Osborne/McGraw-Hill; $16.95) has sold some 200,000 copies since March 1981. In a year that is being described as the worst for the publishing industry since the Great Depression, computer books are one of the few bright spots, with approximately 2,500 titles accounting for more than 4 million sales. Nearly 3 million Americans bought computers last year, and as many as 6 million are expected to take the plunge this year. Since publishers estimate that the new computer owners will buy up to ten books a year, it does not take a computer to recognize the scope of the market. Says Joyce Copland, director of marketing at Addison-Wesley Publishing Co.: “You could probably print napkins with the word computer on them and sell them like crazy.”

The first computer books, like Adam Osborne’s 1975 classic, Introduction to Microcomputers (Osborne/McGraw-Hill; 12.50), were aimed at computer hobbyists, explaining the inner workings of the hardware down to the smallest transistor. These were quickly followed by books of software programs, like the popular BASIC Computer Games

(Workman; $7.95), which provide page after page of prewritten computer codes that the reader can copy and run on his own machine. Now, as the domain of computer buyers expands, the bestsellers tend to be either step-by-step guides for new users, usually geared to specific machines, or introductory texts like McWilliams’, which are intended for the computer illiterati who have not yet bought a machine. The author claims a special distinction for his efforts. “Mine,” he says, “are the only books on the market that are funny.”

McWilliams has been publishing his own writing for 16 years, starting with a book of love poems he wrote to avoid doing term papers at Allen Park (Mich.) High School (“This poem is a kiss for your mind”). At 19 he dropped out of Eastern Michigan University to make his fortune as “the paperback Rod McKuen.” In 1975, at 25, he hit the bestseller lists with The TM Book,  a Q.-And-A. Guide to Transcendental Meditation for the skeptical and the fearful (“No funny clothes? I can still eat Big Macs?”).

After an unsuccessful venture in the greeting-card business, in which he used excerpts from his poems for the texts, McWilliams moved to Los Angeles and purchased his first computer, a North Star Horizon. The Word Processing Book, his first effort in the computer field, was researched in 18 months, written in four, and published last May under the Prelude press imprint (named after his car, a Honda Prelude.) Five printings and 100,000 copies later, he set off on TPCB.  The tone for both works was set early. “I was looking for illustrations for what was a rather dry book on word processing,” he recalls. He found an old woodcut of a mechanical rabbit and decided to run it over a deadpan caption describing its parts and concluding, “That should certainly clarify the operation of personal computers.” Says McWilliams: “Once I decided to put that in, it was all downhill.”

The heavily illustrated pages of TBCB  are filled with puns and gags, like his remarks that a computer’s “yes/no circuits” are capable of saying no “faster than Debby Boone.” A truncated section on the Apple II computer, which McWilliams does not admire, is padded with nine pages of anti-Apple cartoons and jokes. In his cavalier “Brand Name Buying Guide,” the quirks and quips run so thick as to render the section practically useless. His characterization of the first Apple computer (priced at $666.66) applies to him: McWilliams was “born with a case of the cutes from which [he] has yet to recover.” Yet he demystifies the RAMs and ROMs of microjargon and has found a painless and appealing way to advance the cause of computer literacy. So much so that his success has provided a subject for his next book: a guide to computers for the small businessman, based on his flourishing five-employee, three-computer operation.