Bits? Bytes? Bugs? Baffled? The New Mr. Chips, Peter McWilliams, Explains It All for You

updated 09/19/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/19/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Peter McWilliams has always been one money-making step ahead of his decade. During the idealistic '60s, when people actually read Rod McKuen, the 17-year-old McWilliams mimeographed his sentimental verses and became a best-selling poet. In the "me-oriented" '70s, when people were looking inward, McWilliams was too. Once again anticipating the prevailing winds, he co-wrote a guide to transcendental meditation, The TM Book, which topped the New York Times best-seller list for three weeks.

Now, in the technology-happy '80s, McWilliams has struck pay dirt right on schedule. His guides for the computer illiterate, The Word Processing Book and The Personal Computer Book—both published by his own Prelude Press—currently outsell some 3,000 other computer-related books. (His third keyboard opus, The Personal Computer in Business Book, was published last month.) McWilliams is the toast of talk shows and a syndicated newspaper columnist. In short, he's hot and getting richer by the minute. As McWilliams cheerfully puts it: "If I wanted to sell out tomorrow, I could pick up a million dollars." This year he grossed $2.5 million by June, compared with only $30,000 in the first half of 1982.

As in the past, McWilliams has timed his enterprise perfectly. Four million Americans now own personal computers and, during the next five years, as many as 20 million more are expected to buy them. And Peter is right here with everything they wanted to know about computerware but were too low-tech to ask. His books cut through the notorious jumble of arcane computer jargon to explore the soul of the new machines, making clear what computers, software and printers can do for the average consumer.

Appealing to the masses is nothing new for McWilliams. "When I was in high school, I fell in love for the first time and began writing poetry," recalls the 33-year-old bachelor. "Love poetry was very popular. Naive was in."

In no time, fellow young romantics were requesting copies of his rhymes. "I used to charge 50 cents apiece, which was the Xeroxing cost," he remembers. "Finally, I decided it would be a better idea to mimeograph the whole collection." Taking his sheaves out into the streets, he hawked them to a boutique owner, who, though dubious, became his first distributor.

To the surprise of everyone but McWilliams, the "book" sold out in a week. After shifting to a mass distributor, he has sold 2.5 million copies of his nine volumes of poetry to date, which might justify his self-billing back at the height of his popularity in 1972 as "the best-selling poet in America under 30."

McWilliams ventured into filmmaking in 1971 and once again demonstrated his uncanny ability to spot a phenomenon: Bette Midler. Then a young unknown showcasing her act at a little nightclub in Windsor, Ont., Midler was tapped to star in his film The Greatest Story Overtold.

"She was the only professional performer in the picture," he remembers. "It was a parody like Life of Brian—and a film we would both like to forget. She played the Virgin Mary."

After the publication of his love poems, McWilliams began to receive letters from the heartbroken. This led him to write, with therapists Melba Colgrove and Harold Bloomfield, How to Survive the Loss of a Love, which still sells 8,000 copies a month.

In 1975 McWilliams struck gold with The TM Book, co-authored with Dennis Denniston, which eventually sold more than a million copies.

Then it was back to square one for Peter—and one of his rare debacles. The idea: to print and distribute a line of greeting cards graced with selections from his best-loved poems. "Following this disaster, I repaired to California for a few years to lick my wounds," he recollects.

He was at the nadir of his career when a fellow writer cornered him. "He began telling me about word processing," McWilliams recalls. "Forty-five minutes later, I was hooked."

McWilliams put in more than a year of study before buying his own personal computer. "I found there were a lot on the market, but no one could tell me which one was better than another." McWilliams put his research between covers, and the guides were born.

He's picked up some powerful fans along the way. The Houston Post has dubbed him "the Doctor Spock of Personal Computers." And syndicated columnist William F. Buckley Jr., formerly computer-shy, read the word-processing book in one sitting and is now a dedicated convert, with five personal computers in locations from New York to Switzerland.

"I sent him a mash note," Buckley says, "and he sent me 200 copies. I could have set up a branch library. I sent them to friends and neighbors, like John Chancellor and Harrison Salisbury. I think he's been very influential in popularizing the word processor among writers." McWilliams, in turn, credits Buckley with helping place his computer column with Universal Press Syndicate.

With a handful of irons in the fire, McWilliams' future looks bright. His newsletter, which appears 10 times a year to update the information in his books, sells for $100 and reaches 400 subscribers. Next step: a "mystery" book that has nothing to do with computers. After all, tomorrow is another decade.

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