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Faces Behind the Figures

By Stanley W. Angrist, Edited by Pamela Sherrid 
November 1985

Software, Hard Sell

Can a first-rate literary agent, known for his stable of highbrow nonfiction authors, find happiness as an agent for hackers, counterculture computer types and software writers? John Brockman, 43, president of Manhattan-based John Brockman Associates, Inc., may not be totally satisfied by his new line of work, but he is being consoled by 15% of some very big royalty checks.


Brockman, whose literary clients include anthropologist Mary Bateson and historian Page Smith, decided about three years ago to try to computerize his business. He bought six books on how to buy a computer and, like so many others before him, was totally confused. Retiring to the beach for a few days, he had a further, happier thought. Authors of software, he decided, needed an agent. "Publishers have to be reminded that authorship is authorship, whatever the field," says Brockman, "and that authors should retain all the rights that relationship implies."


Brockman soon found that, unlike book publishing, where writers regularly trumpet their advances, software is a business built on secrecy. "Everybody signs nondisclosure agreements," Brockman explains. "There are no standard software agreements yet, and publishers want to keep everyone in the dark. They don't want author A to learn that author B got three times his royalty."

It's known, however, that one of Brockman's clients, New York City-based Keron Productions, received an advance of $500,000 from CBS Software for a series of six educational programs. Perhaps Brockman's biggest software success so far is Typing Tutor III, published by Simon & Schuster Electronic Publishing Group. Developed by a firm headed by Sat Tara Khalsa, an American convert to the Sikh religion, the program has been a bestseller for months. "This program will make millions for Khalsa's company," Brockman says.


Building on his publishing knowhow, Brockman has also signed some truly staggering deals for books about computers. In 1983 he negotiated a $1.3 million advance from Doubleday for Stewart Brand, the editor of The Whole Earth Software Catalog. He then won an advance of $600,000 from Harper & Row for anthologies of reviews from Infoworld magazine.


Brockman, who has an M.B.A. from Columbia, bills himself, only half facetiously, as an epistemologist, or a specialist in the theory of knowledge. In the swinging Sixties he was a marketing consultant for big companies, such as Columbia Pictures and Scott Paper Co. He has also written and published a dozen books. Number 13, currently under way, is titled Einstein, Gertrude Stein, Wittgenstein, and Frankenstein.


First published by Forbes, November 1985.

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