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Software, Hard Cash

Programmers: John Brockman wants you to be rich

By Jenne Conant, Fall 1984

Two years ago, when New York literary agent John Brockman decided to automate his small agency, he bought several computer books-and became thoroughly confused. His mind suddenly cleared up when he read a projection that 25 million people would be using personal computers by 1985. "I realized that everyone who bought a computer was a potential software author," says Brockman, "and that was an interesting figure."


Brockman immediately appointed himself the publishing industry's first software agent, although he did not abandon books in favor of floppy discs altogether.For instance, Brockman made history when he closed a $1.3 million deal with Doubleday & Co. for the rights to Stewart Brand's the "Whole Earth Software Catalog," and coaxed a $600,000 advance from Harper &Row for a book series based on reviews from the magazine InfoWorld.


In Brockman's agency, the typical book deal rarely tops $30,000, but the typical software contract nets $400,000. And it can go much higher. Brockman recently rocked the 250-year-old, tradition bound publishing industry by licensing the North American rights of "Typing Tutor," the best-selling educational program from Kriya Systems, to Simon & Schuster for a figure reported as high as $20 million in royalties. "This is a Wild West show," says the jubilant Brockman. "Anything goes. It's exciting and painful at the same time."


To Brockman, software is the most lucrative form of literature around, and he now devotes most of his time to bringing standards to "We're making the rules because no one knows what a software contract looks like," he says. In the past, publishing companies treated software authors as developers, and encouraged customers to identify the publisher as the brand name. "But you don't go into a store and ask for a Random House novel or a CBS record," says Brockman, who, for a 15 percent cut, secures for his clients all the rights usually afforded to author—including the right to receive full credit on the package.


Brockman's business has leaped from $3 million to $20 million in one year, and he regularly hosts "millionaires' dinners" to introduce software authors to publishers. "Publishing companies have deep pockets," he says. Not surprisingly, Brockman encounters considerable hostility from those in the book business. "People always say agents are destroying the market," he says. "What I've done is upped the ante." ■


First published by Newsweek, Fall, 1984.

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