By Stephen S. Hall, August 1983
Entrepreneur John Brockman plans to stock bookstore shelves with computer brains, and the business of publishing may never be the same again...
It is not customary to think of New York's Upper West Side as a zone of great seismic activity in the world of publishing, but shock waves of a significant sort have been emanating from a third floor office on Broadway near West 83rd Street. They are likely to have tremendous repercussions for anyone who reads, anyone who writes, and anyone who browses in bookstores. The office belongs to literary agent John Brockman, whose vision of the new world—a hip cybernetic society, with millions of computer converts hunting and pecking their way to electronic bliss—is already having serious commercial implications. Publishing may never be the same.
It all started back in April, 1982, when Brockman contemplated buying a microcomputer for his office. "I got involved in all the things you get involved in reading through the computer magazines, finding out what to ask for and how to ask for it." he says. At first, he understood only that there was great potential for selling books about computers and computer programs, but in this he was hardly unique.
That one realization, however, led to the next: that software writers—the people who think up computer programs and write them in computer language—are also authors of a sort. Their work could be copyrighted and even sold in bookstores. What's more, an agent's 15 percent fee would come out of a much larger pie when the "readership" grew to include the millions who are expected to buy a home computer in the next two years.
Last February, a floppy disc became a permanent addition to the logo of John Brockman Associates, which began describing itself as a "literary and software agency." Bookstore software, Brockman believes, is the wave of the future. "A year from now, it will be a serious business." he says. "Two years from now, it will be extremely significant. Five years from now, you and I will be going to bookstores to buy our software."
After a slow start, the publishing world has emphatically embraced computers, and Brockman has had a hand in that, too. Last spring, he closed three deals for computer-related consumer books with advances totaling $2.5 million. Stewart Brand, editor of the immensely successful The Whole Earth Catalogue, received a $l.3-million advance from Doubleday to prepare The Whole Earth Software Catalogue by mid-summer, 1984. Harper&Row paid $600,000 for a 6-volume series of books about software which is to be prepared by the editors of InfoWorld magazine, a tabloid newsweeklv for microcomputer buffs. And Simon & Schuster ponied up $600,000 to the editors of PC World magazine, who will prepare a 10-volume series for users of the IBM personal computer. The three deals attracted a lot of attention. "Publishers have been paying outrageously high advances for single author books for ages." says one Manhattan editor, assessing Brockman's blitz. "What's new is that all these books are in the computer field, and that one agent seems to have a corner on all these deals.
In a field where technology, hardware. and software tend to change as swiftly as the weather, it is legitimate to ask if these books, despite frequent revisions, will fill a need any better than the vast spectrum of monthly computer magazines—magazines which as a rule can react much quicker than book publishers to changes in the marketplace. "That's a good question," concedes one industry observer. You should ask Nelson Doubleday that."
The major publishing houses, in fact, were only too happy to get into computer books. In the apocalyptic lingo of book deals, both Doubleday and Harper & Row made "preemptive" bids—offers deemed so attractive by Brockman's cilents that the two projects never even made it to open auction. It is one of the reasons that Brockman says, with well-earned gloat. "We're getting deals and advances and terms that are unheard of these days."
But Brockman adds an important caveat: "This has nothing to do with computers. It's merchandising."
Brockman is a likely protagonist in the dawning age of the software agent. Ever since the 1960s. when he was an unabashed "happenings " booster who declared to one interviewer that "the whole point is that it can't be told in words." he has aligned himself with new ideas, new trends, new tangents.
He hasn't been entirely adverse to words, however, since he has written, coauthored, or edited at least nine books—everything from The Kids' Pocket Calculator Game Book to By the Late John Brockman, an essay length book focusing on the relationship of new technologies to human perception and ideas of reality. Another book, On Bateson, reflects his admiration for anthropologist Gregory Bateson. Since opening his literary agency in 1973, Brockman's tastes have steered him toward "serious nonfiction"—a lot of science, a lot of philosophy, and a lot of self-help.
Although he describes himself as an "epistemologist." there is something of the Ivy League gunslinger in Brockman. His MBA from Columbia University and his shrewd business sense go hand in hand with a self-professed shoot-from-the-hip philosophy that holds "I think it's more important to be decisive than to be right." His graying hair nudges his appearance closer to his 42 years, but his youthful face, with its tortoise-shell frames, seems open and scholarly, full of intellectual enthusiasms and undergraduate disdains.
He prides himself on giving wide birth to the publishing world, dismissing the New York milieu as a relic of the Freud and Marx mind-set 'and slavishly dedicated to "opinions and entertainment." It is an industry, he avers, "dominated by people interested in a stable, real world rather than in books that explode our ideas of what that world might be."
Brockman came to these heresies by a circuitous route. With an upbringing (son of a wholesale florist, in Newton, Massachusets, and a background in business, he was a trainee at Bloomingdale's and had his own Wall Street leasing company at age 23. But he tired of pushing paper and talking on the phone (essentially what he does now), so he managed a movie theater for one year, brought underground cinema to the New York Film Festival another year. He hung out with actors and artists. He put in time in Hollywood and did multimedia consulting. He produced theater pieces and staged happenings.
"I was the only person in that whole universe who had a business background," he says now, pleased to leave the impression that he might have been something like official CPA to the Merry Pranksters.
The serendipitous has given way to a more settled existence. Brockman lives on Central Park West, near the Broadway office, with his partner, agent and writer Katinka Matson, and their three-year-old son, Max. Matson is the daughter of well-known literary agent Harold Matson "I met Katinka in 1967," Brockman recalls, "when I was walking down Bank Street carrying a manuscript under my arm. She said she was an agent, so l said I was a writer. It was somebody else's manuscript, but within a week I had a contract to do a book."
Brockman's philosophic digressions, too, have strayed a bit from the spontaneous spirit of the old days. After noting that he shares the view that cybernetics "is the most important intellectual advance since Christianity," he goes on to add: "What has always interested me in my writing is thee Idea that we create tools, and then we mold ourselves by using them. The heart is a pump. It isn't like a pump. It is one. But the pump came long after the heart. That metaphor is a human invention. The metaphor is operational.
This sounds good in an interview, but it comes almost verbatim out of an essay Brockman published in 1977 (page 12 of On Bateson). Later on he says, "The equation is new technology equals new perceptions." That's on page 13.
It is interesting that as one of the pointmen in this burgeoning software revolution, Brockman does not even own a personal computer. (Most publishers and agents, in fact, seem to rely on outside experts to discriminate between good and bad software authors—a situation they would abhor if it applied to prose.) But that's not the point. As if to clear up a lingering misapprehension on the part of the writer, Brockman adds another footnote to the conversation. "What I'm doing is not about computers." he says firmly. "It's about making money for people."
The most important deal Brockman has negotiated so far is the one that has attracted the least attention. It was a distribution contract with Simon & Schuster that will put the Vision line of software programs, designed by Bruce & James, into book stores across the country sometime this month.
While some computer programs sell for anywhere from $200 to $700, this new line—to be used with IBM personal computers—will retail for $49.95. Of such bargains are consumer revolutions—not to mention huge profits—made. That, at least, is the view of Brockman, Simon & Schuster, and all the other book publishers who have leapt onto the software bandwagon. The projected sales numbers, if true, hardly make it seem like a roll of the dice.
R. Bruce McLoughlin, the "Bruce" in Bruce & James, predicts that the company's software series will generate retail sales of up to $3 million in 1983 alone, and within two years will be selling at an annual clip of $25 million. Those are middle-case projections, he says: it could be more. This is the equivalent of selling 500,000 copies of a $49.95 book and is enough to attract the attention of any self-respecting capitalist.
Brockman plays the number game. too. He cites predictions that by the end of 1985, 26 million Americans will own desk-top computers; that buyers spend about $1,000 on software during the first year of ownership alone; that each prospective computer buyer purchases eight to ten books to bone up on the equipment. And he refers to those statistics as "telephone book numbers"—as in huge.
It is unclear, of course, whether the slick display bins full of low-cost software will become the electronic paper back of the computer age. But it is clear that the wheels set in motion less than a year ago by Brockman and a few others have the publishing industry in a tizzy. "My personal belief is that bookstores will reconceptualize what business they are in," says Raphael Sagalyn, a Washington, DC. literary agent who went the software route last spring by establishing SoftWriter Associates.
"Within three to five vears," he say, "they will realize that they are not only in the book business, but also in the information and entertainment business. Will software replace books on the shelves? That's tough to say. I think the chains will take the lead on that." Chain bookstores such as B. Dalton and Waldenbooks are already experimenting with software sales.
"There is a sentiment abroad that booksellers are uniquely placed to be the purveyors of software in our society," says Harper & Row vice-president Jane Isay, who negotiated the Info World book deal with Brockman and who heads Harper & Row's entry into software publishing with the forthcoming "The Write Stuff" word-processing package. It's a measure of publishing's start up frenzy that Harper & Row did not even have a software division a year ago; now they are not only buying it, but manufacturing it.
Brockman, who seems to thrive in the midst of change, clearly savors the current shakedown in the book world. "Publishing is a very mature business." he says. "Negotiating in it is very much of a set piece. The micro-computer industry, by contrast, is the Wild West. It's the Gold Rush. Everyday, companies rise and fall, people are heroes one week, the next week they get squashed."
Brockman is asked if that topsy-turvy uncertainty worries him at all, and his demurral is both swift and supremely confident. "In a gold rush the people who make money," he says, "are the ones who sell eggs for ten dollars apiece." ■
First published by United magazine, August 1983.