Just a few weeks ago, John Brockman, a New York literary agent with a blue-chip client list, had corporate stationery adorned with the simple but eloquent symbol of an open book. He's now put a new logo on the letterhead: a sketch of a computer floppy disc.
Agents, the scourge of Steinbrenners, Hollywood moguls and publishers' row, are looking for a piece of the action in the personal computer software industry--a market that some experts estimate will swell to $5 billion by 1985. That could make software publishing bigger than the book and music publishing business combined.
Brockman's commitment to the new medium is more than symbolic. In addition to such clients as Stewart Brand, editor of the Whole Earth Catalogs, and the authors of 'The Deindustrialization of America,' Brockman now represents Bruce & James, a California-based software house marketing a line of low-cost programs for personal computers. "We see ourselves as in the information business," asserts Brockman, "and it's a natural extension of our activities to represent software designers."
Others feel the same way. Reportedly, William Morris, the giant talent agency, is exploring whether its agents should represent software clients. Another interested agent is Morton Janklow, who engineered an auction for the paperback rights to Judith Krantz's best-selling novel, "Princess Daisy," that garnered an all-time record $3.2 million. "This would not be an exotic idea for us at all," says Janklow, "It's exactly like a new author coming to me." In fact, Janklow says software designers have already approached him for representation. "Anybody who is an owner of rights would be well-advised to go to someone who knows how to negotiate for them," says Janklow.
While auctioning the rights of a new software program a la "Princess Daisy" might not yet be practicable, says Janklow, a variety of options are available. Rival computer companies, say Apple Computer Inc. and International Business Machines, could be played off against one another for exclusive rights to a product.
Software authors could become creative 'stars' in the same way that best-selling authors, movie actors and rock stars are with their agents shopping them around for the best deals.
Like their mass media counterparts, software designers range from "starving artists" to instant millionaires.
Dan Bricklin and Robert Frankston, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduates who designed the business spreadsheet program VisiCalc, have sold more than 400,000 copies at roughly $175 each. They are almost certainly among the millionaires.
Some designers of the most popular video games, however, are employes of companies like Atari and Imagic Inc., working for salary and royalties. And, of course, some designers are straight contract workers the way Hollywood screenwriters in the Thirties were.
Personal computer software, ranging from videogames to business programs, is already a billion dollar business with videogame designers often collecting six-figure sums for their creations. "If I felt that I couldn't represent myself well enough," says Rob Fulop, a 25-year old silicon valley games-designer with a best-selling cartridge, "I'd get an agent. However, I feel that 10 percent is a lot." He believes that several of the top games-designers could have agents by the end of the year.
There's big money to be made on the business side, too. Robin Eckhardt of book publisher Simon & Schuster's new software division, reports that one new business program had advance sales of over $1 million. "If you had a book with $1 million in advance sales that would mean $150,000 in royalties--which is big no matter how you look at it."
Eckhardt "absolutely" expects to be dealing with software agents. So does Albert Litewka, president of Warner Software, Warner Communications' newly formed software publishing and distribution division. "I've had agents approach me," says Litewka, "People are just beginning to scratch around the area."
The newness of the field is what's creating so much uncertainty. "The industry is in such turmoil," says Jim Edlin, president of Bruce & James, the software company represented by John Brockman.
"John has opened doors for us that we couldn't possibly have opened ourselves. The software agent has a much more complex equation to deal with than the book agent," said Edlin. If you have a non-fiction book, you have clear choices: you know 20 editors in 20 places. If you have a piece of software, what do you do? Do you go for the exclusive? Do you bundle it by selling it to a hardware manufacturer?"
These are the sorts of questions both agents and software publishers will have to deal with, says Warner's Litewka, as the market continues to grow. He feels that software agents could help shape the future of the personal computer industry.
"I used to sit around and wonder whatever happened to the Sixties," says Brockman, who represented several leading counterculture figures of that decade, "and last year, at the Comdex computer trade show, I looked around and suddenly I knew where the action was."