About Me

A blog wherein a literary agent will sometimes discuss his business, sometimes discuss the movies he sees, the tennis he watches, or the world around him. In which he will often wish he could say more, but will be obliged by business necessity and basic politeness and simple civility to hold his tongue. Rankings are done on a scale of one to five Slithy Toads, where a 0 is a complete waste of time, a 2 is a completely innocuous way to spend your time, and a 4 is intended as a geas compelling you to make the time.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

My Life in Technology, Pt. 1

The world is full of so many marvels that we sometimes lose sight of just how amazing some of them are, and I've been wanting for a while to talk some about how my business has changed over the 20-25 years I've been in it.

It's 25 years ago this summer that I started my summer sojourn at Baen Books.  Honestly, I can't recall too much about the technology at Baen.  There must have been some computers somewhere because Baen was one of the first publishers to do a kind of fancy-pants royalty statement that told you how many copies were shipped and returned instead of just making up a number after a mysterious reserve against returns.  I think that was done very early on in Baen history, though I can't recall if it was done that way from the very start.  Most of my Baen work was old-fashioned scutwork.  I do know they had a very nice photocopier for back then.  & writing this just got me to thinking that we're just a few months away from the 25th anniversary of the first month of Baen Books, which included some very un-Baen-y Books like this one which I believe might have been donated from Simon & Schuster's Timescape line along with some quintessential Baen stuff like this.

When I started work at the Scott Meredith Literary Agency in February 1986, 23 years ago now, computers were around but still not prevalent.  This was a time when you still might be asked to take a typing test on an old-fashioned typewriter in order to get a job someplace.  And for the most part, the Scott Meredith Agency was a computer-free zone.  There was one and only one computer in the office, a Kaypro that was mostly used for the occasional manuscript that was going out on multiple submission and thus might require many copies of the same marketing letter.  You knew it was special if you got to do it on the Kaypro.  This hung out near the foreign rights office and may also have been used by them for the foreign marketing letters. Manuscripts came in on paper, they went out on paper, and many of them in 1986 were still being prepared on a typewriter, and most of what we did was done on IBM Selectrics.  We even used carbon paper for a lot of things which Sue the bookkeeper doled out like Golem letting go of his precious.  Sue did all her checks by hand.  

The essential guts of the agency were the Green Cards.  3x5 index cards.  On the front we'd type the author's name, title of manuscript, and something like "short story" or "mystery novel proposal" or "SF novel".  On the back of the card went a little bit of description about the project, and then we used this index card to either type or hand-write the marketing history of the project.  When something sold, the basic deal terms were typed into the back of the card, and then when advances or royalties came in, the details of when the payments were received were typed on to the card.  If you ran out of space on one card, you'd get out a second green card and staple or fasten that to the original card.  For a book like 2001: A Space  Odyssey, you had quite a nice thick stack of green cards.  Then there were the white cards where we kept track of the authors who had sent in manuscripts to the agency's reading fee service along with an old-fashioned paper log on when those manuscripts had come in and when responses were sent out, and there were two sets of index cards maintained for keeping track of foreign sales, one by author and the other by country.  If money came in, that was noted on the green card and not on the foreign cards, though there would be a notation so we would know that the on-signing money or copies of the  book had come in.

Basically, think index cards.

We had five phone lines, and somewhat old-fashioned five-line phones.  No voice mail, no answering machine, none of that.

No fax.  We had a telex machine, and foreign offers and responses usually came in over the telex.  

Contracts were often still typed out, though some of the bigger publishers may have had early word processing systems even then but certainly not all.  A lot of them were done in multiple copies on a very thin onionskin paper to save on mailing costs.

Royalty statements were crude.  The most impressive-looking were the Random House statements that came in on big computer fold paper all very fancily printed by computers.  Penguin statements came in on little pieces of paper, and provided only the number of copies sold during that particular six month period.  This was rather annoying because if you wanted to find out how many copies a book had sold over five years, you had to dig out all five years of statements and add those numbers together, and back then it wasn't like most people (and certainly not Scott Meredith) had a spreadsheet program to add the numbers together or any other much better way of keeping track of it than to save every last royalty statement if you wanted to know your actual total sales.  DAW sent out handwritten statements that gave the total # of copies sold at the end of each period in a kind of ledger format where they'd fit twelve or twenty periods worth of data on the page, the first period always being filled in with a notation something like "too early to tell" and then the updated sales, and this was nifty because it was the only statement where you could get a historical glance at a title's performance.

However it was that the royalty statements came, they were almost all as fictional as the novels they were reporting on.  Because then as now as for many decades, publishers had the right to withhold a reserve against returns, and that number was almost always taken out without any detailing in order to arrive at the one single number that was put on the piece of paper you received.  Whether it was the handwritten ledger from DAW of the fancy-pants formal looking "We Have A Computer" statements on the big computer-fold paper from Random House, you had no way of knowing in the first royalty period if the 12,892 copies that were reported on your first statement meant there were 15,000 copies that had been shipped of 25,000, no way of knowing how many copies had come back, and how many copies the publisher was hiding.  It took even me several years to catch on to the fact that those impressive looking Random House statements didn't mean very much, and that I'd need to call clients and tell them "so I'm sending you your first royalty statement, but you may as well ignore it."  If that 12,892 copies went up to 19,528 on the second royalty statement, did this mean that they had gone from 25,000 shipped to 30,000, or from 24,000 to 25,829, or from 15,000 to 22,000?  Essentially, you had to wait maybe 3 or 4 royalty periods until you could be reasonably sure that the total # of copies reported on the royalty statement was somewhat similar to the actual # of copies that had been sold because by then the publisher would probably be down to only a 10% reserve against returns that was hidden in the background.  Maybe.  And it was only after that point that if the next statement showed sales going up by 3,200 copies or down by 569 that you might consider that to be an actual reflection of how your book had performed over that time.

So those fictional royalty statements would come in, the money would be typed in on the green card, the check written out by hand and put into a ledger book by hand, it would come to one of the agents to typewrite out an itemization letter that would go off to the client.

So we'll end Pt. 1 of this e-mail here, with a glimpse of SMLA technology circa 1986.  And I'll try over time to advance the narrative forward.  Let me know if there's something you think I should be talking about in this part of the posting that I've missed.

And spring has just forwarded; my Mac has advanced itself from 2AM to 3AM.  I hate the lost hour of sleep, but this does mean there will still be some daylight when I escape the office in the evening, which I am always very happy about.


Jayf said...

Great post. Maybe I'm more interested in the inner-workings of publishing life in all of its forms, but I enjoyed reading it. I'd like to hear more about what you actually did day-to-day in the early days, aside from try to figure out how the royalties work. I'd also like to hear about how you transitioned from one job to another. Thanks-

Tim Akers said...

Of course, in your description of index cards and royalty statements and foreign rights, all I can see is how that kind of system evolved into modern relational databases. Very interesting.

Maria said...

Just curious--it's my understanding that the "Returns" number can be used by publishers to hoard cash for a time--is that worse now or better given that the reporting has evolved?

Does it change much with economic times or is it pretty much the same all the time?