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.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Genius? Or Mad Man?? (aka My Life in Technology, Pt. 2)

This can be considered as the next post in the series I began way too long ago with My Life in Technology Pt. 1.

There are a couple of movies that have extra resonance to me because of my job.  One is definitely Vampire's Kiss, in which Nicolas Cage plays a literary agent who thinks he is becoming  a vampire.  It's one of Cage's classically manic performances, this one good Cage manic instead of the bad Cage manic from the very dawn of Cage's career.  Hard to believe it's 21 years now since this opened.  One of the classic scenes for a literary agent is when he's tasked to locate some old short story contract for one of the agency's most important clients, and the task -- well, shall we say it gets to him!

This is not an atypical problem.  The longer a literary agency is in business, the more the contract files should grow, and the more the number of actual important active contracts should grow as well because you sure hope in this business that your backlist is getting deeper and more important as they years go by.

So once upon a time you have one contract for Brandon Sanderson, for his first two book deal with Tor.  Then you start to sell some of the books in translation markets.  Then you do a second deal with Tor.  And you start selling more books in more places overseas.  Then you do a deal for the Elantris jewelry and the Mistborn miniatures and slowly the contract file begins to get very big.  Big contract files are bad, because it takes forever to find when you suddenly need very badly to find the agreement for the German edition of Alcatraz vs. the Evil Librarians.  So you end up splitting it into 2 files, one with the Tor contracts and one with the translation contracts.  Or 3 files, and put the merchandising deals into a different file, or 5 files for those 3, and then the European deals in a different file than the Asian ones and the audio deals in a different file than the jewelry ones.  This is kind of better, except with all of those different files... does the Russian contract go in with Europe or Asia, or what if the Czech contract for Mistborn gets put in with the audio contracts by mistake.  It's easier to find the right contract, but that assumes the right contract is in the right file and you still have what was once a little single contract that is slowly becoming 8" of contracts.

But I believe this is how it has always been done.

Recently I've gotten to thinking if there isn't a better way.  We now have a wonderful database program in Filemaker with a wonderfully robust Deals Database.  We have a serial # field set up, so every time we do a new deal the deal has a serial #, and that becomes a tool that helps a little bit to track the deal as the contracts go back and forth and the payments come in.

And I've had this crazy notion that we should file our contracts by Deal #.  

Which is not how it has always been done, which scares me.

And because the deals we have from before Filemaker don't have serial #s, we would have to enter all these old contracts in at least a stub entry form into Filemaker.

And if we ever stopped using Filemaker that could be a problem.

But it just seems to me it would be so much quicker over the fullness of time to find the Deal # and then go right to that contract in the file than to do things the way it has always been done/

We'd want to have backups and redundancies.  We already enter the serial # for new deals in the master deal word processing file for each author.  We could set up layouts to generate sortable summary sheets by title and author that we could put into binders.  We'd have at least 3 layers of redundancy with the printout, the database and the word processing file.  I don't think -- I don't think -- that we'd be in a situation where we'd have 862 contracts in the file by Deal # and suddenly find we didn't know any of the deal #s any more.

Anyone who comments that we should scan all of our contracts and have them as searchable PDJPEGFTIFGIF files and send them to Yucca Mountain six times a month for back-up, that's a wonderful idea, I thank you for your suggestion, etc.  I know I could lose all my hard copy in a fire or something, but the idea of having all of these contracts as electrons on a keychain drive petrifies me to death.

So it seems to me in the 21st century that doing things that I should break with the past and switch the contract files around and not keep doing the way it's always been done because that's the way it's always been done.  I'm around 85-90% leaning toward making this big break.  But  I'm kind of thinking it's still a really really bad idea because we wouldn't keep doing things the old way if it wasn't the right way as well.  Would we?


Bryce's Ramblings said...

Wow. Two comments in a row from me. But I couldn't pass this one up. At the library where I now work, they had a thing libraries refer to as a "shelf list." Essentially, it was a card catalog that contained the record for every single book the library owned. Something like 80,000 books, give or take a thousand, arranged by call numbers (both Dewey and Library of Congress). And they'd had this print version of the shelf list since the school began in the 1800s, likely. When they discarded old books, they discarded the old cards. But the time came (after I had been put in charge of the thing) when we looked at it and asked if it was really worth all the hassle. After all, we have an electronic shelf list that's more easy to search, can be backed up, etc. And maintaining the print version was a real pain in the rear. But ditching it . . . that seemed tantamount to sacrilege. It was The Way It Had Always Been Done.

We threw it out.

All of it. The card catalogs were sold for something like 20 bucks each, and the cards got recycled. And for the first week, it seemed really risky. Daring. Like the safety net was gone. But now we don't miss it at all. It's quite liberating, really.

Not sure if that experience sheds any light on your current one, but there you have it. And if you need any advice about organizing large amounts of materials, you can always ask a librarian or two. Just don't tell Brandon.

green_knight said...

I've used Filemaker since 1990, so it's hardly new technology, and you can always set things up so you can print them out from there, and export in a myriad of formats, so Filemaker is not a dead end. (And even if it goes away one day, there'll be at least five years before the last computer with the last supported version of it will die - plenty of time to set up something else.)

The beautiful thing about electronic filing is that it uses a different parameter; which on the other hand means you need to get used to thinking about it in a different way. I definitely believe you should try and convert your previous contracts, because it would allow you to do cross-searches like seeing what terms you got for books with a particular publisher, or all books you've sold to a particular editor (regardless of which house employs them) and, and, and.

Tim Akers said...

Let me second the opinion that database organization is a "good thing" that, once you make the initial leap, will make everything easier and happier and more reliable. As far as your concern that you might not use Filemaker forever, well, databases can be converted into other database types, but there's no reason you will ever lose filemaker functionality.

And people do things the way they've always been done because that's how it's always been done. It's just inertia. And the publishing industry is particularly bad at overcoming inertia, in my limited experience. Mailing manuscripts around? Good lord. Why don't we convey them by pony, while we're at it.

Peat said...

Back in my office days, I instituted a similar "file by number" program in my office that met major resistance from a lot of the old guard. It was a difficult transitiob, but it wound up increasing efficiency dramatically. The only problem is that you need to keep your hard copy filing up to date with your datdbase. No letting a hundred unlabeled folders pile up waiting for a dedicated filing day that will never come.

You can export filemaker into other formats if they invent something better, and this will save a lot of misery. Since you are planning to move offices soon anyway, you're in for some filing misery either way. Now's the time to make the transition.