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.

Monday, January 9, 2012

The JABberwocky CES

While the electronics world gets ready to gather in Las Vegas, we've been spending time over the holidays upgrading the JABberwocky IT.

2008 was a good year for JABberwocky, it was the year that True Blood arrived, but on our bottom line it was the last year to pre-date. And in that perfectly pleasant last year before the True Blood storm, our foreign commissions represented just under 18% of our total commissions for the year, which was about typical in percentage terms for the entire history of JABberwocky.

Well, we get to 2011, and our foreign commission income alone is bigger than the entirety of our commission income in 2008. And, foreign commissions are approximately 25% of our total. Most of this is a direct result of the success of Charlaine Harris and the Sookie Stackhouse novels following on the success of True Blood, but nowhere near all of it.

No, nowhere near all of it., In the UK, Charlaine Harris and Brandon Sanderson and Jack Campbell and Peter Brett are all selling more copies week in and week out than our most successful author in the UK in 2008. And, in relationship to Charlaine Harris, Sanderson and Campbell are closer in percentage terms to our market leader than is the case in the US.

In Germany, Peter Brett is outselling Charlaine Harris, with a big enough lead that I doubt he'll be passed, and even though both have now made the Der Speigel bestseller lists. Brandon Sanderson is starting to sell big-time as well. with an excellent chance he will become our 3rd Der Speigel bestseller.

In Japan, Jack Campbell's Lost Fleet books are selling far and away better than anything else we've previously had going in that market.

In Taiwan, Simon Green, Brandon Sanderson and Peter Brett have all had books hitting the charts for Eslite, the country's biggest brick-and-mortar book retailer.

And, yes, in markets across the globe, Charlaine Harris is afire.

This is all quite wonderful, except that it means that our foreign business is now bigger than our entire business was just a few short years ago. We're consistently doing 100 deals overseas every year, and for way more books than that when multi-book deals are taken into account.

Which means, alas, that our tracking mechanisms were getting a bit creaky...

2008 was also the year when we first got Filemaker and started to create our databases for keeping track of pretty much everything worth keeping track of, but as mentioned above that was when our entire business was smaller than our foreign desk in 2008. And when most of the royalty payments and such were coming from a small number of territories with really good on-the-ball sub-agents whose excellent IT we could coast on. Not so now, when royalties are coming in, sometimes in significant amounts, from twelve or twenty territories over the course of a year.

So off we go into our Deals database, to set up new tables and portals to allow us to quickly look in a nice and pretty way at all of our advances and royalties due by sub-agent in each overseas territory. Eureka moment, finally figuring out that something having to do with the relational graph for a relational database meant that the portals were only working for the existing author sorts if the author had some kind of listing in the royalty chart as well as a listing in the advances chart.

Then it's off to the database we were using to schedule our London Book Fair appointments and, as of 2011, Eddie's Bologna appointments. We probably could have built on the existing database, but it made more sense to start afresh. Now we have a database that will better allow us to check if we have a meeting with one editor at a particular publishing company instead of with some other editor, we have prettier layouts to track all of the people we maybe want to meet with by country so that we can more easily work with our sub-agents to keep those things up to date. We'll have a better place to track which sub-agents want printed catalogs, electronic catalogs or both, and if we've actually mailed them out. We'll have better places to keep track of which things we've sold to which publishers so that we know what we're supposed to talk about when we get to our appointments. It will work so that we can have a consolidated database for both Bologna and London. Not that we couldn't do all of those things a year ago, but that now we'll be able to do all of them better.

Today's eureka moment, getting out the Filemaker book and studying up on the "Send Email" scripting, so that now we can send e-mails to take care of scheduling from within the database, instead of having to copy and paste addresses into the e-mail program. And now that we've done that, it means that we can more easily target all kinds of other e-mails. The e-mails we send out when an author hits the bestseller lists, or gets an award nomination, we can now set up a way that an e-mail about Simon Green hitting the bestseller lists can go not only to our sub-agents, but also to publishers who are publishing Simon Green.

At this point, some of you might be rolling your eyes in disbelief that we haven't been doing all of that kind of stuff routinely for years now. Well, maybe you're right, except that my gut instinct tells me that our overall IT process for keeping track of different things was probably better than for a lot of other agencies before we made all of these improvements, and that now it's just that much better. Most literary agencies are rather small, 12 employees or fewer, often way fewer, not a huge IT budget. Most of them have probably gotten basic management software of some sort off the shelf to track deals and handle basic payments, but I doubt they go too much further than that.

I feel as if the hard work is done, it's always an experience to me when I'm getting out the MIssing Manual for Filemaker and playing around with it like I have half an idea what it is that I'm doing. Phew! But now that we have the capability to keep track of all the data, it also means a little more to do day-in day-out for every deal. We can keep track of royalties due by sub-agent, but now we have to start adding sub-agents to the royalties due table. Small things like that will take only a few extra seconds for each deal, but when you multiply each step with a few extra seconds by 130 deals, it's not an invisible amount of time.

And it means using the information, going at it with out sub-agents more often on payments that should have come in, on checking if a publisher purchased books #1-3 in a five-book series when/if they plan to get around to buying those last two. I like it when I occasionally have an author asking about a particular advance or royalty or something, because it's good to know that some authors are out there keeping on top of these things, which reminds us to keep on top of them for all of our clients. At the same time, if every author for every one of those hundreds of foreign deals is wondering monthly about when a payment comes in or when a book is scheduled to appear in Portugal, you can spend too much time dealing with that instead of actually selling books in Portugal, it's no different for the agents we work with overseas.

Still and all, on the whole I'm pretty happy. I've worked very hard on foreign rights over the entire 17 year history of JABberwocky, and it's exciting to see that our business is more global than it's ever been before, and likely only to become moreso, And I think we've done what we needed to do to keep on top of all of it. Still, thinking of all those new fields in new tables and new layouts that need to be populated -- well, that's not the fun side of the business, not where the glamour is.

And if we can just be sure not to use that e-mail script step to do one of those NY Times things and actually send 8 million people and e-mail that was intended for 362. What's that thing Spider Man says, about awesome power and awesome responsibility.


Charlie Holmberg said...

Wow. That's a lot of work. (And a lot of sales, congrats!)

Does JABberwocky plan on hiring additional hands to help juggle the foreign sales?

Erin said...

I think it might have been Voltaire who said that, actually, but maybe Spidey has a bigger audience.