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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.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Spread 'Em Wide

One of the reasons I have spoken a lot this week about royalties:  well, information is the mother's milk of literary representation, and along with the quality of the book itself, the three most important pieces of information we can use to sell an author are (1) the author's bibliography and biography (2) reviews (3) sales history.  Furthermore, if you want to gauge how much the market might pay for an established author you have to have a handle on actual expenses for printing books vs. actual revenue from selling them rather than royalties paid. And how do we figure out what an author's sales history is or how much revenue and expense the publisher has in printing and selling books, in both print and electronic forms?  Well, we gather that information from royalty statements.

And I learned early in my career at Scott Meredith that sales information isn't well kept by stacking piles of paper in a filing cabinet.  Those Penguin statements I was telling you about, that told you only the quantity of books "sold" in any given six month period -- well, back then we had many Ellery Queen books available in Penguin doubles, and if someone wanted to figure out how many Ellery Queen novels were sold, it meant collecting years with if little sheets of paper and manually adding up columns and columns of figures.

Suffice to say when I finally had a computer at my desk in the early 1990s, things changed.  I could at least put the figures into a word processing document so they could be added without having to retrieve little pieces of paper from the filing cabinet.  Eventually that gave way to tables within the word processing program, and eventually to tables in a spreadsheet.

And for a variety of reasons, not just out of habit, we continue today to process every incoming royalty statement on to our computers, just like I started to do over 20 years ago when I first had a computer on my desk.

Some of those reasons:

Publishers make mistakes.  It doesn't hurt to check their math, and spreadsheets enable us to do this.  Assuming, of course, that we set up the spreadsheets correctly.  There is this tendency to trust that the computer generated very official looki royalty statements the publishers provide always have the correct royalty rates.

As discussed in my previous post on current royalty statements, most are still seriously lacking in cumulative information on copies shipped and copies returned, and it's still very 1989 in needing to track that information someplace other than on piles of paper hiding in a file drawer for years or decades.

A spreadsheet will take the information I enter for Dead Until Dark and Living Dead in Dallas and start to turn that into a series total for the Sookie Stackhouse novels and an overall total for Charlaine Harris, and this information can then be used in our marketing of translation rights and film rights, or be of use when the Wall Street Journal calls to do a major profile on the author.

In that sense, I get a lot more out of what I put in than when I started to do this over twenty years ago.  Spreadsheet, and the world if ours!

All that said, there are times when I and my employees who now have to do a lot of the actual spreadsheeting work probably wonder why we bother.

Each publisher's royalty statements are different, and the royalty scenarios can be different within a publisher for mass markets, trade paperbacks, hardcovers, audios and e-books, so we have to have lots of different spreadsheet formats.

The benefits are invisible.  The company that is doing the Mistborn video game needs to go to its bankers and needs information on Mistborn copies sold for Brandon Sanderson, or the screenwriter with an option on Elizabeth Moon's Remnant Population needs some information to present to producers with her screenplay, or we want to rough out a profit & loss statement to try and guess how much money DAW books can pay for the new Jim Hines, and we can do those things quickly and easily because we have impeccable spreadsheets.  But it is very easy to separate out those benefits from the time, heavily concentrated during the twelve weeks of royalty season, when it seems like we do nothing all day but spreadsheet royalty reports.

We can't predict.  It's our policy to do spreadsheeting for every piece of paper for everyone, because we don't know when Alan Ball will stumble across a novel in a B&N while waiting for a dentist appointment and be inspired to produce True Blood.  For more of our authors than not, the effort we do in spreadsheeting is ultimately futile. In that sense, even I must confess that I can't be sure that we wouldn't be better off doing time-consuming forensics to produce information when it's actually needed, rather than to have so much up-front investment to have good information for all of our clients.

It's just another variety of gibberish.  We can read our spreadsheets very well because we put them together.  For the many publishers that don't provide cumulative information on copies shipped and returned we like being able to give clients our spreadsheets as opposed to the underlying publisher reports.  But the fact is that our spreadsheets can still use some tutorials for people who don't know their way around Excel.

High maintenance.  The information doesn't flow up-hill on its own, so every time a publisher comes out with a new edition of a book we have to set up a new table and then plug the information from that table into at least one location in a summary table.  Dead Until Dark has had an e-book, a mass market with many different prices attached, a True Blood tie-in mass market, a hardcover, a trade paperback, another trade paperback, etc.  Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn a hardcover, a paperback, a promotional paperback, a YA trade paperback, an e-book, an audio.

But all that said, I like that we are able to get all this information to flow uphill to a nice single sheet of paper that gives the actual global sales totals for Brandon Sanderson or Peter V. Brett or Elizabeth Moon or Simon R. Green, based on actual publisher royalty reports, and that we can send that out to anyone who asks whenever they want it.  I doubt we'll stop spreadsheeting any time soon, certainly not for as long as the royalty statements we get are as generally unhelpful as they often still can be.


Walker said...

This is what we call a "schema integration problem" in the DB biz. You have data in a bunch of formats, and you are standardizing it into a single format to make it easier to analyze.

You can often automate this process, provided that the original data is provided digitally. Is there anyway you can get the publishers to provide the numbers in any easy-to-process digital format?

Banshee said...

You don't work for a business. You work for some kind of mafia front for illegal activities, or for a joke.

A real business knows all its sales figures all the time.