Written by David Tebbutt, Soft 08/83 - scanned
SO YOU WANT TO BE A SOFTWARE WRITER?
Last month we looked at the microcomputer software publishing business as a whole, concentrating primarily on the roles and responsibilities of the various participants. This month our attention turns to where would-be authors might find their golden opportunities and to some of the factors which govern the degree of success.
Before starting on your computer equivalent of a novel, you will have some idea of what you want to achieve from the exercise. Be honest with yourself. If you are in it for personal fame, then why not admit it and go where the 'fame' income is high. Most people are more interested in money and seek to get the best financial deal for their brainchild. Others are simply content to know that they have created a solid product which is much admired by its users. It doesn't really matter what drives you, but it is important that you are clear in your own mind. Only in this way can you seek the deal which best serves your personal motivations.
Looking for a moment at money, you will find that there are as many different deals as there are people willing to pay you. They will be based on either a one-off payment, a royalty or a combination of both. Some companies will offer an 'advance against future royalties' which combines the merits of both approaches. Some authors will need money so badly that they will go for the one-off payment. This is fine if a) you need the money, b) you think the publisher is about to go down the pan or c) if you know something about potential sales volume that the publisher doesn't. Straightforward royalty payments are handed over to you quarterly as a rule. Some large companies even pay quarterly at the end of the quarter in which the payment was originally due. You don't need to be a whizz at mathematics to realise that you can wait as long as six months before you see any lolly. And that's after you may have spent years getting the product to market An up-front amount as an advance against royalties means that you can at least eat while you are waiting for your first real cheque to come along. Of course, if the advance is massive, then it could be several years before your royalties overtake the up-front payment.
There is no such thing as a standard royalty percentage. Some companies pay a royalty on the amount of money they receive for the product. This is usually referred to as the transfer price, as opposed to the retail price. Others pay a fixed royalty per unit sold, regardless of what they actually get for it. Still others take either of the previous approaches but pay on a sliding scale. It is clearly far easier to do the sums on a fixed royalty per sale but if you go for this I would suggest that you be prepared to accept less for special deals. After all, a contract with ComputerLand or IBM for example might depress the royalty per unit but it would significantly increase sales potential. I've seen royalties quoted of up to 25 percent but these would almost certainly relate to the transfer price. Major clients prepared to manufacture the product under licence can demand discounts in excess of 75 percent. Under such circumstances I think most publishers would make a special arrangement where you receive a larger slice of their income. Such deals are worthwhile because these clients would be expected to sell an awful lot of product, the end result of which will be not only to provide you with a decent income but also to increase your credibility and indirectly increase your sales on other machines.
Talking of credibility, it is very important for the success of your first product and for the good of your own future that you aim to produce top quality products. If you put out a poor product, you'll get customers coming back, but only to complain, not to buy. Of course, if you're a get-rich-quick merchant and you don't really care too much about a future in this industry then you can slap out an inferior product, hype it up to the eyeballs, make it mail-order only and run with the money. That destroys the users trust and it's left to those of us remaining in the business to rebuild it. This can be a time consuming and costly exercise. Your reputation will be built on giving the user value for money and the more users, dealers, distributors and OEMs who you can get singing your praises, the more successful you'll be. Good publicity that never makes excessive claims for your product will always serve you best in the long run. If you hype a product, people will invariably be disappointed; if you praise a product's true strengths and make no exaggerations then, at worst, users will be satisfied and, at best, delighted. The only people who will be disappointed will be those who choose to read between the lines of your publicity.
Another thing you must take into account when planning your approach is support, especially for 'serious' software. You may think you have produced a bug-free product. I used to believe that this was possible and I think that for 99 percent of the population, your program will appear bug-free. There will always be someone though who manages to do something weird that makes it go wrong. If you want to sit on the source code, and many programmers do, then you must be available to fix bugs as soon as they are discovered. There are two ways out of this: give the publisher the source code or put it in escrow at a bank where the publisher can get hold of it if you are sailing round the world on your royalties. Sometimes things happen which aren't caused by errors in the program but when the user, dealer, publisher or whoever has exhausted all reasonable external possibilities, it is likely that you will be asked to lend a hand. If you are going it alone then you will find yourself giving an additional kind of support: that of answering all enquiries from users, potential users and time-wasters. With users, the answers should be in the manual. For the others, a well written product description should help. You will still get enquiries, but the previous two documents should field most of the questions. Bear these remarks on support in mind when planning your approach to life as a program author.
Your program can apply to almost any field of human endeavour whether learning, relaxing or working. For the purposes of this article, I have split applications into four areas: business; leisure; learning; and systems development. Each area is ripe with opportunity although some applications are inevitably more lucrative than others. At the moment big money is being made in games and business software.
A mistake a lot of people are making when writing programs for the business market is to take an existing package and then to 'improve' it Some products, like SuperCalc, will succeed, but that is because they have other reasons for success. In this case, VisiCalc was not available for CP/M machines so SuperCalc got a decent toehold. Other products, like MS-DOS, have succeeded largely due to the patronage of a certain large (blue) corporation. In the main, though, people all over the world are wasting their time twiddling and tweaking with new versions of existing products. You might stand more chance of success if you invested your development budget in the football pools.
Having said that, I'm sure that there are hundreds of opportunities for new business packages in areas which have not yet become 'mass market'. A lot of people are going for large vertical market applications such as hotel billing, restaurant accounting, newsagents' records, engineering calculations and kitchen planning for example. If the market is large enough then you could establish yourself as the specialist in your chosen field. Once you are in with a decent product then you will have gained the market's trust and commitment and you can then sell all future offerings into your established base. It is very important both to be good and to be one of the first companies into that field. If you want to go for the large horizontal markets then you will need to come up with a completely new application: something other than word-processing, spreadsheet or file management systems, or to produce a competing product with lots of extra facilities at a bargain price. It might be worth looking inside your own head to see what unique blend of expertise you have acquired and whether this can be turned into a new product.
The one thing I can't do in this senses is give you specific application ideas for the very simple reason that if they are any good, I will probably develop them and if not then I'd be leading you astray. Look around at the activities that people in business perform and ask yourself whether each can be computerised, whether it would save or make money and who would use such a program. Study the needs of the managers, office services, production, research and development, shipping, selling - somewhere in there you may find your big chance. I mentioned the big three applications earlier - word processing, spreadsheets and file management systems. The only remarkable thing about them is that each is so damned obvious. We are about to be enveloped in a wave of integrated products which combine bits of the big three in one package.
It's hardly original thinking is it? If you have a new idea for a mass market product then you are a very rare person indeed. Even if the idea appears obvious to you, it will have passed just about all of your fellow authors by. Develop the idea, turn it into a product synopsis, maybe even start programming it, but most of all be very careful who you tell about it. I would suggest that once you reach the stage where you know it can work that you chew the idea over with people you trust and who are qualified to comment. In the first place, these might be friends or colleagues involved in the application itself but, as you become more confident in the product's potential, then you need to talk to someone in the business of shifting micro computer software. You may operate on a small scale and team up with a dealer or systems house, you may try a manufacturer or you may go for a software publisher. Even if you decide to go it alone, I do believe that you should try to get some outside uninvolved feedback. Choose your outsider very carefully though. You will need someone who will neither praise nor damn without very sound reasons. At the end of the day it must be your own judgement which dictates your course of action.
Leisure opportunities seem to be boundless especially for products which I would regard as entertaining. We've recently seen a new development in games in which a character developed for one game starts popping up in other games. We are seeing the birth of a new industry which parallels the Mr Men or James Bond books. The particular products I have in mind are 'Hungry Horace' and 'Horace Goes Skiing'. You can see the future unfolding for Horace products: Horace Gets a Bank Loan; Horace Falls in Love; Horace Mends a Puncture. All of them would be strictly for entertainment and be designed to hold the interests for a month or two by which time the next 'Horace' product would be on the road. If this really catches on they we'll be seeing Horace tee shirts, key rings, follies and so on. For program authors with a bit of imagination, this could be the biggest opportunity of all time.
Other leisure products pale into insignificance by comparison. Of course, if I have successfully led all the other authors onto the path just described, then this leaves the other leisure applications free for you to exploit. Get a book on hobbies and see which ones are the most widespread. You may get the seed of a hobby application from this. I think plenty of people have jumped on the 'catalogue your collection' bandwagon but I'm sure that there are plenty of other opportunities in that area.
Networking seems to be in vogue right now, especially among hobbyists. There are two aspects to this, one is that software is needed to make one computer talk to another. The other is that software libraries are being created for downloading to these networkers. Both areas give you an opportunity to get in early with some decent products and make a name for yourself.
Learning is an area with fairly limitless application although many subjects could be taught using just one programmed instruction text driver program. This would involve a subject tutor building up appropriate sets of questions and answers for the PI program to take care of. Some subjects just couldn't be taught using this method and they would require their own dedicated programs. Speed reading has been tried without too much success so far, several typing tutors exist, children's mathematics and reading programs are fairly common but, like the Horace stuff mentioned earlier, the opportunities for fresh material are limitless. One thing to watch out for here is that many staff in educational establishments are not averse to copying programs and you may have to allow for this in your pricing. The tricky thing here is that as you increase the price to counteract the effects of such piracy, the price increase itself will give rise to more piracy as the product is then regarded as overpriced. I think you stand more chance of high volume sales if you pitch your educational wares towards the home rather than to the schools. My apologies to schools who play the game; your less scrupulous colleagues have rather let the side down.
The fourth target market you might like to consider is that of the systems developers. No-one wants to write compilers, editors, debuggers, tracers, and so on for their own use. These things only make sense when they're aimed at a large market. Have you ever felt the need for a particular sort of product when you have been developing programs? If you have, and you've been unable to find one, then the chances are that other people in the same situation will welcome such a product. In many ways this is one of the most appropriate application areas for someone developing software products since you know the requirements so intimately. Once again, no-one is going to be terribly interested in a new operating system or a new language if there are already plenty around which do the job. Your fortune is more likely to come from a new idea rather than from a rehash of an old one.
So far we've looked at application areas but this is only half the story. The other area of concern is which sort of machine to aim for. Some manufacturers have only sold a few hundred machines, others have sold hundreds of thousands and one or two claim to have sold over a million. It is clear that your product will sell more if it is aimed at the larger selling of the appropriate systems. I used the word 'systems' here because sometimes you can write a program for an operating system rather than for a particular machine. You still need to enable your program to cater for different screen and keyboard characteristics but, by and large, it will be unaffected by the machine which lies behind the operating system. this is why so many companies have announced machines with the popular CP/M, MSDOS or CP/M-86 operating systems. Unix is expected to be the next big operating system and Microsoft is trying to hang on to Unix's coat-tails with its own implementation called Xenix. Presumably Xenix will make life easier for migrants from the MSDOS/PCDDS stable. Some languages, for example MBasic, Pascal, CIS-Cobol and C, run on quite a variety of operating systems so you may find it helpful to write your application in one of these languages. This way your product becomes available on all machines which carry your chosen implementation of the language. Sometimes you may have to adapt the source code for different implementations but, compared with a complete rewrite, this has got to be a more sensible approach.
At the lower end of the business, you will find each machine fairly unique. There are exceptions: the Video Genie is a copy of the TRS-80 and can therefore nun Tandy program too. The ZX81 and Spectrum are quite unique and since hundreds of thousands of each are installed, why shouldn't they be? Many machines such as the three mentioned just now, contain a Z80 processor so they have a measure of compatibility but the screen, keyboard and storage characteristics are likely to be very different. If your application is mainly processor-bound then you might be able to migrate machine code programs fairly easily. The Atari uses a 6502 processor but has a spectacular graphics chip which makes it unique. The Tl 99/4 contains a 9900 chip and special graphics facilities which make its programming different from anything else. And so it goes on. Since most games need to be written in assembler or machine code for speed, there is precious little useful compatibility between the various low-end machines. At the moment CP/M and MSDOS are probably the most popular operating systems with CP/M-86 coming up fast. Outside of Sinclair Basic, Microsoft Basic is almost certainly the most popular implementation of this language. You should bear in mind if choosing to write in MBasic that not everyone owns an interpreter so it might pay you to compile the code. This will make the program run much faster and it also saves the user extra expense when taking your product. The bad news is that you will have to pay Microsoft a couple of thousand dollars for the privilege of distributing its run-time code with your product.
Pascal and ClS-Cobol are fine for people who already own these languages but an expensive extra if they have to buy them in order to run your package. Some writers of C compilers are happy to let you sell programs compiled with their products and they make no claims upon you. I've got a feeling that Forth is the same but you would need to check that for your particular implementation. On the face of it, C would appear to be a useful language to write your programs in. Implementations are, and will continue to be, available for a wide range of machines. The compiled code runs fast and some authors make no claims on you for products written in that language. Providing you can actually write the sort of program you need to, it would seem to offer a fairly smooth transition from machine to machine.
We talk a lot in this industry about 'windows'. For example, the ZX80 provided an opportunity window for a few months then it was replaced by the ZX81 which has provided far more opportunities. The Pet gave everyone a field day and, in Britain, that particular window was both large and open for a long time. Tandy's TRS-80 provided a great opportunity for American authors but it was far less popular in the UK. Machines come and go. So, I've no doubt, will languages. If something has been going for a long time then you must decide if you want to cash in on the substantial user base which still exists or change tack and go for something with a better future. Try and figure out where you are with respect to the window you are aiming your product at. Read a lot and see if you can discover what is likely to be the next big opportunity. In Britain, it is early days for the IBM Personal Computer (IBM doesn't like it being called PC). Is there a chance for you to jump on the bandwagon before a lot of American products find their way over? Don't just look at the machine specifications. Consider the price of the machine and the presence of the company over here (or over there if that's your main market.) Can you see a big market for the Lisa in the UK just yet? Atari and TI both goofed on the pricing of what were excellent products. By the time they dropped their prices the likes of Sinclair and Commodore had established an unshakeable hold on the marketplace.
Security is something you should consider in your plans since it is going to cost you time and money to implement and even more time and money if you decide to take someone to court. Serial numbering of programs is very popular and this, coupled with a checksum, can make people think twice before ripping off your products. Lots of people bury a specific nonsense code so that if they ever need to go to court they can prove a rip off simply because the nonsense code is almost certain to be copied too. 'Dongles' supplied with software are a good way of preventing piracy: they must be plugged in before the program will work. If your market is large enough (ten of thousands of users) you could go for ROM cartridges. The sad thing about all this is that we are all having to spend a ridiculous amount of time on deterrence of what, after all, is theft. Whatever approach you choose, I suggest you keep the details to yourself. Make sure though that it is possible to trace the original purchase of the stolen code. Publishers usually log all sales by serial number and invite owners to register with them in order to qualify for support, special offers and so on.
A less sinister, but still irritating development is that of mimicry. If you come up with a good program then someone else can copy it function for function and, if their marketing is better than yours, beat you on sales. this is more likely to happen with games than with any other application. In America, original games are reckoned to have a life of between four and six weeks . I feel in my bones that this is less of a problem over here but I really don't know.
And finally ...
An idea is doing the rounds that Britain has a chance to make an impact in the world with its software offering. For every person I meet who believes this, I find ten people who want to knock the idea. Don't take any notice of the detractors. We really do have a chance here to mine a renewable resource (British brains) and sell the products all over the world. Opportunity abounds in leisure, business and learning activities and, since English is one of the world's most popular languages, we should remember that the markets for our programs are truly enormous.
Next month we shall take a closer look at how to create world beating products from your original ideas.