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Episode 20: It’s a HIT!

September 5, 2012

On a day in late November 1972, Nolan Bushnell and his partner, Ted Dabney, installed a prototype video game in Andy Capp’s Tavern in Sunnyvale, CA—a location that was surrounded by cherry orchards at the time, and is smack dead in the heart of Silicon Valley. In a makeshift console with the coin box from a kiddie ride, the pair placed the game atop a wine barrel, then sat back and watched. A few of the braver patrons took their chances at playing the game, intrigued by Bushnell’s new-fangled invention. After a few drinks, with the game operating well, the pair departed with the feeling that their test system was off to a good start.

Two weeks later, the bar owner called to say that the machine was broken. It had also garnered quite a following. People actually lined up at the door before opening just to play it. The bar owner suggested that they might want to repair it quickly.

When the repairman arrived to diagnose the failure, he opened the system to give himself a free game…and was caught in a flood of quarters. The game had broken because the coin box had filled to overflowing.

Nolan Bushnell knew immediately that he had a hot property on his hands. PONG was a hit…

And now, with the avid interest of the publishing seminar attendees on our project and White Cloud’s response to our book proposal, Judy and I suddenly knew what Nolan Bushnell must have felt like. We knew we had a hit. All we had to do is not screw it up.

The problem was what to do next. We needed to figure out the best way to move forward–how not to screw up. Should we send the manuscript to other larger “big name” publishers? A publishing house like Random House, HarperCollins, or Simon & Schuster would be able to provide clout…and contacts. But they also had what I call a “spray and pray” business model. These ginormous publishing companies spit out a thousand books a year. All they need is a small number of runaway hits to ensure the ink on the balance sheet is the winning color. As a result, the giant publishing companies offer little or no help to the author, and we were certainly going to need sage assistance to be successful. We also knew that submitting our manuscript to other publishers would delay the project. Silicon Valley projects abhor delay—nefarious forces always gather against you. Most large publishing houses take months before they will even read your proposal. Although we were certain that we could garner the interest of a larger publisher, there were drawbacks.

White Cloud represented a fantastic opportunity to shave many, many months off the project’s timeline. Since they only publish about 10 books a year, and were still in business, we knew that each of their manuscripts had to be carefully selected. In essence, they had a track record of picking and crafting profitable books. If we selected WC, we also felt sure we would receive the help we needed to make the book fulfill its promise. Steve, and his partner Stephen Sendar, even suggested that they would be prepared to write a publishing contract that would be structured more like a film deal than the standard publishing contract—meaning a greater percentage in royalties for our side of the ledger.

It was a huge decision. We needed to get out of town to clear our heads…

Click here for Episode 21: Which way to turn?

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