Turning the Mind Into Money
By Jochen Wegner 10.8.2001
John Brockman helps scientists acquire million-dollar book contracts — and networks them into the "Third Culture."
He has sold gladioli and investments. He was a hippie and a folk singer. He made art with Andy Warhol and helped market the women's movement, as well as feminine hygiene products. One of his books is called Einstein, Gertrude Stein, Wittgenstein & Frankenstein. Today he is an impresario for Nobel Prize winners and an icon of the computer industry. He is known as "brusque, aggresive, ruthless" (The Independent), as a "nimble deal-maker" (The New York Times), or as a "brat" (Wired).
Photo: Tobias Everke
Poster for film "Head" (directed by Bob Rafelson). Silkscreen on aluminized Mylar; gift of Columbia Pictures, 1969
Hardly has a scientist made it onto the cover of The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal when Brockman is on the scene with the promise of finding a million-dollar publishing advance for a popular book. A British newspaper found its own word for this surprise tactic: "brockman" Insiders complain that half-complete, thrown-together proposals are a consequence. Another result is confused scientists, who after being overrun by Brockman can't fulfill their contracts. Such an example is Nobel Prize winner Murray Gell-Mann, who with Brockman's help is supposed to have received a contract for over one million dollars, but had to pay back the advance. The pasted-together manuscript, delivered late, had not met the expectations of the publisher. Later The Quark and the Jaguar appeared with another publisher against an advance of only $50,000. Alan Guth, who developed the theory of the inflationary universe, also had trouble completing his work, which was passed through three publishers. "But John softened all of the problems very well," praises Guth. "He was very understanding."
Archeologist Eberhard Zangger, one of the rare German clients, describes an impressive example of Brockman's effective method of agenting. "I came to the Frankfurt Book Fair with a few copies of my new book that were very expensive to produce," he remembers. Zangger had just learned that Brockman wanted to represent him. "I was overjoyed, since that was the best thing that one can achieve as an author. But then, two of my very expensive books were stolen."
Later, Zangger came by Brockman's stand to introduce himself personally, and found the agent in a sales meeting — with one of the missing copies in his hand.
Popular titles like Emotional Intelligence, which sold more than six million copies, and works by cognitive scientist Steven Pinker (How the Mind Works) or the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins (Unweaving the Rainbow) came into being through this effective "brockmaning." "But who is interested in that?" sighs Brockman. Maybe only those scientists who land record breaking advances of up to two million dollars — like physicist Brian Greene at last year's Frankfurt Book Fair.
It is surely for this reason that the brilliant string theorist, whose bestseller The Elegant Universe was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, sits somewhat confused at a wooden table at Eastover Farm on an afternoon at the end of July and asks: "What are we doing here, John?"
Just as in summers past, Brockman has invited minds that don't bore him for a rustic date. Cosmologist Alan Guth has come, as well as Jordan Pollack, the inventor of robots that invent robots, and Jaron Lanier, musician and pioneer of virtual reality. "We are simply discussing how everything is changing around us," answers Brockman in flowerly prose to Greene's question. Later, at lunch, he whispers covertly, "When you don't prepare anything, you get the best results."
The sentence can serve as a motto that weaves through the iridescent life of Brockman, who as the son of a flower dealer studied business in his early twenties, only to become within a few years an investment broker, artist, celebrated marketing guru, and respected writer — in this order. "I was very un-shy in my twenties," he explains. "I met who I wanted to simply by picking up the phone?." In those days he cooked regularly with the composer John Cage and loitered about Andy Warhol's Factory. He also rented out what is possibly his greatest talent — getting intelligent types to be talked about intelligently— to entrepreneurial projects. Or to the band The Monkees, whose Film Head he publicized by having posters of his own head hung everywhere.
"There was also a time when John tried to be a serious author," remembers the Swiss book agent Peter Fritz, who has known Brockman since 1975. "But then he realized one can live better through the sales of works by other authors. And having a good income was also surely important to him." After Stephen Hawking's bestseller, explains Brockman, "I saw the gap in the market for popular books by leading researchers. I then expanded it myself."
"No one needs a friendly book agent."
Photo: Nat Finkelstein
Stewart Brand, a close friend and one of Brockman's first clients thinks that John Brockman is "intensely curious and easily bored." In an interview with a reporter of a fashion magazine when he was just 26, Brockman explained that he refuses "to do something that I have already done before. The past is boring." In spite of this, his dynamic mind has created its own space where he will never be bored again. There he can occupy himself with those questions that "the most complex and sophisticated minds" of the world are asking themselves. So reads the motto of his website "Edge" (www.edge.org), and like much about Brockman, it proves to sound as pompous on the first look as appropriate on the second. On his invitation, an elite club of clients, friends, and friends of clients meet on the Internet and discuss whether "science kills the soul," or whether life is digital or analog. Brockman estimates that half of his working time is spent on this non-profit project.
In this network we see the development of a sort of Version 2.0 of the salons in which "the most sophisticated minds" of the nineteenth century freely discussed literature. In the twenty-first, research and technology are the themes. In this format final scientific exactness remains at a distance — and with it the oppressive gravity of the research business. Nobel Prize winner Murray Gell-Mann thinks that some of the discussions are good, others not. The website contains "a considerable amount of nonsense." But one thing this playground for literate scientists seldom is: boring.
"Third Culture," — that's the name Brockman gave the growing community of scientists who leave the ivory tower to take part in the public debate — be it in the internet, in interviews, or in books. He borrowed the concept from the writer C.P. Snow and re-coined it for his purposes "as a catchy marketing term" (Brockman). In a third culture, Snow dreamed 40 years ago, the two divided cultures of the natural sciences and humanities would once again speak to one another. In Brockman's own interpretation of the concept the scientists of the Third Culture relieve those self-proclaimed intellectuals who are perversely proud not to understand the really important knowledge of our time.
While stem cells and BSE, bioethics and the believability of science occupy the media, Europe has imported the "catchy marketing term" along with its attendant ideology. Contact with the New Yorker in May of last year inspired Frank Schirrmacher, co-editor and chief of the arts and letters pages of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, to write a manifesto ("Wake-up call for Europe"). In it he complained self-critically about the European Intellectuals who are "stubbornly or clumsily avoiding the issue" of technology and science. He announced that his Arts and Letters pages would strengthen the ability of the Third Culture to be heard. In a revolutionary mood a few weeks later, he even published a page-long snippet of the newly-cracked human genetic code. Since then, not only has the FAZ Feuilleton been "brockmaned," but also the cultural debate in Germany. Brockman finds this "fully logical. All the Schirrmachers of the world are bored with their half of the two traditional cultures."
As excited as a Freshman, Brockman spends this day on Eastover Farm circling the leading representatives of his Third Culture, proposes questions, passes notes with speaking instructions around the circle and photographs everything for the website with a digital camera. "I have created a university with the best scientists in the world," he says later. "And I am its only student." In its best moments, the professors of his virtual university argue about the riddles of their disciplines — among them, what information is, or whether our universe is only a holographic projection of a higher-dimensional world. Virtual reality pope Jaron Lanier and evolutionary biologist Marc Hauser consider with all seriousness whether animals could be raised for research purposes in a completely virtual world that follows completely other natural laws. "Let's do a project together," says Lanier excitedly.
Brockman would like it if his thinkers would take one more step away from their ivory tower: "What would happen if the members of Edge founded an advisory committee for President Bush?" he asks over coffee. The reactions in the circle range from horror to interest. "One can't leave the cloning debate or the plans for Star Wars to such people," suggests the master of the house. Politics, he says, doesn't interest him. "Just the truth."
Reality drags the Third Culture a few weeks later one further step away from the ivory tower. 6,000 people were buried in the rubble of The World Trade Center. "What now?" Brockman asks the circle on Edge. Dozens of essays crackle on the website which no scientific journal could produce. Historians assemble their research experiences with Islam, philosophers consider biological warfare, cognitive scientists discuss the power of news images. Only John Brockman composes no contribution and remains quiet.
What touches and propels him remains hidden under his Panama hat. It says so, too, in one of those Zen-inflected sentences he exchanged years ago with the artist James Lee Byars, his "closest friend." Byars wrote, "Wears his hat to deny his head." ■
First published by Focus Magazin Verlag GmbH, October 8, 2001. Translation by Christopher Williams.
What does this man say — dressed in a Panama hat and pitch-black sunglasses — as a greeting? John Brockman says: "You know, I am so bored by myself." That, one might console him, is not so bad, because the 60 year-old earns his money by being excited about others. He is considered the most successful agent for science books — and as the central figure of an industry that entices media-compatible scientists out of their laboratories and turns them into highly paid stars of pop culture. Still, his livelihood is for him "only a side-product" of his true passion: Brockman networks some of the most influential thinkers of our time. In this work, this layman has himself become one of the protagonists of science.
Just as in previous years his New York based agency, Brockman, Inc., will represent his clients this week with its own stand at the Frankfurt Book Fair. "When we hit Frankfurt, it's show time," says Brockman. "Then I put on my hat and my game face. No one needs a friendly book agent." Only the head beneath the hat will be bored with this again. Brockman long ago turned over the daily business to his wife, Katinka Matson. He conducts most of his work via the Internet from Eastover Farm, his estate in Connecticut, which was built in 1773.