Nimble Deal-Maker For Stars Of Science
By John Gorman 10.14.1997
"To me, the people that I work with are the glamorous people. They're the beautiful people. Is there something wrong with an evolutionary biologist being paid as much as a rock star?"
At the gathering in Connecticut, for instance, were Steven Pinker ("How the Mind Works"), Lee Smolin ("The Life of the Cosmos"), Daniel Dennett ("Consciousness Explained"), Alan Guth ("The Inflationary Universe"), Nicholas Humphrey ("A History of the Mind"), Niles Eldredge ("Reinventing Darwin," "Dominion") and Frank Sulloway ("Freud," "Biologist of the Mind"), who is not a client, at least not yet.
Mr. Brockman also represents journalists, a number of them employees of The New York Times. But it is as an agent of scientists that Mr. Brockman has made his mark. He is known for striking quickly and treating publishers as adversaries in a contest for money. He sells foreign rights to books himself, rather than letting publishers reap those profits, and prides himself on working a global market.
He sold the just published "How the Mind Works" to W. W. Norton for $500,000 to $600,000, said an editor who was involved in the auction forthe book but did not buy it. And he just struck a deal for another book by Dr. Pinker for a larger sum, the author said. "Ten years ago," Mr. Brockman said, scientists writing for a popular audience "would go to Basic Books or M.I.T. Press and get paid a modest advance and give up world rights." Today, they may think about $1 million.
"Scientists are getting what celebrities got 10 years ago -- well, actually, they're getting as much as celebrities in many cases," Mr. Brockman added.
And why not, he asks. "To me," he said, "the people that I work with are the glamorous people. They're the beautiful people. Is there something wrong with an evolutionary biologist being paid as much as a rock star?"
Editors and other agents who deal with Mr. Brockman or compete with him, complain, off the record, about quickie book proposals, overblown advances and books that do not come in on time or in good shape.
Unlike most agents, he submits proposals to a number of publishers at the same time, rather than dealing with them one at a time. "He's always looking for huge money," one editor said, and he does not wait for the scientists to decide that it is time to review their careers and write for the ages. He recruits professors who have received good press for their work the way another agent might recruit actors or quarterbacks.
Acting as a book packager, something between an agent and a publisher, he created a Science Masters series of short, reader-friendly books by scientists like Dr. Pinker and Dr. Dennett and others who are not clients, like the paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould. He has sold the rights for this series worldwide.
Popular books about science have always been around. But an editor at Free Press (owned by Simon & Schuster) who has bought a number of books through Mr. Brockman, Susan Arellano, said, "I don't think they had the visibility that John has given them." He has raised the size of advances for books about science to a new level, she said, and Mr. Brockman agrees. "I had something to do with that," he said.
Of course, Mr. Brockman does not create the books. Jonathan Segal, an editor at Knopf, said that "there are a lot of good books out there in science," and that they are out there because of scientists' research and writing. And Mr. Segal pointed out that no one had to participate in a Brockman auction. "It's not John making us bid, it's us," he said.
Mr. Brockman says much the same. "It's the people writing the books that matter," he said. "The publishers that will fall all over me to buy book A won't take my calls for book B." In his characteristic conversational mix, stirring business, philosophy and a big name together in the same elliptical breath, he continued: "What I'm saying is the concreteness, in the Whitehead sense, lives with the manuscript and the author. It's not the agent, believe me." That's Alfred North Whitehead, by the way, the English mathematician and philosopher who wrote "Principia Mathematica" with Bertrand Russell. "I'm only as strong as the book I'm representing at that moment," he said, then paused. "Well, to some degree."
Mr. Brockman, 56, did not begin with books. After getting his M.B.A. from Columbia University, he moved almost immediately into Manhattan's downtown art world as an orchestrator of the avant-garde. In the 1960's, he put on multimedia events. He worked with Andy Warhol. He worked in Hollywood. And he wrote books himself, essays in which he reflected on subjects like cybernetics, the comparative study of brains and computer systems. His first was called "By the Late John Brockman" (Macmillan). By his account, he has now written, edited or been a co-author of about 18 books.
He started his literary agency in 1973 and, in the early 80's, had a flurry of success selling computer software and computer books. One of his first big books was "The Whole Earth Software Catalog," sold to Doubleday for $1.3 million. The computer world is still, in some sense, his home. He lives on E-mail and has just set up a Web site, accessed only with passwords, on which he posts proposals for books he is selling. He need only call a publisher or send E-mail to let an editor read a proposal immediately, with no printing or mailing costs for Brockman Inc.
One of the books Mr. Brockman wrote caused him a great deal of grief. It was titled "Einstein, Gertrude Stein, Wittgenstein & Frankenstein," and he had to tell Viking to pull it off the market in 1986 after James Gleick, then a reporter for The New York Times, noticed that sections of it strongly resembled an article he had written for The New York Times Magazine. This was a particularly serious crisis for a literary agent, whose livelihood is the word as property. The book was already in stores.
It was the worst moment of his life, Mr. Brockman said, acknowledging that there were sections in his book that should have been attributed to Mr. Gleick. He said the mistake had been made by a young assistant to whom he had farmed out some of the books' chapters to finish.
He has continued to write and edit and to organize intellectual salons, both live and virtual. The first was The Reality Club, which he started with the late Heinz Pagels, a physicist, as a way for researchers from different disciplines to get together and talk about their work. He now has a site on the World Wide Web for such discussions, with many of his clients and others talking about cosmology, consciousness and computer science. Reviews of the site are mixed. Murray Gell Mann, a Nobel laureate in physics and another Brockman client, said that some of the discussion was good, some not. It contains, he said, "a considerable amount of nonsense."
The selling of Dr. Gell-Mann's book "The Quark and the Jaguar" has brought Mr. Brockman criticism. His handling of that book was excoriated in an article in The New Republic as typical of his approach to selling science books. Mr. Brockman was reported to have sold the book to Bantam for $550,000 and topped $1 million with foreign rights.
But Dr. Gell-Mann had great trouble writing the book and went through several collaborators, finally turning in a partial manuscript that Bantam rejected. Mr. Brockman then resold the book to W. H. Freeman for $50,000. Dr. Gell-Mann had to return his advance from Bantam, but he said in an interview that he was happy with Mr. Brockman as an agent. "I made a lot of money on the book," Dr. Gell-Mann said.
Alan Guth is another scientist and Brockman client who had a book, "The Inflationary Universe," that ran into problems. After an initial burst of enthusiasm and a hefty advance, Dr. Guth went through three publishers before his book saw print. He does not blame Mr. Brockman, although he does say, sounding bemused rather than resentful, "I would almost go so far as to say he tricked me into writing the book."
In January 1991, Dr. Guth related, one of those times when the Big Bang theory was being called into question and his work on an expanding universe was receiving attention, a front-page interview with him appeared in The Wall Street Journal. He received a good deal of publicity elsewhere as well.
Mr. Brockman seized the moment. He called Dr. Guth and told him that he could get a big advance if Dr. Guth would agree to write a book. Dr. Guth agreed, and Mr. Brockman sold the book to Bantam for $250,000. But Dr. Guth said the pressure of other work and his own perfectionism had slowed his progress. "The Inflationary Universe" was finally published by Addison-Wesley (the third of Dr. Guth's publishers) for considerably less than Bantam had agreed to pay.
Of course, some Brockman clients publish their books with no trouble, or even with high-flying success. And, as he and book editors also point out, it is an agent's job to get large advances for his clients. Both Dr. Gell-Mann, who had a world of trouble with his book, and Dr. Pinker, for whom all is going smoothly, say they have been quite satisfied with him as an agent.
Mr. Brockman thinks of himself not only as a deal-maker, but as a writer and a traveler in the world of ideas. What draws him to his work, he said, is "the idea of exalting ideas." Perhaps the best description of Mr. Brockman's relationship to science and scientists is that he is a fan, the sort who knows the ins and outs of the game, the hot subjects, the players, the coaches, the statistics and, of course, the salaries, bonuses and intricacies of free agentry. He is a fan who knows the game so well that he has been able to make it his business.
Being able to work with people he admires, promote important ideas, and, along the way, "make a fine living for myself" makes it, Mr. Brockman said, "the best of all possible worlds." He added: "What can I say? It's a great life." ■
First published by The New York Times, October 14, 1997.
A few months ago, a group of authors gathered at a country house in Connecticut for a weekend, taking walks in the meadows and woods,dining alfresco and talking about their work. They did not, however, discuss movie rights, the fate of the novel or the current rash of memoirs.They talked about multiple universes, the philosophy of mathematics and the nature of consciousness.
This was a pastoral salon in which cosmologists, cognitive scientists, linguists and invertebrate paleontologists could discuss the evolution of the the universe and the problem of whether 1+1=2 is a tautology, a logical formula with relevance only to itself, or whether it has a necessary connection with the physical world. It was a meeting at which the authors could consider the question of whether there are questions that are unanswerable, in principle.
All the authors are scientists, and all except one are clients of their host, John Brockman, the literary agent whose house they were visiting and who presided over the occasion with his wife and business partner, Katinka Matson. Mr. Brockman, of Brockman Inc., with a penthouse office in Manhattan just off Fifth Avenue, may have more scientists as clients than any other literary agent. The Independent newspaper in England recently paid him the backhanded compliment of turning his name into a verb, suggesting that there are telltale signs when a scientist is "Brockmaned," one of them being a six-figure advance. His client list reads like a university's interdepartmental committee on evolution, computer science, consciousness and the fate of the cosmos.