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Eureka! They Like Science

By Michael White 12.13.1992

Outside, the sirens wail and the continuous screech of car horns grates for the 50th time that day. Inside the offices of John Brockman Associates, here in Manhattan's West 80s, all is sublime New Age, high-tech and chic. A mile uptown, two hours later, the sun sets into an orange cloud of car fumes and a McDonald's cashier has his chest blown out in an armed robbery. After five o'clock, an invisible barrier comes down one side of 96th Street beyond which the yellow cabs never venture. According to John Brockman, the West 80s, a district roughly equivalent to Chelsea, was ''at the centre of things in the 1980s, but times have changed'', he says. ''We're moving to offices on the Upper East side early next year.''


Surrounded by state-of-the-art computers, modems and fax machines, and a small team of lively, friendly assistants, Brockman and his partner and wife, Katinka Matson, present to the world the style trappings you would expect of New York's fastest-expanding and most tuned-in agency. Together, and in a remarkably short time, they have carved an impressive swathe through the New York publishing scene.

Until two years ago, Brockman was little known outside America; today he handles upwards of 200 authors, including some of the biggest international names in the booming genre of popular science writing. For it is in this arena that Brockman has had the greatest success, landing a succession of multi-million-dollar deals for cutting-edge science books by leaders in their field, making himself and his authors very rich in the process.

''It is quite simple,'' one New York publisher explained to me. ''When John Brockman walks into publishers' offices anywhere in the world, cheque books open.'' Another told me, ''John feels that he has failed if one of his writers receives a royalty cheque. It means he didn't get them a big enough advance.''


Brockman himself is too modest to admit to such a claim, but when I ask him how he evolved into one of the most sought-after agents in the world, his eyes light up and he settles back in his leather chair as if preparing himself for a long story. Then, changing his mind, he swings out of his chair, the flap of grey Armani suit preceding him around to my side of the desk, and leads me along the hall to the rest room. He points to a huge framed poster of a young man's face hanging above the toilet. The expression is serious, long hair hanging over the eyes and the word ''HEAD'' written across the forehead.


''Recognise the face?'' he says with a laugh. ''That's me in '68. A long time ago in space and time. But, really, what I was doing then and what I'm doing now the avant-garde if you like; they're both the same thing. I've always been interested in the unusual, life at the cutting edge.''


In 1968, Brockman could be found deeply entrenched in the New York art scene. A colleague and collaborator of Andy Warhol, he was responsible for organising ''happenings'' the 1960s version of raves. His most successful was a multi-media disco which made the front cover of Life magazine. ''A very weird situation in which to find myself,'' he explains. ''I can't dance!''


So, within the space of a few years, Brockman had turned to something he could participate in computer software. He had seen the dawning of the new technology, and realised a niche in the market. Computer users needed manuals and tutorial texts, so Brockman convinced publishers that they should cater for the market.


He gained a reputation as being that rare commodity an agent interested in visionary ideas and authentic thinkers, as well as making money. When the market for computer manuals collapsed in 1988, he and Matson channelled their energies into popular science publishing.


Lay explanations of ''difficult'' science had been doing modest business since the late 1970s. Ground breaking books, such as John Gribbin's In Search of Schrodinger's Cat, and Paul Davies's God and the New Physics, were notching up global sales around the 100,000 mark; but publishers were slow to react.


Then, overnight, everything changed with the astonishing success of Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time, published in 1988. The book spent a record-breaking 200 weeks in The Sunday Times's hardback bestsellers' list, and sold upwards of 10m copies worldwide.


The phenomenon did not go unnoticed by Brockman. Realising that Hawking's success heralded a vast new publishing ''happening'', he acted quickly. There are now only a handful of science writers around the world who are not clients of John Brockman Associates.


When I asked him if he thought that, five years on and with the shelves of bookshops everywhere creaking under the weight of new popular science books, the genre may be on its last legs, he declared: ''There will always be some new and exciting scientific breakthrough which the public wants to know about. Educated people have an insatiable thirst for the unknown, for a glimpse of the infinite, the universe just beyond our reach.''


In 1990, Brockman secured a seven-figure deal for one of America's most eminent physicists, Murray Gell-Mann, the Nobel laureate. The book, The Quark and the Jaguar: Adventures in the Simple and the Complex, begins, the author claims, with Hawking, and will take us on to the next step, reaching for answers that people really want.


Earlier this year, and within weeks of creating the idea during a business breakfast in London with Anthony Cheetham, the publisher of Orion books, Brockman sold a 12-part series 40,000-word popular science books (to be called Science Masters) to 27 publishers for an estimated $2m. Writers involved in the series include such luminaries as Richard Dawkins, Stephen Jay Gould and Colin Blakemore.


His favourite personal anecdote perfectly sums up his approach: ''In the spring of this year I was in Japan at the end of a gruelling business trip. Heading back to the airport, I happened to notice the headline of a newspaper which was blaring the news of a breakthrough in the experimental verification of theories of the origin of the universe. I got to the airport and headed straight for the phone in the first-class lounge.


'I finally got to an international pay phone, and with a fistful of coins got through to the cosmologist, George Smoot, in the US. The first thing I said was, 'Hey look, something big is happening in the universe, what's in it for me?'''


''George explained that Nasa's newly-launched Cobe satellite had yielded exciting results, which seemed to verify some of the latest cosmological theories, and confirmed theoretical physicists' view of the early universe.''


''I got him to work on a proposal with Keay Davidson, the journalist who had broken the story for the San Francisco Examiner. I asked them to fax it to me by the time I got home, 13 hours later. True to their word, the fax arrived and, on my way to the office, we discussed it on my cellular phone. Katinka and I then spent the next 24 hours reworking it, and we had it in the offices of 60 publishers in 12 countries within two days of seeing the headline. Within one week we had auctioned the book in New York, London, Munich, Milan, Barcelona and Paris, for the largest deal in the history of science publishing.''


Brockman obviously relishes his lifestyle and the powerful position in which he finds himself. ''Science publishing has experienced an exponential rate of growth during the past five years,'' he declares. ''And it feels good to be in the vanguard.''

When I ask him how he finds time to sleep, he replies with a charismatic half-smile. ''I don't really, but I love doing what I do. I'm constantly amazed by the fact that I can earn so much money doing something I find so satisfying.'' ■


First published by The Sunday Times December 13, 1992.

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