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Agent Provocateur

By Warren St. John 9.1.1999

John Brockman — literary impresario, idea guy, brat — is on a mission to force book publishing to accept its digital destiny.

John Brockman—the onetime hippie, Warhol groupie, feminine-hygiene marketing guru, "intermedia" performance artist, author, and, now, salon leader and literary agent to some of the world's most influential scientists and technologists—is barreling down 59th Street in Manhattan. Gaudily turned out in a wide-brimmed Borsalino hat and a royal blue double-breasted blazer, he's on a mission: He wants to be dull.

"Charisma gets you shot," Brockman says as he steps awkwardly over a puddle.


"Nobody bothers to shoot bores. I like to say I'm 'post-interesting.'"


"You're not interesting?"


"Not not-interesting!" he snaps. "Post-interesting! Interesting doesn't pay. Well, it pays once, but not twice. I used to be interesting. I was, like, the It Boy. Being so interesting—well, it's not so interesting!"

Brockman on 59th Street in Manhattan.

Moving from interesting to post-interesting is just the latest turn for a man who, about once every decade, reinvents himself. Or, as Brockman likes to put it, "Every 10 years I have an idea." His best idea, by far, has been to become a literary agent, as well known for his list of prominent clients—writers and thinkers like Daniel Goleman (Emotional Intelligence), Richard Dawkins (Unweaving the Rainbow), and Jared Diamond (Guns, Germs, and Steel)—as for the sometimes astounding advances he extracts from publishers. When a client asks Brockman how much he can get for a manuscript, he has a standard, not entirely ironic response: "For you, a million."


Being an agent satisfies Brockman's three essential needs: It makes money. ("I don't like having money—I like getting it," he says.) It generates publicity. And it facilitates Brockman's seemingly compulsive desire to annoy people. "John likes to run needles into people's nostrils just to see what they'll do about it," says writer Stewart Brand, a longtime friend and client who nevertheless characterizes this post-interesting business as "just another line of bullshit." According to Brand, Brockman is also "intensely curious and easily bored."


Indeed, it wasn't long before Brockman got bored with conventional agenting—the deals, the authors, the press, even the dough. So he came up with another new idea, and it may be his most annoying yet. For the last couple of   years, Brockman has waged a partly serious, partly wiseass campaign to force the technophobic tweeds in the New York publishing world to do away with the familiar rituals and props of their industry—the transfer by messenger and express mail of carefully typed cover letters, neatly paper clipped proposals, and bulky manuscripts—and to go digital.


"They're behind," Brockman says of his peers. "A lot of them are stuck in the second culture." He wants to yank them into the "third culture," by which he means, broadly, the realm of the technologically literate.


The first salvo was Brockman's declaration in 1997 that he would thenceforth operate a paperless office.   Brockman  put his entire offering of proposals and manuscripts on a password-protected site. Publishers who wanted access would be given a URL and a secret word—usually "bestseller"—to view the materials online or to print out the pages themselves. Manhattan cohorts thought the scheme was fallout from what one agent calls Brockman's "high-concept fog cloud." His customers haven't been wild about it, either.


"The problem is that if I want to read a proposal I have to print the damn thing out," says William Thomas, editor in chief of Doubleday. "It's annoying."


"I told him at the time that this was the end of our relationship, because I was damned if I was going to use email," says Donald Lamm, chair of W. W. Norton & Company, one of the tweediest outfits in publishing. No fan of Brockman's, Lamm is now a reluctant email recipient whose company eventually submitted to the tormentor's system.


What the industry may find truly irresistible, though, is Brockman's cost cutting results. Brockman has saved a lot by decreasing his paper load—printing and postage costs for shopping a single proposal can exceed $1,200 if the book is overnighted to European and Asian publishers. And the digital setup has allowed him to distribute his book proposals instantly to a global buying audience. He sold a novel by former Spy editor Bruno Maddox in nine countries in less than a week, all without mailing a thing and without giving a cut to foreign "subagents."


Brockman has recently invested in a Silicon Valley startup called the RightsCenter, which he hopes will become "the killer app for the publishing world." The RightsCenter will be a souped-up version of Brockman's site, one that can be used by publishers, agents, editors, and writers around the world—bankrolled by those willing to pay a couple hundred bucks to post their material online. As Brockman sees it, the RightsCenter could evolve into a giant online literary marketplace, an eBay for the written word. If it catches on, Brockman will have it all: more money, more attention, and—here's the real beauty of it—an enhanced ability to irritate people. Everyone in publishing will have to use it, even people who don't want to.


For all his advocacy of the third culture, Brockman is not one to miss out on a deal. If a publisher insists, he will still dutifully print out a manuscript and send it the old fashioned way.


Still, for Brockman, the RightsCenter is about much heavier stuff than just making money and bugging people. It's about progress. "What's new is not what was," he says, as if anyone who thinks otherwise is an imbecile. "Progress is the negation of 'was,' not 'what's next.' We're at the intersection of the empirical and the epistemological. I want to be floating on that edge."


Actually, we're at the intersection of Fifth Avenue and 59th Street, across the way from the Plaza Hotel and in front of the building that houses the offices of Brockman Inc. Upstairs, in Brockman's penthouse lair, he escorts me to a terrace with grand views along Central Park South. The space itself is decorated with a Bauhaus vibe—austere wooden desks and tables surrounded by black leather chairs and sofas.


The first thing you notice about a paper-less office is that it looks a lot like an abandoned office. Against one wall, a computer sits on a desk, and that's about it. Brockman takes his hat off, plops into a leather chair, and rants on a favorite theme: the corporatization of book publishing. At 58, he is broad shouldered, with slightly equine features and a permanent scowl that belies his impish personality.


"Simon & Schuster is a lie, Knopf is a lie, William Morrow is a lie," he growls. "All these are comfort words." Given that most major publishing houses are now owned by indistinct media conglomerates and that most editors are "popcorn salesmen," he says, why bother with chitchat, literary lunches, and the like? Why not just sell books like pork bellies or derivatives? It really pisses Brockman off that so few people in his industry understand. 


"Publishers are scratching their heads right now," he says. "Nothing has shown me they get it. It's a real battle dragging these people into this era."


Long before he was post-interest, back when he was what you might call "pre-successful," Brockman was a below-average student in Boston who worked for his father, a flower salesman known around town as the Carnation King.


"My father used to say to me, "Johnny, get your flowers out of the fridge and pack them, or they're going to die,' Brockman says. "That's what I try to do with ideas."


Brockman did so poorly in high school he was rejected by 17 colleges. So he enrolled at the only school that would have him—the Babson Institute of Business Administration, then a kind of financial finishing school. Brockman earned his bachelor's degree at Babson and did well to gain admission to the Columbia Business School. He got his MBA, did "an investment banking thing," hated it, and then decided to try art. In 1965, he organized an avant-garde film festival in Manhattan and eventually began putting on some of his own "environmental intermedia events"—loud, pot-banging affairs with slide shows, lights, and freaky soundtracks. The events attracted press attention, and when Brockman was asked to explain the meaning of his work, he issued replies like, man is dead. What exists is the transaction. And the transaction is invisible. Man is a relic of the instantaneous past!"


Brockman's antics prompted a fateful call from a business-school pal who was an executive at Scott Paper. He asked Brockman to produce a multimedia presentation to motivate the lethargic sales force of Scott's Confidets, a sanitary napkin. Brockman responded, "My fee is $15,000," a amount for a directionless hippie, consulting experience. Scott Paper him despite the fee, or perhaps because of it—a moment that taught Brockman the value of playing hard to get.


It's amazing how tough people will think you are just for saying no," he says.


The Confidets performance—a grating event that featured, among other things, a partial striptease by a woman wearing a dress made of Scott tissue—motivated, or perhaps just terrified, the Scott team into action, prompting an upward spike in sanitary-napkin sales. Brockman was seen as a boy wonder; he was profiled in The New York Times, and pretty soon he became one of the most in-demand twentysomethings in corporate America. Companies like General Electric and Gulf Western hired him to do his intermedia thing.


Brockman didn't become an outright celebrity until 1968. That's when he got a call from the producers of the Monkees movie, Head. They wanted Brockman's help marketing their corny psychedelic flick, and his idea was wonderfully simple: Blanket the city with posters of someone's head. The producers told him, "Your idea, your head" so in short order Brockman's mug was plastered in every subway station and on every bus in Manhattan. He became one of the most recognizable people in town, even if no one knew why, a circumstance New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael pronounced "depressing."

Brockman at the Factory with Andy Warhol and Bob Dylan in 1967.

Brockman's head promoted the 1968 Monkees vehicle.

Brockman spent the rest of the '60s consulting, sleeping past noon, lurking around Andy Warhol's Factory, wearing a three-piece velvet suit, and coordinating "environments" for large disco parties. He got restless, so he decided to write. The result was a singular volume called By the Late John Brockman, a collection of original aphorisms that he scribbled during a short vacation on Cape Cod. ("Who's crazy? Mankind went out of its mind. There is no mind out of which to go.') The book, published by Macmillan in 1969, emerged from the swirling intellectual milieu of Marshall McLuhan, John Cage, and cyberneticist Heinz von Foerster—and like much of Brockman's oeuvre, it annoyed people. Kirkus Reviews called it "futuristic gibberish."' Brockman hosted a mind-rattling intermedia reading at Manhattan's 92nd Street Y, and was repeatedly shouted down by hecklers.


Then Brockman did something really different: He shut up, and disappeared. "I had my phones disconnected. People thought I was dead," he says. "I became 'the late John Brockman:" He embarked on a "four year period of thinking and hanging out in libraries." He wrote other books; none of them did particularly well, an experience that hardened his heart toward publishers and left him resolved, he says, "not to kiss the ass of any editors."

Scenes from the Brockman oeuvre. 

Brockman stumbled into his current profession by dumb luck. In the early '70s, he ran into John Lilly, the LSD pioneer and author of Man and Dolphin, at a conference organized by Lilly and philosopher Alan Watts. Lilly wanted to write a book about man's perception of God. According to Stewart Brand, a friend of both men, Lilly wrote up a summary, and Brockman "sold it for tens of thousands of dollars, and realized he was an agent."


In the years ahead Brockman piled up a long list of clients—academics, thinkers, and scientists (a good many of them associated with this magazine) who were hoping to earn mass-market advances.


The advent of personal computers brought his next truly transformative moment. In 1982, Brockman bought one of the first IBM PCs, and he quickly realized that software programmers were like writers: They needed agents. He tried to convince traditional trade publishers that software would be the next big thing.

Brockman's paperless office, in New York.

I said, 'There's this thing called software. It's already as big as dog food, and it will be as big as all publishing put together.'" Soon he was making the most lucrative deals of his career. He sold the pop-software program Typing Tutor III to Simon & Schuster for a million dollars. He went on to hawk computer-related guides and instructional books: countless how-to's for the Apple II and the PC, series after series by the editors of computer magazines. In 1983 alone, Brockman reportedly sold $20 million worth of books." My father cornered the gladiola market in 1948. 1 cornered the computer-book market in '83 and '84."


One of those deals achieved a kind of mythic status: Brockman's 1983 sale of Stewart Brand's Whole Earth Software Catalog. Enticed by a hastily written proposal, an editor at Doubleday called Brockman to make an instant offer of $1 million for the paperback original. "I hung up on him," Brockman says—"it was one of my greatest moments as an agent." Fifteen minutes later, the panicked editor called back, offering $1.3 million—at the time, the most expensive deal ever for a paperback.


For Brockman, these were the best of times. "Everybody wanted to be my friend" he says. Indeed, when Brockman invited a group of budding software moguls to dinner one evening during the 1984 Comdex conference, they all showed up. The press soon dubbed it the "millionaires' dinner." Brockman still hosts the get-together (this year's attendees included Steve Case, Nathan Myhrvold, and Jeff Bezos), and has rechristened it the "billionaires' dinner."


The computer-manual bonanza didn't last forever. The market became saturated, the books weren't earning out, publishers stopped buying. Brockman fired most of his staff and closed his West Coast offices, which he had opened only a year earlier. Another quiet period followed. He leased a 75-acre estate in upscale Litchfield County, Connecticut, and started devoting his time to something called the Reality Club, a salon for geeks and academics. He also developed what has become his trademark, a highly aggressive hit-and-run form of agenting. His secret weapon: the fax modem.

Starting in the early '90s working under the precept "Science is the only news," Brockman took to scouring scientific journals, technology publications, and the front page of The New York Times to find the science story of the moment—cloned sheep, the recovery of the 1918 flu virus, a study on depression, whatever. Then he would convince one of his authors to bash out a proposal, which he would fire off to publishers as quickly as possible—sometimes within hours—whipping desperate editors into a free spending panic. Once, for instance, Brockman was in Japan when he read a newspaper article about ripples in time and space; the next day, by fax, he sold a book on the topic to a publisher in Spain.


Not coincidentally, Brockman came to represent a number of Times writers. He used his rapid-response method to bag a fat contract for John Markoff, the Times technology writer, to pen Takedown shortly after Markoff wrote a story on cyberthief Kevin Mitnick. And in 1998 it was Brockman's idea that Times science correspondent Gina Kolata send out a book proposal just one day after her front-page story appeared on the angiogenesis-cancer research of Judah Folkman. (Kolata was criticized widely for the move, and later abandoned the project.)


He does so many deals, so quickly, that it's not surprising some of them don't work out. He was attacked in The New Republic in 1995 for brokering a famous fiasco involving Nobel Prize-winning physicist Murray Gell-Mann's The Quark and the Jaguar. Brockman sold publishers on the idea that Gell-Mann could become a mass-market phenomenon like Richard Feynman or Stephen Hawking, and netted $550,000 from Bantam. But Gell-Mann failed to produce the book on time and had to return the advance. The book eventually came out under a different imprint.


One of Brockman's writers compares him to a bouncer at a strip club whose job is to connect wealthy patrons to willing dancers in a back room. "His job is to get them together," the writer says. "So long as he gets paid, he doesn't care how awkward it is for them or whether or not there is coitus."


Brockman says the suggestion that his writers don't deliver is "complete bullshit," and argues that, anyway, it's the publisher's job to edit and print a book and the writer's job to write it. "We don't do hand-holding," he says. "I'm not in business to help people."


Though some editors bristle at Brockman's MO, the strength of his client list draws them back. In recent years, Brockman has negotiated significant books by Michael Drosnin (The Bible Code), David Gelernter (Machine Beauty), and Brian Greene (The Elegant Universe), and he remains the most influential literary agent for scientists.


"I've heard many editors say, 'That's the last time I'll deal with Brockman, " says Donald Lamm of Norton. "A week later they're back at the trough."

Stephen Hawking with Brockman.

Clockwise from top left: Marvin Minsky, Stephen Jay Gould, Daniel C. Dennett, John Brockman, and Nicholas Humphrey. 1994.

Brockman hopes his A-list of clients will lure the publishing world into adopting the RightsCenter—which, like so many of his schemes, seems a confusing mix of entrepreneurship and absurdist street theater. Indeed, if there is a common theme to Brockman's disconnected career paths, it's that he has a knack for turning goofy pranks into profitable businesses.


Still, Brockman is carefully managing his risk on this one. He has invested a modest amount in the project—in the "low six figures." If it doesn't work out, well, that would just be further proof that John Brockman is ahead of the pack and that his publishing peers are hopelessly stuck in what he calls "the old epistemology."


It's lunchtime on a rainy Monday in Times Square, and Brockman is on his way to an appointment with the epistemologically-challenged Bob Asahina, the new editor in chief of the Bertelsmann-owned imprint Broadway Books. Brockman shows up in his royal blue blazer, khakis, and a wide-brimmed Panama hat, carrying a stack of manila folders stuffed with proposals. Brockman is having the meeting—the very type of meeting he's battling so hard to eliminate from modern life—because Asahina is new to his job and therefore likely to be buying lots of books. Brockman is willing to meet Asahina halfway; he thinks there's a possibility, a minuscule chance, that Asahina might be as forward-thinking as he is.


The two men sit down in a corporate dining room on the 44th floor of the Bertelsmann tower. Brockman begins the lunch in a particularly Brockmanesque way: by complaining to Asahina, an employee at a large corporation, about large corporations. "Companies are like Roach Motels," Brockman grumbles. "Good people go in, and nothing comes out!'


Asahina has a complaint of his own: He's sick of printing out 70-page proposals from Brockman's damn Web site. "It ties up the printer for 30 minutes," he says. The two men poke at their salads. Eventually Asahina asks Brockman, "What is the purpose of this lunch?"


"You're the new girl in town, Bob" Brockman says. "I hear you're buying a lot of books."


"We're buying the same number, John. We just haven't bought any from you lately."


They go at each other like this for a few minutes, and then Brockman begins a strange ritual, describing the contents of each folder in a single sentence—"This is the new Hillis book. This is the new Gelernter"—and sliding the closed folder across the table. He makes no effort to persuade Asahina. In fact, if Asahina shows even the slightest bit of interest, which he rarely does, Brockman withdraws the folder and explains that he's not quite ready to part with it. Asahina is unmoved; he doesn't so much as bat an eye at Brockman's gambit.


Over coffee, we learn why. Asahina makes it clear that he's no fusty publisher with high-minded ideas about literature. He thinks of himself as a venture capitalist who funds writers' ideas with the hope that in two or three years they'll turn a profit. This is about as succinct a description of the current publishing model as you're likely hear, and it delights Brockman's ears. New epistemology, indeed! This could be a post-interesting pitch meeting!


The vibe leaves Brockman almost giddy. "Have I ever told you my motto?" he asks, a rare smile on his face. Asahina shakes I head. "My motto is: One step forward, two steps backward."


On this ambiguous note, Brockman departs. He takes the elevator down, puts on his hat, and tumbles through the revolving doors and into the stream of gray suits and black slickers going east on 45th Street. He's heading to a nearby high-end audio store to see what's new. Brockman scurries along, hunched under an umbrella that seems too small for his broad frame, his damn useless paper proposals clenched under one arm. He says he thinks the meeting went well, and that he'll probably sell a few books out of it.


"But you know what?" Brockman deadpans. "Part of my charm is that I'm always wrong." ■

First published by Wired, September 1, 1999.

"Simon & Schuster is a lie, Knopf is a lie, William Morrow is a lie. All these are comfort words."

"My father cornered the gladiola market in 1948. I cornered the computer-book market in '83 and '84."

"An editor at Doubleday called Brockman to make an instant offer of $1 million. I hung up on him. It was one of my greatest moments as an agent."

"I've heard many editors say, 'That's the last time I'll deal with Brockman.' A week later they're back at the trough."

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