John Brockman: Pioneer of scientific literature

The Selfish Gene; The Illusion of Self; The Glass Cage. If you have ever read a book by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, or Nicholas Carr among a host of others — you have been in contact, most likely unknowingly, with John Brockman.

For Hollywood, there is the parlour game “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon”: just about every actor or actress is within six connections, normally fewer, of Bacon himself. Emma Watson, for instance, has a Bacon Number of two: she has acted alongside John Cleese, who has in turn acted alongside Bacon. If you were to transpose that game to the world of scientific publishing, you might choose to search out “Brockman Numbers”. The only difficulty would be that Brockman is connected to everybody. I mentioned Brockman to an acquaintance at Oxford University Press, asking their opinion of him. In response I got pursed lips and the comment, “Brockman? He’s a big fish.”

Big fish, of course, don’t begin their lives big, and Brockman’s ascent to the height of popular science has been a gradual one. He had a modest start to life: he was a Jew living in an anti-Semitic Boston suburb, raised by a father whose working life as a carnation dealer was defined by constant hard work. This is not a conventional beginning for a high-flying literato; continuing the trend, Brockman was initially rejected by no fewer than seventeen universities.  After a BA from Babson College, a small liberal arts college specialising in entrepreneurship, he gained an MBA from Columbia University before going on to work as a self-declared “consultant” and organiser of renowned mixed-media (he called them ‘inter-media’) events in the burgeoning New York arts scene of the 1960s. Quickly, Brockman earned for himself a reputation as somebody who knew people and knew the zeitgeist, and who not only knew but understood both: this reputation has remained with him, and one of the attributes cited by those attracted to his agency is his genuine enthusiasm for, and ability to understand, ideas.

The role of ideas, both abstract and applied, is crucial to a profile of Brockman, but they are far from his only attraction for the would-be bestseller. Like few other agents, Brockman has an impressive ability to command enormous advances for his authors. Tom Standage, the current Deputy Editor at The Economist (and, like many in high positions at leading ideas publications, on Brockman’s lists), observes that Brockman “feels he’s failed if a book earns out its advance and pays royalties”: if that is the case, “that means he hasn’t got as much from the publishers [in the contract stage] as he could have done.” Brockman’s authors typically have to sell huge numbers of copies if they are to earn royalties; the advances are typically well over a hundred thousand dollars, and go up to multiple millions. For science authors not implausibly named Barack Obama or JK Rowling, there is nobody better for the bank account than Brockman.

He got into the agency business, however, rather by mistake. At the end of the 1960s Brockman had a comprehensive network of connections throughout the fringes of bohemian society: he worked on projects with Andy Warhol as a producer; he was acquainted with Bob Dylan; Susan Sontag was a regular at his events; he was friends with the Black Panther chairman Huey Newton, though he distanced himself when it became apparent that Newton was both a murderer and an unstable loose cannon. This society became fractured with the election of Nixon in 1968, and Brockman extricated himself from it to instead write a book. The deal had been landed with the help of his father-in-law, one of New York’s top literary agents, who found him a contract within four days of Brockman’s first expressing interest. The publishing world, like many, is one of networking and contacts, and Brockman evidently enjoyed both even from before he entered it.

The book itself was panned by critics and declared “terrifying” by Vogue, but attracted attention from the countercultural philosopher Alan Watts, who invited Brockman to attend a conference. While he was there, Brockman realised that he was surrounded by leading thinkers unrepresented by agents.

“They were getting screwed,” he said: “four or five of them had No. 1 bestsellers,” but without an agent, their cut was small. Brockman, Inc. was started not long after, in 1973.

Nowadays, if you go to Brockman, Inc.’s website, you are met with a blank page on which there is a single static image, informing you of the agency’s address on Fifth Avenue — and the email address for the Rights department. That is to say, there’s no email address for submissions unique, surely, in the world of agents — nor any boasting lists of clients. Brockman needs neither. If he wants a writer, he contacts them directly, whether they’re planning on writing a book or not, and he’s not often turned down.

This urge to ascend was inculcated in Boston, where the example of his father taught him the value of the hustle. His father, he recalls in numerous interviews, had “cornered the carnation market” during his Boston childhood; Brockman, early in the 1980s, managed to corner the now-defunct Computer Book market across America, spotting a gold-rush before it happened with enough time to dig up much of the gold without competition.

With the contacts he made in tech, Brockman returned to the approach that he had taken in the art world of 1960s New York, cultivating circles of acquaintance and influence. He began throwing an annual “Millionaires Dinner”, counting among his guests the likes of Sergey Brin and Bill Gates; later, rebranded as the “Billionaires Dinner” after millionaires became passé, Mark Zuckerberg received an invitation. Throughout, he maintained a whirling network of acquaintances with himself at the centre, making introductions, approaching possible clients, connecting prominent figures with intellectual peers and new ideas with possible enthusiasts.

He’s been described as an “intellectual enzyme”, and this appears a reasonably fit epithet. His self-avowed purpose is the catalysis of discussion. In 1991, he declared the creation of what he called a “Third Culture”, subsequently using what Richard Dawkins describes as “the most enviable address-book in the English-speaking world”, to create a website intended to eliminate the boundary between CP Snow’s Two Cultures. CP Snow, for those unaware, was a Cambridge physicist and novelist who in 1959 pronounced in a seminal lecture that the “culture” occupied by leading scientists had fundamentally diverged from that of the literary circles. In a time in which scientists, he observed, were being mocked by writers for their inability to finish a Dickens novel or craft engaging prose, so too opinion-makers in publishing, journalism and elsewhere were unable to answer even so basic a question as “What is Newton’s Second Law of Thermodynamics?”

CP Snow had tested this suspicion of non-scientists’ knowledge at dinner-parties and found it to be correct. Brockman, rejecting decades later the notion that such a divergence is inevitable, created a website called The Edge, intended to serve as a form of global dinner party. Brockman describes it as a sort of “intellectual salon” in which Snow’s cultures can meet and be blurred into a “Third Culture” of popular scientific understanding. Every year he invites to his salon a growing number (last year, 206) of “the world’s leading thinkers”, called upon to answer the same question. In 2017 these writers comprised an international mish-mash of brilliance: Nicholas Carr, the technology writer; Frank Wilczek, the theoretical physicist and Nobel Laureate; Alison Gopnik, the neuroscientist; Brian Eno, the music producer and chairman of the Long Now Project; and 202 others, contributing to a combined total of 143,000 words. The question that Brockman asked them to address in 2017 was the ostensibly bland “What scientific term or concept ought to be more widely known?” It follows his established approach, asking a very broad group of thinkers a very broad question. The 2017 question’s resultant book, edited by Brockman himself, landed a place on MIT Technology Review’s “Best Books of 2017” list.

That is the extraordinarily privileged position in which Brockman, after decades of work, finds himself. Most literary agents wait for writers with books to contact them. If they are successful in winning contracts, they will be contacted by many writers, and they will have a wider pool from which to choose. Brockman is now, by all accounts, at a point at which the pool for him is practically without limits. He can approach anybody within his chosen field, and have confidence that they will write a book for him. Equally, he can approach hundreds of world-renowned thinkers and have them write, for free, an essay for him to then publish. It is hard to think of anybody else with this clout; Jeff Bezos, perhaps, or Bill Gates, but it is a small and rarefied group. There are few fish bigger.

Illustration by Edward Emery

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