The son of a Boston wholesale flower seller, he adapted his father's business methods in his work as a pop publicist and management consultant. He went on to become a successful literary agent, specialising in top science writers and — with an online 'intellectual salon' — building a reputation as a tireless promoter of influential ideas. Interview by Andrew Brown
1968 John Brockman was promoting a film called Head , starring
the Monkees. His idea of publicity was simply to have the whole town covered
in posters showing a head, with no caption. Naturally, the chosen head
was his. Grotesquely solarised, with blue-grey lips and and scarlet spectacles,
fashionable, suggestive of intellectual power, impossible to decipher,
there he stood against a thousand walls, looking down on the city of New
who thinks that scientists are the unacknowledged legislators of the
world has been influenced by Brockman's taste. As well as Dawkins,
he represents Daniel Dennett, Jared Diamond, and Sir Martin Rees, as
well as three Nobel prize winners and almost all the other famous popular
scientists. His old friend Stewart Brand, the publisher of the Whole
Earth Catalog and later the promoter of the Clock of the Long
Now, which is intended to run for 10,000 years, says: "It's so easy
to think the guy's just a high-class pimp that it's quite easy to ignore
the impact on the intellectual culture of the west that John has enabled
by getting his artist and scientist friends out to the world. There
is a whole cohort of intellectuals who are interacting with each other
and would not [be able to] without John."
He even mentions Huey P Newton, the Black Panther. "Sometime around 1987 or '88, I get a call from Huey, who was a close friend of mine, who I was trying to avoid, because it had been revealed that he was actually gratuitously murdering people . . . you know, shooting them. He was flipping out. He wasn't talking about revolution or anything. Newton's message said: 'Me and my buddy Bob Trivers — we're going to write a book on deceit and self-deception.'" Robert Trivers was one of the most important evolutionary biologists of the past 50 years, and came up with the hugely influential idea of "reciprocal altruism" as a graduate student at Harvard in the early 70s before his career was interrupted by psychological problems and he went off to live in the Jamaican jungle for some years. (He is now back at Harvard, in a chair funded by a friend of Brockman's.) Brockman continues: "Soon after that, he [Newton] died a very nasty death: just a crummy sidewalk dope deal. This was no way for a real revolutionary . . .
of years ago, I made a rare visit to LA and was doing my favourite thing:
watching the movie stars round the pool, and I got a message: Bob Trivers
called. 'John. It's Bob Trivers. As I was saying. I've got the proposal
ready. It's for a book on deceit and self-deception.'" Such a book will
be ideal Brockman fodder. It takes science out to the edges of society
yet deals with subjects of eternal importance. It captures a theory at
the stage when it is most vigorously fighting for its life. It is written
by the man who made the discovery, which is an important point.
Many would agree that at least half his clients are truly remarkable thinkers, but there is room for disagreement about which half. For instance, he represents Sir John Maddox, the former editor of Nature, but also Rupert Sheldrake, whose heretical ideas about biology were denounced by Maddox in a Nature editorial that suggested Sheldrake's book A New Science of Life be burnt. Brockman has sold most of Richard Dawkins' books, but also the Bible Code by Michael Drosnin, which claimed that everything significant in the world up to the death of Princess Diana could have been predicted by reading every seventh letter in the Hebrew Bible, and the novel The Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl by Tracy Quan, which was the first account of a prostitute's life to be serialised on the Internet.
proposals to be about two pages long, no more, and then he likes to get
an auction going," one of his authors says. "You'll get a call from him,
and he's walking down Fifth Avenue on his cellphone, saying that he's
got Simon & Schuster to bid 100,000 and now he will see what happens.
A quarter of an hour later, Bantam has bid 125,000 and then he says he'll
go back to S&S and see if he can get 150,000. But he's got an attention
span of about half an hour. If the book isn't sold within a week, forget
This is how the young Brockman learned from his father, a broker in the wholesale flower market in Boston, to hustle sales. "He dominated the carnation industry. He would go to the Boston flower market, which was owned by the growers, who formed a cooperative. All these Swedes and Norwegians would be growing gladiolas and carnations and they'd bring them in at three in the morning and leave them like a long aisle. There'd be thousands of flowers, and you had to sell them, or they died. He said to me 'you gotta move them, they're going to die'. And one day, 40 years later, I'm on the phone, and I had a chilling feeling as I felt my father's voice coming through me, like, 'they're going to die'. So, why am I always so fixated on closing the deal, getting the next book in? It comes from that experience. That was a pure market situation. So, that's the way I run my business. It's not literary. It's not publishing. It's business. I have got properties to sell, on behalf of my clients.
"My job is to do the best I can for them and I do it by making a market. The market decides. But knowing how to make a market involves . . . some capacities." The capacities are at the heart of his business, but it's hard to describe them. He has a keen sense for interesting ideas, but also for the ways in which they fit into society. For instance, he would never call himself an atheist, he says, in America: "I mean I don't believe: I'm sure there's no God. I'm sure there's no afterlife. But don't call me an atheist. It's like a losers' club. When I hear the word atheist, I think of some crummy motel where they're having a function and these people have nowhere else to go. That's what it means in America. In the UK it's very different."
The Brockmans were the children of immigrants — John's father's family had come from Austria — and grew up in a largely poor and Catholic neighbourhood of Boston and he remains extremely sensitive to anti-Semitism. "There were no books in our house. My father could barely read. He was a brilliant man but he was on the streets working at eight years old. My mother read a little bit, but, you know, it was a little encyclopedia.
"My parents were poor. My father started a business the day I was born which became a successful business. But we grew up in a tough neighbourhood called Dorchester, which was an Irish-Catholic bastion, where this radical right-wing priest went up and down the streets telling people to kill Jews. So that's how my brother and I grew up." He has one brother, a retired physicist, who is three years older. "We quickly found out, going to school, that . . . we were personally responsible for the death of Jesus Christ. We had a lot of fighting to do, and most of it on the losing end, because there were always 30 of them to two of us. My brother got the worse of it. My mother was a tough cookie. She would kick him out of the house if he didn't fight hard enough. Luckily in those days you didn't get killed; you just got a bloody nose. But it was tough."
"Confusion is good. Then try awkwardness. Then you fall back on contradiction. Those are my three friends."
of pugnacity and sensitivity about ethnicity can still surface. When he
was upset by a profile in the Sunday Times magazine, which he thought
played to an anti-Semitic stereotype, he complained straight to Rupert
Murdoch (using Murdoch's banker, another of his contacts, as an intermediary).
flux, it seemed the only certainty was scientific truth, but he was early
attracted to the idea of science, of computing as a metaphor for everything.
Stewart Brand first met him in the early 60s: "I was in the army as an
officer and spending the weekends in New York — he was in the thick
of the multimedia scene that was the cutting edge of performance pop art.
He was an impresario, who could help organise events and people and media
and be essential to the process, but unlike a lot of people he was actually
alert to what the art was about, just as later, as an agent, he was alert
to what the books were about. So far as I was concerned he was another
artist in the group of artists I was running with."
In 1967 Brockman discovered how to sell flower power while it was still fresh. A business school friend who had gone to work for a paper company asked Brockman to help motivate the sales force for their line of sanitary towels. This was at a time when the New York Times was solemnly explaining that "Total environment" discothèques, such as Cheetah and The Electric Circus in New York, were turning on their patrons with high-decibel rock'n'roll combined with pulsing lights, flashing slide images, and electronic "colour mists". Brockman asked — and got — a fee of $15,000 despite having no consulting experience. He put on a multimedia show for the salesmen: they lay on the floor of a shiny vinyl wigwam while four sound systems played them Beatles songs, bird calls, company advertising slogans with an executive shouting about market statistics and competitive products, and a film showed a young woman wearing a dress made of the company's paper which she ripped down to her navel. In the 60s it was cutting-edge art, an "intermedia kinetic experience", and the salesmen exposed to it reportedly sold an additional 17% of feminine hygiene products in the next quarter. Brockman took the show around nine cities for the company, energising its sales force nationwide, and was established as a consultant who could sell his services to anyone.
But it was
not enough. His book By the Late John Brockman was unfavourably
reviewed, but he was not discouraged and continued to write and edit books
— 18 at last count. One, Einstein, Gertrude Stein, Wittgenstein
and Frankenstein , had to be hurriedly withdrawn after portions were
found to have been plagiarised from an article by James Gleick, the author
of Chaos , one of the first big pop science hits and not a Brockman client.
Brockman blamed one of his assistants.
Brockman has constantly reinvented himself. He has been at the leading edge of intellectual fashion for the past 30 years. In the late 90s, just before the dot.com bubble popped, he told an interviewer from Wired magazine that he wanted to be "post-interesting". Looking back on all the ideas he has enthused about you glimpse a mind that rushes around like a border collie — tirelessly and gracefully pursuing anything that moves, but absolutely uninterested in things that stay still, and liable, if shut up in a car, to get bored and eat all the upholstery. Like a lot of successful salesmen, part of his secret is that he is interested in people for their own sake as well as for what they can do for him, and can study them with extraordinary concentration, solemnly placing out, beside the journalist's machine, two tape recorders of his own at the beginning of an interview. To be under his attentive, almost affectionate gaze, is to know how a sheep feels in front of a collie.
the course of a couple of hours' chat he says "you ought to write a book
about that". He became a book agent by accident. He was talking about
God to the scientist John Lilly, a friend of Brand's, whose research into
dolphins and LSD was one of the first tendrils of a scientific study of
consciousness, and he realised Lilly had a book there. He sold the proposal
and found a new business where his talents and his interests coincided.
"Throughout history, only a small number of people have done the serious thinking for everybody"
He works with and is married to Katinka Matson, the daughter of a New York literary agent who was AD Peters's partner in 50s. "She actually makes the wheels turn in the office," says Tom Standage. The Brockmans have one son, Max, who works in the family business as a third-generation agent, and who was blessed in his crib by a drunken dance performed round it by Hunter S Thompson, Dennis Hopper and Gerd Stern, a multi-media artist from the avant-garde scene.
first boom in personal computers and their software blew out, Brockman
was perfectly placed for the next boom, in writing about the people who
made it. The house magazine of that boom was Wired, which sold itself
to Conde Nast as "The magazine which branded the digital age"; it is almost
an obligation on the editor of Wired to be a Brockman client. He set out
his manifesto in the early 90s for what he called the Third Culture: "Traditional
American intellectuals are, in a sense, increasingly reactionary, and
quite often proudly (and perversely) ignorant of many of the truly significant
intellectual accomplishments of our time. Their culture, which dismisses
science, is often non-empirical. By contrast, the Third Culture consists
of those scientists and other thinkers in the empirical world who, through
their work and expository writing, are taking the place of the traditional
intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining
who and what we are."
America now is the intellectual seedbed for Europe and Asia. He wrote:
"The emergence of the Third Culture introduces new modes of intellectual
discourse and reaffirms the pre-eminence of America in the realm of important
ideas. Throughout history, intellectual life has been marked by the fact
that only a small number of people have done the serious thinking for
everybody else. What we are witnessing is a passing of the torch from
one group of thinkers, the traditional literary intellectuals, to a new
group, the intellectuals of the emerging Third Culture. Intellectuals
are not just people who know things but people who shape the thoughts
of their generation. An intellectual is a synthesiser, a publicist, a
communicator." Brockman, it hardly needs saying, is the true intellectual's
Yet it is a tribute to Brockman's personality that people who have known him a long time like him a great deal. Stewart Brand says: "The salon-keeper has an interesting balancing act between highlighting the people they're attracted to and also having a strong enough personality so that they are taken seriously as a peer. People do not feel threatened by him or competitive with him. They either admire him or profess to be amused by him. But you look behind that, and you realise that they don't look down on him at all."
The magic circle has gone by different names and using different degrees of formality. In the 90s it was a manifested in a physical gathering, run with Heinz Pagels, called the Reality Club. The elite would come together and talk about the work that interested them. They didn't have to be his clients, and many of them weren't. But all invested their time in ideas he was promoting. Pagels died in an accident and Brockman says he didn't have the heart to go on by himself. Instead, he set up his Edge website, where he puts up new interviews every month, which can be read as transcripts or watched as videos, with commentaries.
It all reinforces
his idea that reality is essentially social. Even the name, the Reality
Club, goes right back to his earliest big idea: that reality is what the
smart people, who should be friends of John Brockman, decide to make of
the world: "It's an argument that I have with all my scientist friends,
and I lose it every time. They don't buy it at all. It's very primitivistic,
I'm told, or even solipsism, but it works for me."