PW: You've been a performance artist and author. You've hung out at The Factory with Andy Warhol and Bob Dylan. You've even marketed feminine hygiene products. How did you become a book agent?
JB: I attended a conference in 1973 which was run by John Lilly and Alan Watts, who were both great fans of my first book (By the Late John Brockman). While I was there, the room filled with bestselling authors. None had an agent and all of them were getting screwed. I was the only one there with an MBA and so I asked to look after their business interests. I thought this would be a great idea to make money, and within a matter of hours I sold John Cunningham Lilly's book (Lilly on Dolphins), and that was my downfall.
PW: People say you're good at what you do.
JB: I have the magic touch, but I also don't like publishers, and that makes it easier. I think a lot of agents are confused about their role. I'm with the authors, period. And I don't consider myself part of the publishing industry. I represent authors. Their interests are my interests. When you're dealing with these enormous conglomerates—all of whom are well capable of worrying about their bottom line—I worry about my authors. It's a marketplace, and when the two forces collide, that's what the price of the book is. My job is to find out what that is and pursue the author's interest.
PW: Your new book, The Next Fifty Years: Science in the First Half of the Twenty-First Century, is about trends in science. Where would you say science writing is headed?
JB: There's been a trend in the last 10 years, in which scientists and others in the empirical world are replacing the traditional intellectuals by presenting their work and ideas directly to the educated public through their books. The scientists have learned to write. These are not popularizations, not popular science; they're writing to their colleagues. Physicists have to communicate to biologists, biologists have to communicate to computer scientists. It's the basis and it spreads out from there. There are about five million people who work in the sciences; that's not a trivial number to start with.
PW: So popularization is not the backbone of trade science writing?
JB: The basic market is deep, rich, serious stuff, direct from the scientist. There's still a market for popularization. Today, more people go to graduate school, wind up in jobs, and enter into a culture that's being dumbed down continually, and the only place where they can go to entertain themselves intellectually is a book. The place where they are going to find challenges are in hardcover trade books, and the big issues are being addressed by scientists.
PW: Why do you represent science writers?
JB: You'd do better to ask why science. When did it come to pass the humanities and sciences were split? It would be inconceivable in Dante's time for someone not to know something about science. Theirs was a holistic view. Somehow that all got split apart—in the 1930s when the word "intellectual" was hijacked by book critics—and now the scientists are back.
PW: Please talk a little about Edge Foundation, of which you are president, editor and publisher.
JB: In 1980 I started something called The Reality Club; it was a pun, but it stuck. We used to gather in people's houses, apartments, in Chinese restaurants, the boardrooms of universities, investment banking clubs. You gave a presentation about the questions you've been asking yourself. When the Internet started up, we decided to move onto the Web. I saw where the whole Web was going as far as publishing, but I didn't share the vision as far as commerce. What is unique and valuable about Edge is allowing the community to coalesce. I think its been working very well.
PW: Coalescence seems central to your work. And asking questions seems as important, if not more so, than giving answers.
JB: I actually would agree with that. This goes back to the artist James Lee Byers. In 1976 he created the World Question Center, and a line that inspired Edge: "To arrive at the edge of the world's knowledge, seek out the most complex and sophisticated minds, put them in a room together, and have them ask each other the questions they are asking themselves." It was a great idea, and I resurrected it, to his honor.