Back in Jonesboro, Ark., they still don’t know for sure what Jason Ashlock is doing in New York City. Whenever he tells his friends and family he’s sold a book, they go to the bookstore and look for it on the shelf. “I’m like, ‘Wait 18 months!’” the boyish 28-year-old said on Sunday night, sitting in a booth at the Old Town Bar, around the corner from the studio apartment he shares with his wife of six years.
Mr. Ashlock has been working since the fall of 2006 at a sleepy boutique literary agency on 96th and Madison, a firm run by an 87-year-old society dame named Marianne Strong, who once wrote a gossip column for The New York World Telegram-Sun and made her name in publishing during the ’70s and ‘80s selling books about the Bouviers and the Kennedys. The arrangement is understandably puzzling to Mr. Ashlock’s parents, a conservative fundamentalist preacher and a “loyal, kind, sweet” mother who read out loud to her children the stories of Maupassant and the essays of Montaigne.
This week, Mr. Ashlock is in the process of getting the word out to editors and publishers all over town that, even though he has only sold about a dozen books in his short agenting career, he is leaving Marianne Strong and opening up his own shop, Moveable Type Literary Group.
This is the third winter Mr. Ashlock has spent in New York. Over Christmas in Jonesboro, his grandfather asked him if he meant to stay. He told him that he did. “He said, ‘you know, I really thought you’d get rolled over, and that you’d come back,’” Mr. Ashlock said. “And I always felt that from him. I always felt like he thought I was just kind of messing around. But it was interesting to hear him say it to my face.”
Mr. Ashlock, whose brown eyes and short, neatly parted hair make him look even younger than he is, knows that there are people in publishing who regard him with that same sort of skepticism. “Some editors still won’t take my calls,” Mr. Ashlock said with a laugh.
He admits it’s a funny time to be starting an agency, considering publishers are cutting staff, shrinking their lists and by most accounts, paying less money for books.
“There is a general sense of gloom—like a palpable sense of gloom,” Mr. Ashlock said. “Maybe I’m just young enough to not care. It’s like the stock market—the people who are just retiring are freaking out, but the people who have 30 years to go, they know it’s gonna be O.K. It’s all long term, and I guess maybe part of it for me is, I’m fresh enough not to be burdened by the past.”
Mr. Ashlock’s first projects as an agent came by way of another, apparently less-driven young man who left Marianne Strong not long after Mr. Ashlock got there. A few of the books the guy left behind—books he had tried and failed to sell—seemed to their inheritor to have a lot of commercial potential, and sure enough, Mr. Ashlock quickly succeeded in placing one—a book of photographs by Roger Moenks called Inheriting Beauty, which consisted of portraits of “beautiful, successful young heiresses around the world”—with a respectable publishing house for a respectable sum of money.
“It was sheer luck, because I didn’t know what I was doing, but it was a huge confidence boost,” Mr. Ashlock said of that first sale. “So I spent the summer really going after people, in a very undeserved fit of confidence, like, I can do this thing. And obviously I got turned down left and right.”
His income was, at the time, unserious, composed as it was of the minimal salary Ms. Strong paid him and the commission he earned on anything he sold. But Mr. Ashlock, who was simultaneously working toward a Ph.D. in American literature at Fordham, earned a little extra on the side assisting with the publication of a scholarly journal about James Joyce, and freelancing at the Oxford University Press, where he was assistant-editing a 10-volume history of the book.
Mr. Ashlock’s wife, meanwhile, got a well-paying job teaching at a charter school in Brooklyn, which is part of what’s allowing her husband and his two business partners, both of whom he worked with at Marianne Strong, to pay for Moveable Type’s Tribeca headquarters. They haven’t borrowed a dime.
As it happened, it was because of his wife that Mr. Ashlock ended up in New York when he did; his original plan, after graduating from Harding College in Arkansas and attending grad school for religion in Memphis, was to go to the University of Illinois to study literature. Ms. Ashlock nixed that idea out of a desire to be in a city, though, so Fordham it was. And then, agenting.
MR. ASHLOCK makes a delightful first impression, a characteristic that should certainly give him some ballast in his endeavors with Moveable Type. Ms. Strong took note of this right away, and was bowled over by Mr. Ashlock’s gentlemanly demeanor when he responded to an ad on Craigslist and came in for an interview. “My common sense dictated it, I guess,” Ms. Strong said Monday. “He’s such a decent person, and he has such wonderful manners. He’s a very elegant person.”