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.”
Ms. Strong helped Mr. Ashlock find his bearings in the city, introducing him to her “repertoire of friends and business associates,” among them gossip reporters like her friends Richard Johnson and Liz Smith. “I was an editor on the World Telegram, so I do have a lot of press contacts myself,” Ms. Strong said. “I was a known quantity.”
Mr. Ashlock loved the work right away, and when it came time to decide whether or not he would stay at Fordham to write a dissertation (his planned topic: Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery and the New York School), he realized he wanted to pursue agenting full time.
Before long, it became clear to Mr. Ashlock that although Ms. Strong took him to plenty of cocktail parties and treated him regularly to lunch at the Knickerbocker Club on 62nd, her name and her agency could only take him so far. Too often, he found himself pursuing authors and pitching editors too young to know or care about Ms. Strong’s reputation in old New York society—and when he did succeed in nabbing a client or selling a book, he knew it was because of him, not his affiliation.
So he spent his first year or so as an agent chasing small-time celebrities (like the “D.C. Madam,” before she committed suicide) and experts on various topics whom he heard interviewed on the news (like FiveThirtyEight founder Nate Silver, before the whole country discovered him). After briefly considering the possibility of leaving Ms. Strong for another job in publishing—he was turned down for assistant positions at Farrar, Straus and Giroux and Hyperion—Mr. Ashlock resolved to set out on his own.
First stop, the Hamptons, where he spent almost every weekend last summer going to parties and looking obsessively for clients.
“I was like, ‘I need to figure out what I’m doing with my life. And if I’m gonna do this, I need to do it now and I gotta do it as hard as I can and as fast as I can,’” Mr. Ashlock said. “So, most people went to the Hamptons to relax, and I went there to sign them up. Which I think worked for everybody, in a way.”
At first, he said, he felt a bit like an alien. On one occasion, he ran into a journalist he’d met a few times in the city, and could tell from his face that he was visibly surprised to see him there.
“I’d had encounters with him before, but it was with Marianne Strong,” Mr. Ashlock said, pausing as if to picture himself. “I looked like a flack. I could tell he was like, ‘What are you doing here?’”
Nevertheless, the young out-of-towner found that plenty of people were willing to help him. Something about “showing the Southern guy around the Hamptons” appealed to them, apparently, and Mr. Ashlock was just fine with that.
“Nobody in the Hamptons ever feels comfortable with their insider status,” he said. “I think if you have an outsider on your arm, it sort of makes it easier. I was always attached to great people, and I was only ever going to a party because I was with somebody who would introduce me to people and show me around. I very quickly found that it kind of all made sense.”
Sitting at the Old Town, he told a couple of fish stories.
“I was on a sailboat in Sag Harbor, and when they docked and I got out, I met a guy who is doing a biography of Billy Joel,” Mr. Ashlock said. “Because he has—well, he lives next to Billy Joel and he goes sailing with Billy Joel. So he’s doing this intimate portrait of the man, the sailor, the islander.”
Another time, he said, he was at a wine tasting at Wolffer Estates, the big vineyard in Southampton, and met local food writer Sylvia Lehrer.
“She’s been out there for two decades writing for [Hampton’s mainstay] Dan’s Papers,” Mr. Ashlock said. “And she had a great cookbook called The Hamptons Table, and it’s beautiful and it’s brilliant and it’s authentic and it’s tied to the land. And it has a foreword by Alan Alda!”
A lot of his clients, he said, he met at Bookhampton, an independent shop founded 40 years ago in Southampton by agent Nat Sobel. “That was a great place to meet people,” Mr. Ashlock said. “After dinner I’d pop in, and I think that was the first time I had a serious talk with Sheri De Borchgrave, who’s a wine, food, and travel columnist. I now have a great novel by her on my plate for February and March.”
Most of his work that summer was done at parties.
“You show up at the right party in the Hamptons, and your credibility comes with you,” Mr. Ashlock explained. “I know that sounds really—I mean, that’s not me. I’m from Memphis. I’m not a Northeastern social game player. But … I just tried to ask everyone I knew to invite me to every party they could get me into. You show up at the right party and meet the right person and you can sign the New York Times writer or the Bravo personality or NBC pundit.”
BY THE END of the summer, Mr. Ashlock and his partners in the new firm—Meredith Dawson and D.C.-based Craig Kayser—had amassed a formidable if predominently commercial client list that includes several editors from Food and Wine, a handful of Time Out New York writers, Alex and Simon from Bravo’s Real Housewives of New York City and Pulitzer nominee Sandra Hochman. Since then they have been preparing the necessary paperwork, lining up lawyers and accountants, and fine-tuning the pitch they’re making to editors as they go out with their first submissions.
“We have arrived, as Harold Bloom would say, belatedly,” reads the opening of the informational packet they’re sending out. “The scene is established, the paradigms rigid, the machine stubborn and aging. … We aim, with many of our friends and colleagues, to confront the crisis of the moment, and from the upheaval to design and shape a future.”
The main thing Mr. Ashlock emphasizes when talking about his business plan is that he’s focused on the long term. When people ask him how Moveable Type will make room for itself in what is already a crowded market, he describes a four-step management plan based on contracts with outside publicity firms, speaker bureaus and career counselors that will ensure that the agency’s clients have support regardless of what the publishers they sign with can offer them.
Still, Mr. Ashlock acknowledges that Moveable Type—not to be confused with the software company—faces an uphill battle. And yet, he sees no other option.
“I’ve had a couple of people say, ‘You should wait,’” he said. “But there are no jobs. Yes, there’s an occasional posting on [industry Web portal] Publishers Marketplace, but the field is flooded. I can’t stay with Marianne, right? So I have to go. But where am I gonna go? There are no jobs, so it’s either stay put and be frustrated and make no money, or launch myself out there and compete against people who have industry experience that is far beyond what I could boast. And so I feel like I either do it on my own, or I go do something else. And I don’t want to go do anything else.”