James Anthony Foster was born in New York City. He grew up as Robert Holliday Reid in southwestern Connecticut, where he attended public schools. He – or rather, I – has written four books. Two are works of fiction: Year Zero, which appeared in 2012, and After On, which debuts August 1st.
I became a lifelong novelist in my early 20s. At the time, I was a Fulbright scholar in Cairo, and fresh out of Stanford, where I’d studied Arabic. I was doing research in Egypt – a lot of it – focusing on the political opposition to President Mubarak. But it was a self-directed project, which gave me 24 hours of discretionary time a day. As the year went on, I dedicated more and more of that time to writing a novel – a work of magical realism depicting a young man from Connecticut living in Cairo, quite possibly on a Fulbright fellowship. Yes, it was awful. So I took twenty years off.
I kept writing throughout this hiatus, but it was a side hustle, and I steered clear of fiction. My first book was about being a first-year student at Harvard Business School. At the time I was a first-year student at Harvard Business School, making me something of an expert. HBS is an odd place for lifelong novelists, even those on twenty-year breaks. This page discusses that oddness, as well as the book (Year One) that resulted from it.
One professional interest that entranced me as much writing was the rise of the World Wide Web. I stumbled across this through the sheerest and dumbest of luck in 1994. I was a midlevel marketing grunt at a large, white-hot (and now, long-dead) computer maker called Silicon Graphics. When our founder took off to cofound Netscape with Marc Andreessen, our company took note, and started shipping Web-focused products before any of its competitors. I was lucky enough to land on the team behind that.
There weren’t many MBAs on the Web back then. If fact, I doubt we numbered much more than a dozen. Timing is everything, and ours enabled each of us to do something that would normally be out of reach. Some started early Web companies. Others became venture capitalists years ahead of schedule. I went off and wrote another commercially minor book. It’s called Architects of the Web, and you can read more about it here.
Still on that fifth-of-a century respite from a lifelong career of writing novels, I then took after my peers who’d become venture capitalists (albeit a junior one in a new firm that didn’t last long). I next took after the ones who’d started online companies. Mine was called Listen.com. Founding and running it was the hardest thing I ever attempted, until I wrote After On. I did it because I adore music to an unreasonable degree, and the entrepreneurs in my circles who managed to keep their sanity were all engaged in things they loved. I incorporated Listen.com on the last day of 1998.
Online music turned out to be a remarkably shitty market in 1999. Ditto in 2000 and 2001. And let’s not forget the first half of 2002! The core problem lay with the major record labels (and yes, the words “record” and “label” were still applied to them back then. Still are, come to think of it). Services like Napster had made their music free to swipe online. We sought to counteract this by selling music in a more convenient, delightful and ethical form than pirated downloads. Problem was, the labels were sooooooo mad at the Internet that they boycotted the most popular and fast-growing music format in history. Entirely. For years.
This meant the alternative to stealing music online wasn’t buying a much better experience for a fair price. It was buying CDs – a crappy, outdated format that shafted music lovers, thanks to decades of collusive pricing and anticompetitive behavior by the execs who were now so outraged over the Web’s existence. And so the industry trained a generation of people to become technically adept and morally comfortable with music piracy.
Those years sucked. It was like being a white-hatted dork on a wild frontier where everyone lionized outlaws, and loathed the corrupt, doddering, and blind sheriff. We held countless meetings with the labels, pleading with them to let us build a legal alternative to piracy. “But no one will ever pay anything for shit they can get for free!!!” we were always told. Usually over $9 bottles of water that had been airlifted from the South Pacific to a nation with billions of faucets. The biggest label by far (Universal) was actually owned by a water company, and brayed this more loudly and belligerently than anyone.
I include these wretched years in the tale of a lifelong novelist because it was then that I relaxed my embargo on writing fiction. I didn’t start a novel, no. My medium was the Amazon review – a new and rather daring choice at the time. Late at night after especially hard days, I’d issue five-star paeans to offbeat products under the nom de revue of Charles Henry Higgensworth III, of Boston, Massachusetts. He’d usually get about a third of the way into a review, then start bitching about his life. Slowly, an autobiography emerged. A rather detailed one. Provided Amazon hasn’t deleted his reviews (they’ve been up almost 15 years as I write this), you can click here to explore the collected works of Mr. Higgensworth (and yes, I always use the honorific. You should too). Years later, many of his reviews turned up in the novel After On. Yes, really.
Things turned out OK for Listen.com. Our years of dorky white-hattedness finally wore down the music execs and we became the first online company to get full-catalog licenses from all the major labels (even before Apple). We launched a service called Rhapsody. In doing this, we created the unlimited streaming subscription model that Spotify and so many others have since copied so beautifully (and yes, I mean beautifully literally and not sardonically – I’ve been a very happy Spotify user for years!). We sold the company to RealNetworks, and they later sold half of it to Viacom for a quarter billion dollars. Rhapsody then became a joint venture with MTV. In 2016 they changed the service’s name to Napster, of all things. Though it’s been badly eclipsed by its followers, the service still has three million subscribers as I write this. I’m wildly proud of the team that built and invented all this while we were still just a wisp, and I always will be.
By the time Listen sold, I was head over heals with the woman of my dreams. Soon we were engaged, and then married. I followed her to LA for many years (the things we do for love!). As I write this, we’re in the midst of our “junior year in Manhattan,” which is now in its 18th month. My wife’s the one who finally called a halt to the lull in my lifelong career as a novelist. For a while there, I had focused entirely on mentoring and investing in young startups. This began in the Listen days, when I became the founding outside board member of gaming megasite IGN (which went public and was later bought by NewsCorp for $650 million).
I still invest and mentor, and love it (my portfolio now includes Akili, Brava, China Rapid Finance, Hooked, Kareo, Lyft, Poshmark, and SurfAir). But Morgan knew this wasn’t enough for a dedicated lifelong novelist. So several years ago she pointed sternly at my desk. Eighteen months later I arose, having completed my first novel, Year Zero.
The next one took quite a bit longer to write. Which brings us to the present day ...