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This story first appeared in the April 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
The most sought-after literary agent in America actually isn’t an agent. He’s Washington lawyer Robert Barnett. Since scoring Ronald Reagan budget director David Stockman a $2.4 million advance in 1985, Barnett, a noted Democratic player (he’s worked on nine presidential campaigns, mostly doing debate prep), has built a thriving — and bipartisan — business negotiating book deals for presidents (Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton), first ladies (Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush), cabinet secretaries (Timothy Geithner) and political strategists (Karl Rove), plus the occasional royal (Queen Noor, Prince Charles). His practice isn’t limited to Washington; other clients include James Patterson, Shania Twain and even Barbra Streisand.
He also is behind two of this spring’s hottest books: And the Mountains Echoed (a 1.5 million-copy first printing), Khaled Hosseini‘s follow-up to The Kite Runner, and Waiting to Be Heard, the much-anticipated memoir from Amanda Knox, the college student caught up in the killing of her roommate in Italy. (On March 26, Italy’s highest court vacated Knox’s murder acquittal and sent the case back to the lower court.) Barnett, 66, handles only about a dozen books a year, but they are nearly always blockbusters both in sales and advances: $8 million for Hillary, $7 million for George W., a 26-book deal for Patterson.
Barnett does more than just negotiate deals; he guides many through the tricky transition from public service to private life. He also represents journalists including Ann Curry, Brian Williams and Lesley Stahl. (He’s been married for 41 years to CBS correspondent Rita Braver, his college sweetheart, with whom he has a daughter.) And he’s possibly Washington’s biggest bargain, eschewing the book agent’s standard 15 percent commission for an hourly rate, which, though pricey at about $1,000, ultimately saves his clients hundreds of thousands of dollars. Barnett, whose only flash is a collection of 500 cuff links (today’s pair: French vintage ruby-red glass and diamonds), sat down in mid-March with THR at his low-key corner office in D.C. that, like the man, evokes its power discreetly.
The Hollywood Reporter: With the book business struggling, are the big event titles you handle more important than ever?
Robert Barnett: My category is much like the big movies: You can sell tickets, but publishing in general is hurting. Seven hundred Borders are gone, 1,000 mall stores are gone, the ebook has destroyed the paperback. There are only about 150 major independents left. Still, Khaled Hosseini, who hasn’t written a book in several years, will, I believe, have a huge sale with And the Mountains Echoed, but it’s not a news-cycle book. Obviously, publishers look for ones that will make a splash, but they also crave ones with backlist. It’s more challenging in publishing with what they call the midlist books or first-time writers.
THR: What’s the advantage of billing by the hour instead of taking a traditional commission?
Barnett: I don’t make sense for a first-time novelist from Vermont who’s getting a $10,000 advance. I admire them, but I would make no sense to them. Let me answer it this way: I recently had a deal where the advance was $2 million. That would’ve cost $300,000 with a 15 percent agent. My bill was, I think, $35,000. That’s a big difference.
THR: You’re known for being hands-on in helping plan book publicity — what you call the “rollout.”
Barnett: There are many elements to a book rollout: First cable, first network, first radio, first serialization, post-publication excerpting, online and point-of-purchase opportunities. What I do is call a meeting early in the process with the people in the publishing house, with the client and the people who advise the client. I have a master list of virtually every opportunity that has ever been used. We go through that and decide which are most attractive for the particular project. Sometimes the clients do weeks of publicity. For Amanda Knox, we will do very little, but it’ll be very impactful things.
THR: How do clients choose which TV show to do?
Barnett: I’ve done several with Diane Sawyer, I’ve done Matt Lauer, I’ve done Barbara Walters. The loss of The Oprah Winfrey Show was a major loss. When George W. Bush or Bill Clinton does a rollout, they know every person who’s competing to feature them. For people who have not been in the public eye, it’s often important to meet, but it’s equally if not more important to go back into the wonders of the Internet and watch prior interviews. That can be very informative.
THR: What was compelling about Knox that made you want to represent her?
Barnett: People will see when Amanda Knox goes public with her interview with Diane Sawyer on ABC [on April 30] that she is mature beyond her years. She is extremely smart. She has taken a set of experiences that are almost impossible to imagine and learned from them and marched through them with incredible dignity and respect. What she went through is in some ways every parent’s nightmare, if not every person’s nightmare. She was caught up in a set of terrible circumstances that were not her doing and lost 4½ years of her young life to an inappropriate and improper conviction. While people know the story of the trial, they don’t know the personal story, the family’s story, the prison story and, believe it or not, the legal story. Aspects of that revealed in the book will shock you to the core. [Barnett declined to comment on the March 26 Italian court ruling, but HarperCollins says publication plans will not change. An ABC spokesman added that the network still plans to air its interview on April 30.]
THR: Have your personal views ever gotten in the way of working with a client?
Barnett: The people on the Republican side don’t come to me for political advice; they come to me for business advice. When you go to a dentist you don’t ask the dentist if they’re Republican or Democratic. You say, “Can you pull teeth?” The people on the Democratic side are often seeking both my business advice and my political advice, but they usually are separate. There’s another point to make: I always turn down the purveyors of hate whether they’re on one side or the other. I don’t want when my daughter looks back on her father and my grandson Teddy looks back on his grandfather to be anything but proud of the work I’ve done.
THR: PublicAffairs Books founder Peter Osnos has been critical of the big advances former officials get, saying, “Public service is supposed to be its own reward, not a payday.” What’s your take?
Barnett: The advances are determined by the marketplace. I’m happy to say that with all the big-advance books I’ve done, only two have not made money for the publisher.
THR: Moneymaking books by former public officials have a long history. Ulysses S. Grant wrote his memoirs to get out of debt.
Barnett: Interestingly, Grant’s memoir still sells.
THR: After he left the White House, Karl Rove said he needed a “rabbi” to help him, so he turned to you. What does being Rove’s rabbi entail?
Barnett: You’re more of a Sherpa. You help a client identify their goals. Some people want to stay in Washington, others want to move to California. Some want to make the last dime possible, others want to combine some moneymaking with the continuation of public service.
THR: Take Sarah Palin, who recently left Fox News and whom you represent. What should she do next?
Barnett: She has got a lot of opportunities being presented to her, and she’s deciding. It’s best to let the client decide when they want to announce something. I always adhere to that.
THR: Ann Curry retained you during ongoing discussions about her status on Today. Were you brought in to negotiate an exit, or was there hope of saving her job?
Barnett: Without commenting about Ann specifically, most of the time I’m involved for years before being confronted with a situation such as that. Sometimes you come in after the fact and try to plan the client’s next life. My involvement in these types of situations has taken all forms. In conjunction with the transfer from the Today show, as has been publicly reported, Ann received a new long-term contract with NBC and has a unit devoted to her stories and has a ticket to any major story in the world.
THR: Do you often get calls to help but it’s too late?
Barnett: Oh, all the time, and I’m not able to do what I want to do: careful negotiation. Probably three times a week I stay out of things.
THR: Have you ever pursued a client?
Barnett: Twenty-five years ago, my niece became a star basketball player, and loving her as I do, I got very interested in women’s basketball. There really wasn’t a book about motivating young women. I thought [University of Tennessee coach] Pat Summitt would be ideal, so I wrote her, and she wrote me back the nicest letter saying she just didn’t want to do it. She won another national championship, so I wrote her another letter, and again she wrote back, “No.” Then Lamar Alexander, who clerked for the same judge I did, became governor of Tennessee, so I asked Lamar to recommend me, and she wrote me another nice “no.” One day, my wife found herself seated next to Summitt at a White House event. She said, “I never involve myself in my husband’s business, but I want you to know how highly he thinks of you.” Pat, who at that point in the season had lost 10 games — which was unheard of for her — said, “Next time I win a national championship.” They go undefeated and win the national championship. I cut out a picture of her from USA Today screaming at a player. I taped that to the outside of the envelope with a bubble, “Oh no, not him again!” And she finally said OK.
THR: Is there a Hollywood story you’d like to see in a book?
Barnett: I truly hope Barbra Streisand will ultimately write her autobiography. That’s the story of modern show business.
THR: I noticed the back of your door has a “Gone to Nantucket” sign.
Barnett: I go there virtually every July 4th. We often meet up with some wonderful friends, who Rita and I have known since college, so when I’m thinking of escape that’s one of the places I love to escape to. We stay at the White Elephant — same room every year.
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