February 17, 2015

Can Washington, DC handle more than one superagent? A new literary agency will find out


Javelin's Keith Urbahn and Matt Latimer, via Washingtonian

Javelin’s Keith Urbahn and Matt Latimer, via Washingtonian

If you’re a regular reader of MobyLives, the name Robert Barnett should ring a bell. And if it doesn’t, here are some other names that will perhaps sound more familiar: Barack Obama, Sarah Palin, Dick Cheney, Alan Greenspan, Amanda Knox, Paul Ryan, George Will, Bill Clinton, James Carville, Tim Russert, Mary Higgins Clark.

No, that’s not the lineup for an extraordinarily misguided Comedy Central Roast of Bob Woodward—it’s a partial (partial!) client list. You see, Barnett has long been what is annoyingly called a superagent. Though he’s a Democrat who has done debate prep with everyone from Geraldine Ferraro to John Edwards to Obama (yes, he doesn’t only do debate prep with people who lose races), Barnett is strictly nonpartisan when it comes to book deals. So whether you’re a disgraced Republican or a Democrat short on, say, $7 million (plus royalties and foreign rights sales), Barnett’s your guy.

In the last few months alone, Barnett sold hip-hop artist Dana Perino’s memoir to Twelve; visual artist George W. Bush’s book about his father, George H.W. Bush, to Crown; and author of my college economics textbook Ben Bernanke’s memoir to Norton. And the hits keep coming!

In other words, Barnett has a pretty sweet deal as Washington, DC’s designated literary agent to the stars, if by “stars” one means generally unpleasant, frequently corrupt, and fundamentally interesting people.

But can the reign of Robert Barnett last forever? That’s the question that journalist Matthew Shaer poses in an outstanding story in the February issue of Washingtonian. Shaer reports on Keith Urbahn (not to be confused with the American Idol judge) and Matt Latimer (not to be confused with the great historian Matt Lassiter), who have paired up to launch a new DC-based literary agency called Javelin that’s seeking to challenge Barnett on home turf.

Urbahn and Latimer aren’t exactly outsiders—they’re both former Donald Rumsfeld aides, whose first client was . . . their former boss Donald Rumsfeld. Whose memoir Known and Unknown [the most well-titled political memoir ever] was sold by . . . Robert Barnett. This looks pretty incestuous, I know, but to be fair, Washington, DC has a population of about five people.

Anyway, Urbahn and Latimer have caught some big fish fairly quickly:

A string of high-profile projects followed [their sale of Rumsfeld’s follow-up to Known and Unknown, Rumsfeld’s Rules]—a big book by Fox’s Lou Dobbs, another by Washington private investigator Terry Lenzner. In April, Javelin took a memoir by Texas senator Ted Cruz to auction in New York, reportedly winning an advance of about $1.5 million. (Urbahn says it was “not [Javelin’s] place” to discuss specific advance amounts.) The Washington Examiner breathlessly noted that the advance was the largest in years for a conservative politician—bigger even than the $1.25 million paid to Sarah Palin in 2008.

If Cruz gets the Republican nomination next year, Urbahn and Latimer will have its first book by a presidential candidate. Though according to Shaer, it’s  “butt buddy” Biden that Javelin is really after.

Be sure to read the entire piece, which provides an excellent window into the small but hugely lucrative world of DC publishing. It must be noted, however, that MobyLives cannot be held responsible for any anxiety, repulsion, or vomiting caused by the very large dollar amounts and very shady characters peppered throughout the article.


Mark Krotov is senior editor at Melville House.