It was on something of a lark that Keith Urbahn and Matt Latimer found themselves working as literary agents. They had a client: their former boss, Donald Rumsfeld. They had a book: Rumsfeld’s follow-up to his 2011 memoir Known and Unknown. There was just one problem: they didn’t know very much about publishing.
In the end, it didn’t matter. The duo, who had worked for Rumsfeld in the White House—Latimer as a speechwriter and Urbahn as his chief of staff—wound up selling the nonfiction work, which came to be called Rumsfeld’s Rules, to Broadside Books for a healthy six-figure sum (it was published in 2012). Now Urbahn and Latimer are no longer the new kids on the block. They have an 11-person-agency called Javelin in Arlington, Va., that has been behind some of the biggest nonfiction deals of the summer, including rumored seven-figure agreements for James Comey (who sold a currently untitled work to Flatiron Books in early August) and Tucker Carlson (who landed at Threshold with a two-book agreement).
To frame Javelin’s founders as agents on the rise is, fairly or not, to wade into a conversation about the shifting literary scene inside the Beltway. For decades, political power hitters in Washington, D.C., relied on one person to sell a book: Robert Barnett. Anyone important and shopping a proposal was represented by Barnett. His clients run the gamut from heads of state to heads of networks, and cross political lines; the group includes both Clintons, both Obamas, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Andrew Cuomo, and Karl Rove.
The simplistic explanation for why Barnett has long monopolized the D.C. market is that, as a lawyer (he works for the firm Williams Connolly), he offered his clients a money-saving way to land a big advance. As a lawyer charging clients an hourly fee (which is rumored to hover just above $1,200), Barnett does not reap the same financial rewards a literary agent would, including the customary 15% of the advance.
But D.C.’s power elite have not been exclusively turning to Barnett for the past 40 years because of money. As a number of insiders explained, to be represented by Barnett is, to an extent, to be confirmed as a powerful person. And, as these sources also pointed out, Barnett’s success is owed in large part to the fact that he is an excellent negotiator and a tireless worker.
Javelin’s rise, coincidentally or not, has occurred amid rumors about Barnett and his future. There have been whisperings that he’s getting ready to retire; that he’s ill; that, at 71, he’s not as sharp as he once was. Many insiders, though, say the rumors are, well, just that. They claim Barnett has not been talking, or acting, like a man who’s slowing down.
Certainly, looking at his work of late, it would be hard to make the case that Barnett is taking a step back. In the past 12 months he’s sold books for, among others, Madeleine Albright, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Ralph Lauren, Jake Tapper, and Elizabeth Warren. In March he got Barack and Michelle Obama what many think is the largest nonfiction advance on record, inking them to write two separate books for Crown for a reported $65 million.
While Urbahn and Latimer are loathe to discuss themselves in relation to Barnett, they recognize that others are doing so. In this scenario they are being painted as the young guns versus the old pro, David versus Goliath. Although they do not invoke Barnett by name when framing their business, they stress that they offer something at least one of their local competitors does not: a partner to help authors shape their books and careers, as opposed to someone who gets big advances and moves on.
With Rumsfeld, who used Barnett to sell Known and Unknown, they believe it was this pitch that made the difference. They convinced the former secretary of defense to let them shop his book after they helped him formulate the idea for the project and the proposal. “[Rumsfeld] was very much involved in the whole thing,” Urbahn said. “And then we shopped it around to all these editors who’d never heard of us. The fundamental proposition of a literary agent—and this is the case we make to our authors—is: ‘Are you looking for a transaction, or are you looking for a publishing partner? Somebody who can help you shape your book?’ ”
Urbahn believes it’s worth convincing people who could sell books (likely for lots of money) on their name recognition alone that this approach has merits. “It’s sort of cliché in publishing now, but you’ll hear from a lot of editors that people are shopping big personalities around without any thought of what [the] book is—there’s no proposal,” he said. “That’s the lazy way out. And I think it doesn’t serve the author of the book, in terms of image and in terms of the actual product that comes out the other end.”
While Urbahn and Latimer do promise big advances, they stress that choosing them means it will be about more than the up-front money; it will be about making sure the final product is worthwhile. Latimer also brings relevant writing experience to the process, having published his own book with Crown in 2009, titled Speech-less: Tales of a White House Survivor.
Another thing Javelin offers is publicity support. Both Urbahn and Latimer have done freelance publicity for a number of books, and they’ve also done some ghostwriting. Currently, they are the only full-time agents on their staff; all their other employees are dedicated to handling various forms of marketing and PR.
Carlson, who knew Latimer and Urbahn from their days in government, was, in part, drawn to Javelin because he loved Latimer’s book. Although he’s worked with Barnett on some past deals, and with a number of other agencies, he said he thought of Latimer and Urbahn “immediately” when the idea for a new book began to percolate. “They think long-term,” he said, when asked why he went with the upstarts.
“They’re also from here,” Carlson said. “Washington’s not like New York at all. It’s 250 miles away, but it could be another country. I’m represented for TV by CAA, but, for Washington stuff, I felt like they were the best.”
Javelin is not the only agency recognizing that there might be new opportunities in Washington; a number of major talent firms have begun circling the Beltway. Part of it may be fueled by the rumors about Barnett, and a belief that there is finally an opening to steal his clients. Another part relates to Donald Trump: the reality TV star turned president has changed the way people interact with politics and politicians, driving a wider and more diverse audience to follow Washington.
One of the first signs that the big Hollywood power brokers are interested in D.C. was CAA’s representation of Joe Biden, a classic Barnett client, in his recent book deal (with Flatiron).
The fact that the L.A. agencies are circling their town has not escaped Latimer and Urbahn. But they believe L.A. and D.C. make for strange bedfellows, and that the L.A. agencies may not stick around D.C. for long. “If you want a celebrity endorsement for your product or you want a vague assurance that maybe one day your book will be turned into a movie, then the Hollywood route may be the way to go,” Urbahn said.
Latimer chimed in, adding that he thinks the Hollywood agencies will only be interested in players who lean left of center, following the town’s traditional stance as a liberal bastion: “I’m dubious because [the Hollywood players are] very ideologically driven. They’re interested in the Obama people because that’s a Hollywood-friendly group. I don’t think they’re going to be doing, you know, ‘Steve Bannon: The Movie’ or ‘Mitch McConnell: The Miniseries.’ ”
And, although they both worked for Republicans in D.C., Latimer and Urbahn stressed that they are eager to work with liberals and conservatives. The deal they struck this summer for former DNC strategist Donna Brazile, selling her forthcoming book Hacks to Hachette, may go a long way in proving this to potential Democratic clients.
“I know some of our competitors, early on, were stoking this impression that we are Republican agents dealing with just Republicans,” Urbahn said. “We’ve made a very strong effort to show that that is not the case. Initially some people would say, ‘I thought you guys only represented people on the right.’ We would always respond: ‘No. We represent people with interesting stories to tell.’ ”
And these two may continue to surprise people. Latimer, for example, when asked about who his dream client is, named, of all people, Cher: “She cared a lot about my hometown of Flint, Mich., and the water crisis [there]. I think she’s got a strong voice and opinion. I don’t necessarily agree with her, but I think she’s got a really interesting story to tell.”