When Alan Greenspan, Tony Blair and Karl Rove decided it was time to write a memoir, each turned to the same broker: Robert Barnett, one of the most powerful players in book publishing, though he operates well outside the New York publishing clique.
Barnett, 61, a partner at the Washington law firm of Williams & Connolly, is a rainmaker for high-profile politicians passing from the public to the private sector. Though he’s not a headhunter, should you want to land on a corporate board or a university faculty or work as a consultant or a TV talking head, Barnett can help. A particular forte of his is acquiring multimillion-dollar book advances.
Barnett is the man who persuaded Penguin Press to offer Alan Greenspan an $8.5-million advance for “The Age of Turbulence” -- one of five books he represents that are likely to land on the September bestseller lists.
The other four are Bill Clinton’s “Giving: How Each of Us Can Change the World” (Knopf); political strategist Mark J. Penn’s “Microtrends: The Small Forces Behind Tomorrow’s Big Changes” (Twelve); novelist James Patterson’s “You’ve Been Warned” (Little, Brown); and presidential daughter Jenna Bush’s “Ana’s Story: A Journey of Hope” (HarperCollins).
Although Barnett functions on behalf of his book clients much as an agent does -- negotiating contracts, assisting with the editing process, refereeing between writer and publisher -- he firmly rejects the term.
“I’m a lawyer and proud of it,” he insists when reached by phone. “I bill my clients an hourly rate; I don’t agree with taking a percentage for someone’s creative output.” (An agent typically takes a 15% to 20% commission as payment.)
The bulk of Barnett’s legal practice involves corporate clients. Selling books accounts for only 10% to 15% of his time.
At $900 an hour, Barnett’s attention doesn’t come cheap. Peter Osnos, founder and editor at large of the publisher PublicAffairs, notes that Barnett’s fee arrangement isn’t right for everybody.
But when it’s a question of a multimillion-dollar contract, Barnett’s hourly rate can offer a client a massive savings over an agent’s commission. In an example Barnett cited, he billed a client $150,000 for negotiating a $3-million book contract -- a substantial discount from the $450,000 to $600,000 an agent would customarily charge.
While authors might save money, publishers don’t. Sonny Mehta, chairman of Knopf Publishing Group, a subsidiary of Random House, paid $12 million for the privilege of publishing Bill Clinton’s memoir “My Life,” which Barnett represented.
Replying to an e-mail query, Mehta -- who has a reputation as one of the most intimidating publishers in New York -- said that the upside of working with Barnett “is that when he calls about a client, it’s always someone you will want to take a meeting with. The downside is that he’s an expert on valuation, and as such I can never quite negotiate the deal I’d like.”
Since 1976, Barnett has honed his negotiating skills prepping Democratic presidential candidates for debates. He has role-played George H.W. Bush and Dick Cheney (whose wife, Lynne, is also a client) on multiple occasions.
Among Democratic front-runners, he can count Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barack Obama, John Edwards and Bill Richardson as clients. But he says it’s no secret he’s supporting Clinton. He has served as the Clintons’ personal attorney since 1992 (except for a short period when his wife was covering the Clinton White House). “We’ve been close friends for a long time,” he says, “and I’m on her debate prep team.”
Still, Barnett’s Democratic politics haven’t scared Republicans away. Bush administration officials who have called him just before or after leaving the White House include, in addition to Rove, Andrew Card, Ari Fleischer and Donald Rumsfeld.
That kind of agreeableness is important to Bush administration officials -- and their families. This month, Barnett sold an as-yet-unnamed second book by Jenna Bush to HarperCollins, this one to be co-written with Laura Bush. With that kind of access to the first family, can it be more than a matter of time before the president calls?