“You have this stereotype. ‘I’m going to walk into this place and there’s gonna be some guy with a baseball bat, swinging it around, with a Bluetooth headpiece in.’ Right? And it couldn’t be further from that. We call our office the book nook. You come in and there are just loads and loads and books, and we’re all laughing and having a great time.”
So says literary agent Albert Lee about United Talent Agency’s Manhattan office. If there’s a need to dispel the notion that he and his colleagues are anything like the Hollywood talent agent Tom Cruise played in Jerry Maguire (who did much of his initial deal making with bat in hand and Bluetooth in ear), it’s because the publishing division’s parent is a vaunted Hollywood talent agency.
While UTA Publishing isn’t full of stereotypical L.A. talent agents (its group of five is based in New York City and all previously worked at boutique literary agencies), it has benefitted from its association with a firm that represents some of the biggest names in entertainment, media, and sports. And while it’s not yet quite as big as the two other publishing divisions of major Hollywood talent firms (William Morris Endeavor has 16 agents in its publishing division, and Creative Artists Agency has 11), UTA Publishing has been growing.
In 2017, Byrd Leavell was brought in as head of the division. Leavell had worked for firms like Inkwell Management before becoming a principal at what was then the Waxman Leavell Literary Agency, and he said he was hired with a mandate from UTA’s co-president, David Kramer, to “build out” the department. His first hires were Lee (who joined from Aevitas Creative Management) and Pilar Queen (who joined from McCormick Literary). Those two rounded out a group that already included agents Meredith Miller and Brandi Bowles, who had both joined UTA in 2015.
Since Leavell joined UTA, its deal volume has increased roughly 40% every year. A spokesperson for the company added that for the current calendar year, the division has closed 100 deals. Since 2019, it has sold more than 50 books that have become New York Times bestsellers.
Like the literary agents at WME and CAA, the group at UTA are on salary and do not work on commission. (Almost all literary agents at traditional firms work on commission, usually getting 15% of their clients’ advances, as well as a percentage of book sales.) And, like the lit agents at WME and CAA, the UTA group has two directives: to service existing UTA clients (helping them craft and sell books) and bring in new talent.
The notable deals the firm has closed in the past few years lean heavily toward high-profile celebrities—UTA has sold books for, among others, Don Lemon (This Is the Fire), Seth Rogen (Yearbook), and Mary Trump (The Reckoning)—but there has also been a heavy influx of high-level journalists. In addition to Lemon, UTA has recently represented Emily Chang (anchor of Bloomberg Technology), Taylor Lorenz (a reporter for the New York Times’ Styles section), Nathaniel Popper (a technology reporter for the Times), Brian Stelter (formerly a media reporter for the Times and now a correspondent for CNN), and Kara Swisher (who established herself at Wired before joining the Times, where she writes a column and hosts a podcast). And, though working with existing clients will always be a big part of what UTA Publishing does, adding clients who are authors first is a major focus, Leavell said. “We want to be a place where writers want to be. We’re not in this to be a servicing department. We’re in this to be a home for great books and great writers.”
Queen recalled that when she was hired, in 2019, these were her marching orders: “Bring the people who see themselves as writers.” Those writers can then, she noted, enjoy the benefits of the firm’s other talent agents.
Wherever a client comes from, though, the goal is the same, according to Leavell. Pointing to a recent New York Times article stating that 98% of the books published in 2020 each sold fewer than 5,000 copies, he said UTA aims to “give our clients’ books the best potential to be in that 2%.”
Having its agents work as a team is one way UTA makes hits. With commissions out of the picture, the lone-wolf approach that can prevail, to some extent, at other agencies is mitigated at UTA. Leavell said he saw the team-based approach in action for the first time when he got to UTA, and that it’s more popular on the West Coast. “It’s about putting the interests of the department, and each individual client, over the individual agent,” he added.
Julia Cheiffetz at Simon & Schuster’s One Signal imprint, who acquired Stelter’s 2020 book Hoax from Queen, said she appreciated how quickly the agent was able to adapt, and produce. “It was an interesting situation,” Cheiffetz explained, “because the book was about Fox News and Trump. But when Covid hit, it was clear we had to reposition it. And Queen was a true editorial partner.”
Bruce Nichols, senior v-p and publisher at Little, Brown, also praised Leavell and Lee, who worked together with him when he acquired Lemon’s This Is the Fire. He said at times it seemed like Lee and Leavell were “one person.” He also appreciated how involved they were. “They’re very good at putting celebrities together with collaborators and defining what a book should be.”
Nichols sees growth in the group’s future. He said that before Leavell joined, there had been other, smaller, iterations of the UTA publishing division, but he noted that this go-round feels different. “I wouldn’t be surprised if they continue to add people,” he explained. He doesn’t expect the publishing division of WME to be twice as big in five years, but, he observed, “these guys could be. They’re still in the early stages.”
NOTE: This story has been updated from its original form to reflect some minor factual corrections, and that CAA has 11 agents (not seven, as initially stated). Also, it was previously stated that UTA sold Joanna Gaines's Magnolia Table, Vol. 2; that book was sold by David Vigliano at Vigliano Associates.