Byrd Leavell is a literary agent and co-head of publishing at United Talent Agency (UTA) in New York. He graduated from the University of Virginia and the Radcliffe Publishing Program. Over his 20+ year career, Leavell has overseen multiple New York Times #1 bestsellers representing clients such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Steph Curry, Christine Pride and Jo Piazza, Neil Strauss, Rich Roll, Cat Marnell, and more. He spoke to Sophia Stewart prior to this year’s fair.
What books are you reading right now?
Empire of Pain, which I finally picked up after reading Demon Copperhead. And I’m listening to Tom Lake, Outlive, and Book Lovers. We just picked the new Zadie Smith for our UTA book club, so that will be next up.
What’s one of your favorite books that most people don’t know?
I love Herman Wouk. The Winds of War and War and Remembrance are permanent top ten.
What’s a big book you read recently that surprised you in a good way? In a bad way?
I listened to All the Sinners Bleed and that was a whole experience. As someone from rural Virginia, S.A. Cosby is impossible not to love. Just a sledgehammer of a novelist. And the narrator Adam Lazarre-White should basically do every book ever.
What book (or books) made you want to be an agent?
As I grew up reading every book Stephen King wrote, I remember imagining what it would be like to get to work in publishing. I didn’t actually know that “literary agent” was a possible profession until I went to the Radcliffe Publishing Course after college.
What are your expectations for this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair?
Fourteen-hour days of continuous conversation for a full week. Which is almost surprisingly fun because I get to talk to editors and publishers about the extraordinary writers we represent like Fredrik Backman, Daniel Mason, Maggie Shipstead, Chloe Caldwell, and Sonia Purnell.
What are some trends to watch out for in international literature?
With the success of Elliot Page’s Pageboy, we’ve been heartened to see a growing hunger for LGBTQ+ narratives, even from territories that were previously resistant. We’re also seeing lively interest in African literature and renewed interest in high-concept YA thrillers—although maybe that trend never phased out. Of course, we’re seeing continued interest in some of our “big idea” nonfiction titles, like the upcoming Languishing by Corey Keyes and Rich Roll’s proposal for Change Agent.
What are some trends in American literature your international book business friends and contacts are most excited about? What are some they’re tired of?
We’ve been hearing that translation publishers are tiring of the rom-com craze and “overcoming obstacle” stories, but we’re still selling strongly in both areas so we think those trends are alive and well. We’re seeing success with poetry, which has benefited especially from social media platforms like TikTok.
Who are the hot new agents and editors to watch at this year’s fair, both in the U.S. and abroad?
We just hired Duvall Osteen, who is a huge star and tremendous addition to our team. And I’m excited to be there with Melissa Chinchillo as a colleague this year. She oversaw Fletcher and Co.’s foreign rights, and we have been friends for 20 years. Dan Milaschewski is selling so many great books for us here in the States and we also have a long list of up-and-coming superstar agents within Curtis Brown. In terms of editors, I have a big book with Marie Pantojan at Random House and have been hugely impressed by the level with which she does the job.