Robert Barnett of Williams & Connolly, whom we featured on the cover of Washington, DC Super Lawyers in 2007, is the lawyer that big-name authors want negotiating for them. Among his clients that maybe you have heard of: President Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, James Patterson, Mary Higgins Clark. In this period in which the book industry is being dramatically reshaped thanks to the advent and booming popularity of cheaper e-books, we figured who better to check in on the plight of authors than Barnett? We got him on the phone Jan. 4 for a quick chat.
Is it harder to secure the same types of advances for your clients now than earlier in your career?
There’s no question that advances are less than they might have been 10 years ago. E-books have had a profoundly negative impact on, for instance, paperback sales, because people who want to spend less for the book than the hardcover price no longer have to wait a year to pay a lower price for a paperback; they can immediately pay a lower price for an e-book. Combined with the closing of stores, Borders completely, the Barnes & Noble right here in Georgetown, has meant that there are fewer outlets for the retail sale of the product. So all those forces are definitely affecting the industry and of course affecting authors.
For the top authors, the standard is 25 percent of net profits. It’s the rare case where that can be changed because these corporations that have publishing subsidiaries have corporate policies and it’s generally not much of a negotiation with respect to some of these subsidiary rights.
What’s the climate for, say, a novelist to sell a first manuscript?
Approximately one out of 8,000 manuscripts gets published and the average advance is probably $10,000.
How many unsolicited manuscripts do you receive in a given year?
Over the transom? A lot. But I’ve never taken on a project that I get over the transom. But I always read them, I always write back, because I think if people were nice enough to send me something I owe them a response.
What do you tell them when you write back?
What they have to do is very simple. First, they have to write a proposal. Nobody buys an idea, nobody reads a full manuscript. Don’t write a book; write a proposal. And once you’ve written a proposal, which is basically a sales document, you have to, second, find representation. The best way to do that is to go to a large bookstore and look at some books in the same category. Books about sports, cookbooks, whatever the category may be. Look in the acknowledgements section, where the author thanks his or her representative. In that way you’ll be able to identify some representatives who work in that category. Then, send the proposal. Not the idea, not the manuscript, but the proposal, to those representatives to see if one will take you on. If you get representation, then the representative will help you improve your proposal and ultimately bring it to the market.
That sounds like sound advice.
And I will not send you a bill for that.
What’s the last book you read?
I read three over the holidays: The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje, The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, which won the Booker Prize, and The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach. All three were excellent. Oh and I tell you what else, I read my client James Patterson’s new book coming out in a couple months called Private, which is also excellent.