When a Lawyer is Better Than an Agent

In Global Trade Talk by Edward Nawotka

By Edward Nawotka

Today the news broke that American college student Amanda Knox, recently exonerated of murder charges in Italy, had hired Robert Barnett, a partner at the DC firm Williams & Connolly, to serve as her representative to publishers in negotiating a book deal. Often, he’s been confused with being an agent, but he’s not…he’s a lawyer and proud of it. The influential negotiator made this point very clearly to me several years ago when I had the opportunity to profile him for Bloomberg News.

Robert Barnett, attorney not agent

Lawyers who negotiate book contracts are not unheard of and in this day and age of authors finding they need to rely on themselves more and more, hiring a lawyer might not be such a bad option. Why? Well, as I wrote in 2007:

At $900 an hour, Barnett’s attention doesn’t come cheap…and 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.

That’s a significant savings. Plus, lawyers have one undeniable advantage over your typical agent: they can intimidate even the most intimidating.

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.”

About the Author

Edward Nawotka

A widely published critic and essayist, Edward Nawotka serves as a speaker, educator and consultant for institutions and businesses involved in the global publishing and content industries. He was also editor-in-chief of Publishing Perspectives since the launch of the publication in 2009 until January 2016.