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August 01, 2011 ABA Journal Podcast

Obama’s Book Agent On How Lawyers Can Get Published

By Stephanie Francis Ward

Great books often come from incredible experiences, and many lawyers have more than a few.  But don’t get your hopes up, says noted lawyer and literary representative Robert Barnett.  With those experiences must come great storytelling skills, and a determination to shape the idea into a manuscript.  In a podcast moderated by Stephanie Francis Ward, he discusses options for literary-dreaming lawyers with Jonathan Karp, the executive vice president and publisher of Simon & Schuster, and Hillel Italie, who covers publishing for the Associated Press.

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Podcast Transcript

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ABA Journal: People love to read about lawyers, particularly fiction, and there are many lawyers out there who think they’ve got some great stories. So how hard is it for a lawyer to get a book deal? I’m Stephanie Francis Ward, and that’s what we’re discussing today at the ABA Journal Podcast. Joining me are Robert Barnett, a partner with Williams & Connolly who represents authors, including Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, and George Bush; Jonathan Karp, the executive vice president and publisher of Simon & Schuster; and Hillel Italie who is a publishing writer for the Associated Press.

Mr. Karp, what makes publishers want to read a book proposal all the way through rather than toss it after the first page?

Jonathan Karp: It’s usually something about the voice that’s irresistible, or there’s an idea that just hits you in the solar plexus. I remember years ago, we had an author named Po Bronson, and he’d written a couple of novels that had been successful and well reviewed, and he had a title for a book that he wanted to call What Should I Do with My Life? And he wrote a proposal in which he told stories to people who had answered that question for themselves, and it was irresistible, and we signed it up off of a proposal, and it became a number one best-seller. And I often thought the reason that book worked so well was just because he asked a question that everybody was wondering, and he answered it in interesting ways.

ABA Journal: All right. And I am curious, generally speaking, is writing a book proposal the first step to trying to get published, or are there other ways to go about getting a publisher’s attention?

Jonathan Karp: Well, I actually think that a proposal is a very good way to start. But well before that comes, usually, an incredible experience, and even fiction is usually informed by an author’s life. So I think it’s usually a good idea to have lived or studied or done something that is distinctive and stands out from what other people have done.

ABA Journal: And Mr. Barnett, you’ve worked with many lawyers over the years as a representative to getting published. Are there story telling techniques that many in the profession who want to be authors think are great, but they don’t really work very well with books?

Robert Barnett: I think that about 70 percent of the lawyers I know think they can write a book, whether fiction or nonfiction. All the time, people come up to me and say, “Everyone thinks I should write a book,” and I say, “Is any one of them a publisher?” Usually, the answer is no. It’s as hard for a lawyer to write a book as it is for a politician to write a book, a sports figure, fiction writer. You have to be able to write, and as Jonathan Karp rightly says, you have to have a great idea. And although a lot of people – and I certainly admire their attempt – think they have a great idea, very few of them do. To write a good novel, you have to be able to what I call “write fiction.”

That is an incredibly difficult thing to do. I wish I were talented enough to do it, and I’m not. And you also have to have a plot and characters, and a beginning, middle, and an end. And a lawyer, same as anyone else, has to go through that process before a publisher like Jonathan Karp is going to pick up the book and before a writer like Hillel Italie is going to write something about it to help publicize it. And unfortunately, there are very few who score, particularly in the difficult publishing environment that we’re currently living in.

ABA Journal: I have a question for all of you. I’m curious if you think writing workshops are useful. And I’m speaking of ones that you don’t have to be accepted to. You can just sign up and join. And if so, which ones do you think are useful? Mr. Italie, what do you think?

Hillel Italie: Well, I mean, there are certainly famous writing workshops like Iowa. In terms of just going into any sort of summer class or something like that, I don’t suppose it hurts. But I think in the end, you’re going to need, as everyone said, you’re going to need some kind of experience and talent. And from there, you’re just going to need to be able to make whatever connections you can make so that you bring it to a publisher’s attention. So just simply are there any kind of communities that you can go and learn and work on your writing. But I’m not sure if that’s going to give you a special leg up as opposed to an MFA program, which can really offer an advantage to you because publishers pay attention to those programs and agents do.

ABA Journal: Mr. Karp, what do you think?

Jonathan Karp: Well, can I be the one to tell the Scott Turow story? Do either of you want to tell it?

Robert Barnett: Go ahead.

Jonathan Karp: Well, you know, Scott Turow wrote a really good memoir about his experience at Harvard Law School. It was called One L. And then he decided he wanted to write fiction, and as I understand it, he had I think read a lot of Saul Bellow, and I think he’d actually gone to a writing program. I think he participated in one of the top writing programs.

And he wrote the first draft for Presumed Innocent and sent it to a very well regarded editor, Jonathan Galassi. And as I understand it, he passed on the novel but sent a very encouraging note. And Scott Turow did a revision, and Mr. Galassi passed again. And I think the third time around, Presumed Innocent was acquired, and then it became one of the bestselling novels of the decade.

So Scott Turow did all the right things. He wrote nonfiction. He wrote fiction. He went through the writing program. And then he also endured rejection. And I think that actually enduring the rejection might have been the most pivotal aspect in his success because he rewrote, and he made it better. And that probably is the most important thing that a first novelist does is to revise.

Hillel Italie: Right. I mean, the writing program can certainly help. I mean, any way you can improve your work and get feedback it can help. But as Jon is saying, you need all of those other things. You really have to have tremendous drive and determination and a willingness to listen, to be able to say, “I do need to work on something here.”

Robert Barnett: I think Dr. Seuss was rejected 30 some times.

Hillel Italie: There are so many of those stories. There are so many famous books that initially were rejected.

ABA Journal: So you can’t give up. This is what you really want, you have to keep doing it and revising.

Hillel Italie: I think really good writers tend to be pretty compulsive. You just have to be, I mean, to write a novel is just an incredible commitment of time and energy, and you really have to be driven. And hopefully, that kind of drive comes along with talent, and that drive comes with a determination that somehow, your work is going to be seen.

ABA Journal: And Mr. Italie, do you think one needs an agent to get a good book deal, particularly if the writer is an attorney?

Hillel Italie: I would say almost always, you do. I mean, there have been stories recently about people who have done it on their own. There is this young writer, Amanda Hocking from Minnesota who, I guess they were sort of vampire novels that she published herself and built an enormous online following. It’s so great that she was on the best-seller list on and eventually got a deal with St. Martin’s Press. But that’s the exception. That’s really the exception. In general, you really do need the agent. I think publishers, the vast majority of books publishers acquire, that’s how they’re acquiring them. The agent is a pretty essential step.

ABA Journal: Okay. And I have a question for all of you. What sort of trends are you seeing now in book contracts? Mr. Barnett, do you want to start?

Robert Barnett: In the contract? We don’t want to bore your listeners. You probably mean in publishing in general?

ABA Journal: Yes.

Robert Barnett: Well, publishing is in bad shape. It’s down 30 some percent in most places. Borders has closed 200 and some stores, and most people think it will be double that. The e-book is changing fundamentally the economic model of publishing. People are trying to figure out how to make it positive. So it’s very difficult right now for people who aren’t well-known public figures, established writers, to get books published. The “mid list,” if you will, which is the first novelist or the small-selling nonfiction book, is very hard to get published right now. Happily, there are alternatives to the big publishing houses like Simon & Schuster where Jonathan Karp works, in university presses and think-tank presses, and places like that.

But the problem there is they print only a few thousand copies. They don’t put much behind distribution and promotion, and the author ends up dissatisfied. So it’s a very – I would say the trend in publishing is sadly down with the exception of the big book, fiction or nonfiction.

Hillel Italie: If you’re an up-and-coming author, the chances are the advance you’re going to get is going to be smaller than it was a few years ago. That certainly seems to be a recent trend.

ABA Journal: Can you give me a sense of what size would the advance be for say a first-time author who isn’t famous?

Robert Barnett: That’s like asking what does a house cost. It depends on the house. There’s no way to answer that. I think the average advance for a book in the United States is something like $10,000, and the average sale is about 10,000 copies. That’s pretty small. And if you’re the president of the United States – talking nonfiction now – you get one level; and if you’re an academic writing about the global warming, that’s another; and it’s strictly a function of what you’re writing about and what demand among the publishers for what you propose to publish.

Jonathan Karp: I know that as a publisher, paying $10,000 for a book sounds exactly right to me. Unfortunately, I have never had the pleasure of paying $10,000 for any book represented by Bob Barnett.

Robert Barnett: And if I have my way, you never will.

Hillel Italie: I would actually like to hear about that book.


ABA Journal: All right. And in this market now, what tends to be selling better, legal fiction or legal nonfiction in the legal genre?

Robert Barnett: Well, legal nonfiction, I can’t even think of what that means. You mean books about law?

ABA Journal: I would think mostly bios about famous lawyers.

Jonathan Karp: There’s a big one out on Clarence Darrow.

Hillel Italie: There are two big ones out on Clarence Darrow.

Robert Barnett: And John Farrell and someone else. I think the fiction is always, almost always, going to overtake nonfiction in almost any category.

Jonathan Karp: We have a couple of lawyers who have written books for us. One of them is by David Stewart, who was a lawyer for 25 years in Washington and decided to turn his attention to writing full time and has written a series of nonfiction books on American history about the trial of Andrew Johnson and on the First Constitutional Convention, and he’s got a new book coming out on Aaron Burr. And I think that his career as a lawyer has helped him understand the origins of the country, and he’s bringing the flair of the novelist to biography. And we hope that eventually, he’ll have the same kind of career that people like Walter Isaacson and Doris Kearns Goodwin have had.

And then in terms of fiction, there’s another attorney named Ron Liebman who has written a book called Jersey Law, and it’s a comic novel about lawyers in New Jersey. And so I think that there are all kinds of ways of taking your legal experience and applying them to writing.

Robert Barnett: The ones I think that have sold best are the John Grishams, the Scott Turows, now Michael Connelly is huge, who are professional fiction writers who write about legal dilemmas, issues, trials, etc. And those three, just as examples, are terrific writers. And also, if - as has been the case with all three of them - the novels get turned into movies, then there’s a whole life for the paperback and the backlist. And it is a real engine of economic productivity. If you are a good fiction writer, and you can write in the legal genre as mentioning those three, you can do really well.

Hillel Italie: I think in any genre, if you know how to tell a story and certainly if you’re in the legal field, you have so many stories and such natural built-in drama in any given case that if you had the kind of talent to shape a story, you should have a lot to work with there.

Robert Barnett: I represent James Patterson, Mary Higgins Clark, Stephen White, all of whom write very big selling fiction books. And they occasionally are legal in the sense that they involve a crime or they involve a mystery or they involve some sort of terrorist dilemma. And it’s not strictly always trials, but those people in the mystery and suspense area also, I think, feed the same readers who read the Grishams and the Connellys and the Turows.

Jonathan Karp: The legal thriller or the legal suspense category became enormously popular really, I think, beginning with John Grisham. I think he’s the writer who is credited most along with Scott Turow for really making that a broadly popular category of fiction where you had a lot of lawyers writing novels about lawyers. And I think that that category because it’s now very well established, it’s not as – there’s not as much excitement about it just because people have gotten used to it. And I think in the last few years, there’s been a lot of excitement about different categories like paranormal romance. The success of Twilight has made vampires very popular.

So maybe what’s needed is paranormal legal thrillers. I mean, maybe we need some lawyers who are also vampires, although some people might say that’s redundant.

Robert Barnett: I actually went to law school with two or three of them.


Jonathan Karp: I think a proposal is shaping up as we speak here.

Robert Barnett: There’s also a whole other category now: Scandinavian.

Jonathan Karp: Yes.

Robert Barnett: Started by Stieg Larsson, but now you’ve got 10 other people, some of whom are quite good actually, who are in that space. It’s not trials, but it’s legal issues.

Jonathan Karp: That’s what we need. We need a Scandinavian lawyer who is a vampire. It will be huge.

Hillel Italie: Jon, if that trend starts, I expect you to call me.


ABA Journal: Well, speaking about those sort of trends, I’m very curious: Mr. Italie, what are you seeing people going from blogs to published authors? There’s a lot of lawyers with blogs.

Hillel Italie: There certainly has been that in recent years. Probably the most famous case, I guess, must have been what’s her name – Julie Powell, where you had Julie that became the book and the movie Julie and Julia where she had a blog that attracted a large following and eventually became a book. I think it’s just the way online works is, if you attract a large audience, a large following, people are interested in hearing what you have to say. That becomes what they call in publishing a platform. It gives you a big advantage because it means that it’s not difficult to get readers to know who you are. You’re sort of already established.

I think maybe the tricky thing is whether you have what it takes to be able to actually expand from a series of posts and actually somehow put that together into a whole book. I think that’s maybe a matter of the individual talent or having a particularly strong editor who can really work with you and turn that into something larger. But if you develop a large, online following, you certainly have an “in” there. That’s certainly a big advantage for you.

Robert Barnett: Going from a blogger to a book writer is a big leap.

Hillel Italie: It’s a big leap. Maybe you just have talent that’s been untapped that you can develop. But it has happened. It’s not impossible. But it certainly takes a lot more work.

ABA Journal: And I wanted to share with all of you there is a paranormal lawyer blog called the Undead Bar Association.

Hillel Italie: See, already someone beat us to it.


Jonathan Karp: All right, I spoke too soon.

ABA Journal: Mr. Barnett, this next question is for you. When you have a client who has a busy professional life, and they have a book deal, what sort of advice do you give that person in terms of carving out time to work on the book?

Robert Barnett: Well, my first advice is, don’t give up your day job unless you experience a lot of success. If you commit to write a book, you have to be true to the publisher and true to the contract and take the time that’s needed. Very few practicing lawyers get and execute book deals. Most of the lawyers who write books are book writers. They’re not full-time practitioners. Maybe they’re part-time practitioners or they take leaves. I think it’s hard to combine the fiduciary duty to client representation with the lonely and difficult process of writing a book. I seldom see people succeed combining the two.

ABA Journal: Okay. I’m curious, Mr. Karp. Have you seen situations where a lawyer signs a contract, and it doesn’t work out because he or she can’t or won’t do what’s needed to get it done?

Jonathan Karp: No, I haven’t. Although, I mean, I agree with Bob Barnett. I think it is a full-time job, writing. It’s an interesting contradiction because I’ve found that novelists are happier when they’re doing something else in addition to writing, because if they’re locked up in the room all day, they get so invested in their work that sometimes, it becomes problematic in terms of having a balance in life. But what they tend to do to balance their lives out is to teach part time or to write for magazines and have work that they can surround their fiction with without having it interfere too much. The only lawyer I can think of who I signed up while he still had a job was when I was a young editor at Random House, and it was a book called the Evolution of Progress.

It was a nonfiction book, and he just had this very interesting idea of writing about the history of progress, economic progress and scientific progress. And he wrote it in his free time, and it took him a long time. And he did also, by the way, take a leave. So I think that you should assume if you’re going into it that it’s going to overtake your life, and you should either give yourself a lot of time or be willing to get up very early in the morning or work weekends or whatever it takes.

ABA Journal: We touched a bit on how electronic publishing is affecting the book contracts in the industry. I’m curious, Mr. Italie, how are the tablets and the Kindles, etc., what sort of new ways are they bringing in to consume books and perhaps particularly legal-themed books? Are you seeing anything there?

Hillel Italie: Well, certainly what they’re doing is they’re making books more affordable and convenient. You can sort of be anywhere, and you suddenly have an urge to read a book. And you can have it instantly and cheaply. Certainly, cheaply in, let’s say, a hardcover book. So I would say this certainly affects any genre. And certainly, I think maybe Jon would agree that there are so-called “genre fictions” like romance or fantasy seems to be especially strong for e-books. So I mean, in terms of legal thrillers say, Kindles and Nooks, it seems to be very popular to read them in that format.

Robert Barnett: I think there are two big questions with the e-book. First is whether it will expand readership and book buying or simply cannibalize the hardcover sales. If it’s the first, that’s great. If it’s the second, all of us who have involvement in publishing I think will find it very negative. The other question will be whether the economic model, if e-books expand, can sustain the edifice that is publishing. So if the publisher gets less on a wholesale basis for vending an e-book to a retailer, they will then have to employ fewer people; probably pay smaller advances; fewer people will be able to sustain careers as writers because of the smaller advances.

And the edifice could collapse. And I think those two questions are, to me, the big ones. And I don’t think anyone yet knows the answers to those.

Hillel Italie: No. I mean, certainly I think publishers are certainly trying to do what they can to, for instance, see the physical bookstores make it. But those are the great questions that certainly people in the industry are dealing with.

ABA Journal: Mr. Italie, do you have any predictions in the next two years of what you think the popular legal themed will be?

Hillel Italie: It’s hard to know. I’m not sure if there’s going to be any radical change in the next couple of years unless there’s some kind of radical change, say, in the news in the world. If suddenly, maybe if a legal case comes out that makes people rethink the legal profession, gives it a different image, and the thrillers can play off of that. But I’m not sure if there’s going to be any great, radical change in the next couple of years. People just enjoy a good story, interesting characters, a case that has suspense to it and maybe has something to say about people and how people interact. I’m not sure if that’s going to change a lot in the next couple of years.

Robert Barnett: I think what will evolve, I agree with Hillel, I think what will evolve is the content. So for instance, James Patterson’s new Alex Cross novel called Kill Alex Cross, which comes out in a couple of months, is very much up to date with the real issues that face us on the terrorism front. My client Daniel Silva’s new novel, which comes out this coming week, called Portrait of a Spy, is, as you will see, about as “ripped from the headlines” (to use that phrase) as you can get. So I think that what’s happening in the real world will cause the excellent and leading writers of fiction to discuss those trends and events, and that will evolve.

I don’t think, to me anyway, the basic model won’t involve as to suspense, as to trials, as to mysteries, and the other types of books that legal can fall into.

Hillel Italie: Well, the real world, for instance, when Osama bin Laden was killed, it was sort of a subgenre of thrillers that was about finding bin Laden. And so instantly, you can’t write that story anymore.

ABA Journal: Are you getting romance books of Navy SEALs?

Hillel Italie: I’m sure it’s coming.


Jonathan Karp: I think that on the nonfiction side of things – I mean, I know that we’ve been talking mostly about fiction – but a lot of people are expecting next year’s Supreme Court to be a historic year in terms of some of the decisions they’re going to make. And particularly with regard to healthcare and the constitutionality of it. And I wouldn’t be surprised if you see some legal histories suddenly becoming very popular. We’re going to be publishing a book in February by a law professor named James Simon on FDR and Chief Justice Hughes and their battle over the New Deal. And I could see how a book like that could be particularly resonant.

Hillel Italie: And there was another, it was a terrific one, I think came out last year by Jeff Shesol, about Roosevelt and the Supreme Court as well. I mean, one of the things that makes publishing so interesting is you never know, a book that can come out a few years ago and maybe only sell not a lot of copies, something can happen, and that book suddenly becomes relevant.

Robert Barnett: A simple example of that is all these Navy SEAL books, which were written in the last few years, and all of a sudden, they didn’t sell much, but now they’re selling, and they’re on the best-seller list.

Hillel Italie: Well, look what happened, Jon, you would know, with Team of Rivals, which had already been a big book, but Obama comes in, and he brings Hillary Clinton into his cabinet, and the phrase “team of rivals” is used over and over. And that book is right back up on the best-seller list.

Jonathan Karp: Exactly. We love that.


Robert Barnett: So did Doris Kearns Goodwin.


ABA Journal: I have a question for all of you. It seems that so many people tend to think that they hate the legal profession, but they love reading books about it. Why do you think that is? Mr. Karp, could you go first?

Jonathan Karp: That’s a great question. I think that lawyers perhaps use fiction as an opportunity to be more creative and to say all the things that they can’t say to their clients. That’s my guess.

Robert Barnett: I would say, having practiced law for 37 years, which is what I mainly do, people hate lawyers until they need one. Then you wouldn’t believe how they love lawyers.


ABA Journal: Mr. Italie, what do you think?

Hillel Italie: I think as someone who has not practiced law, I think in general we’re always sort of fascinated by people who might do things that we haven’t done. And you just sort of follow that. It’s almost like when people follow the foibles of celebrities, and you’re sort of like, “God, I can’t believe that person did that. And I would never do that.” But you want to know more. You follow it because there’s just something there that gets your attention.

Robert Barnett: Also, inherent in legal matters are the things that make for a good story: good and bad, tension, power, and non-power, characters. So the legal milieu is a perfect place to put stories. And what people buy when they buy novels is a good story, something they want to read. They don’t really, I think, think a whole lot about whether it’s a medical story or a legal story or a terrorism story. If it gets a good review, and it’s by an author they’ve read and like, or it’s written about by Hillel or seen on the morning shows, they’re going to pick it up whatever the subject is. It’s really whether it’s a compelling read.

It’s difficult in these economic times to get people to spend $30 of their hard-won disposable income on something that isn’t a sandwich or a gallon of gas. And so you’ve got to have a compelling story, fiction or nonfiction, before people are going to plunk down the money either online or in a bookstore.

Hillel Italie: I think sometimes what’s interesting is when you come upon a book that you didn’t necessarily start because you were thinking about the legal profession. But it includes that. I mean, I had just been reading the second volume of Robert Caro’s big series on LBJ. And in the second volume, the big focus of it is LBJ’s senate race in 1948 against Coke Stevenson, which ended up to be highly disputed, very close, disputed vote count. And it basically reads like a legal thriller because they have to go through all of these procedures with the Supreme Court, and Johnson took on a very young then Abe Fortas to represent him. And you read it, and it’s just like a legal thriller.

Robert Barnett: I would argue that the best readable nonfiction, including by people like Jonathan Karp’s and my mutual client Bob Woodward, Caro, you mentioned many others, read like novels. They’re great stories. They have characters. They have tension. They have resolutions. They have dilemmas. They have moral quandaries. And I agree with you, Hillel. The best of nonfiction often reads as a great story.

ABA Journal: Thank you all so much for your time. We really appreciate it.

This podcast was brought to you by the ABA Journal. For more podcasts on the legal issues of the day, visit us online at or subscribe for free to the ABA Journal Podcast on iTunes.

In This Podcast:

Stephanie Francis Ward
Robert B. Barnett, a partner with Williams & Connolly, represents high-profile authors in his practice. The Washington, D.C., lawyer’s clients include Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

Hillel Italie, who works for the Associated Press, has served as the news organization’s publishing writer since 1998.

Jonathan Karp is the executive vice president and publisher of Simon & Schuster. A former book editor, the works he has acquired and edited include Thank You for Smoking, by Christopher Buckley, What Should I Do With My Life?, by Po Bronson and The Orchid Thief, by Susan Orlean.