News & Politics

Meet the Former Rumsfeld Aides Who Want to Blow Up DC’s Book Business

Keith Urbahn and Matt Latimer want to change the outdated, inefficient author-agent relationship.

Keith Urbahn and Matt Latimer in their Alexandria office. Photographs by Eli Meir Kaplan.

In January of last year, Keith Urbahn and Matt Latimer, founders of the literary agency Javelin, purchased a 6,000-square-foot building in Old Town Alexandria, setting up their office one flight up from a ceramics showroom. The space is bright and airy and minimally decorated, with graphics intended to be representative of the various services Javelin provides its clients: a computer, for website design and digital marketing; a radio mike, for media deals; and a typewriter, for ghostwriting.

“One of the first things we discovered about the publishing-agent industrial complex, or whatever you want to call it, is how absurd and outdated it can be,” Latimer says. “Like, as an agent, this idea that you do not do promotion for your clients. Or that you do not help them create websites. It seemed silly, so we thought, okay, let’s just reinvent the whole process of being an agent. Let’s reinvent it and see what happens.”

Latimer is 40, with graying hair, Peter Gallagher eyebrows, and cheeks the hue of Fuji apples. A former speechwriter for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and President George W. Bush, he left politics in 2008 to write a tell-all called Speech-less: Tales of a White House Survivor. The book sold briskly and earned him a spot on the New York Times bestseller list as well as the enmity of a few Bush-administration colleagues, who felt Latimer had aired too much dirty laundry.

About two years later, he opened Javelin with Urbahn, 30, another former Rumsfeld speechwriter. The two took the firm’s name from the Secret Service handle for Rumsfeld’s wife; they liked how “distinctly un-Washington” it sounded, Urbahn says. Neither Latimer nor Urbahn—an intelligence officer in the Naval Reserve—had a lick of agenting experience. Still, both were consummate readers and experienced writers, and as successful entrepreneurs often can, they’d spotted an opening.

“We knew that typically, with political books, the publisher puts it out there and gives it a week of attention, but if something big happens three weeks out that could help benefit the book, it’s like, ‘Oh well—too late,’ ” Urbahn recalls. “We’d gotten to know all these Washington reporters, and our thinking was that we could use that to help publicize books. And we could use our experience as writers to collaborate with authors, or even book-doctor some projects, if we needed to. That was going to be our niche.”

Left: George W. Bush with speechwriters at the White House. Latimer, who later wrote a tell-all, is third from the left. Right: Urbahn and Latimer with Donald Rumsfeld, their former boss and eventual client. Photograph of Bush with speechwriters courtesy of Javelin; Urbahn and Latimer with Rumsfield by Katarina Pearson.

Their first client was their old boss. Latimer and Urbahn had helped write Rumsfeld’s previous book, a memoir called Known and Unknown. Washington superagent Robert Barnett had handled the sale. But according to Latimer and Urbahn, Barnett had been unenthusiastic about the new project, a compendium of flinty Rumsfeldian wisdom. (Barnett did not comment for this story.) Barnett believed Rumsfeld would be “lucky” to get $200,000 from a publisher, Urbahn says. Sticking a thumb in Barnett’s eye, Javelin sold Rumsfeld’s Rules: Leadership Lessons in Business, Politics, War, and Life to HarperCollins for nearly $1 million. It also organized a social-media campaign, arranged TV bookings, and built a website with a searchable index of sources.

“What impressed me was that they were able to leverage all this technology in a way that most people my age couldn’t,” Rumsfeld says. “There are few agents who know anything about promoting in the 21st century. Keith and Matt did.”

In May of 2013, buoyed by a glitzy television tour—“I see you as ‘Yummy Rummy,’ Today’s Kathie Lee Gifford purred to the former Defense Secretary—Rumsfeld’s Rules debuted on the New York Times bestseller list. Latimer and Urbahn had made their bones, and Washington was taking note.

A string of high-profile projects followed—a big book by Fox’s Lou Dobbs, another by Washington private investigator Terry Lenzner. In April, Javelin took a memoir by Texas senator Ted Cruz to auction in New York, reportedly winning an advance of about $1.5 million. (Urbahn says it was “not [Javelin’s] place” to discuss specific advance amounts.) The Washington Examiner breathlessly noted that the advance was the largest in years for a conservative politician—bigger even than the $1.25 million paid to Sarah Palin in 2008.

“It’s extremely impressive, what they’ve managed to do,” one DC literary agent says. “I think maybe there was some skepticism at first that these guys could compete in Washington, but then the Cruz deal happened and everyone sort of sat up and went, ‘Okay, maybe this is actually legit.’ ”

And if it is, the hoary old model of Beltway book dealing could be in for a big change.

• • •

In Javelin’s early days, Latimer and Urbahn worked out of a one-room office in Arlington’s Courthouse Square. Latimer says he’d come into the office thinking, “This might not work. We might not be here at the end of the year.”

A lawyer by training, the Michigan-born Latimer prepared himself for the possibility that the venture could fall apart. For his part, Urbahn, who grew up in Connecticut and studied religion and Arabic at Yale, told me if he hadn’t started Javelin with Latimer, he would have applied to business school. (His father is an airline executive.)

“Back then, we laughed at ourselves,” Latimer says. “We had no illusions. We didn’t go to agent school, you know? We were totally figuring it out as we went along.”

He says purchasing an office instead of renting—it cost more than $2 million—was an investment decision, but he also describes it as a bit of a professional motivator: “A permanent office was a big step, because buying an office meant a mortgage and a real commitment to fill the space with people.”

Today Javelin has ten employees, including a booking expert and several PR specialists. The team oversees a rotating stable of roughly 30 authors. Once a week, staffers gather to run air-traffic control. This fall, they invited me to sit in on one of the meetings. Rachael Dean, a PR manager—and former press secretary to John McCain—was on hand, as was Javelin staff writer and onetime Supreme Court clerk Justin Walker, who beamed in via webcam from his home in Kentucky.

Dressed in a pink button-down and slim-cut jeans, Urbahn called the meeting to order. Compared with Latimer, he’s serious and serene—the natural choice, Latimer says, for president of the company. (Latimer’s title is founding partner.) On this day, Urbahn appeared fatigued. A week earlier, he and Latimer had signed Barbara Bowman, one of the women to accuse Bill Cosby of sexual assault. So far, Javelin’s PR team had agreed to an NBC interview with Bowman, declined one with Entertainment Tonight (“diminishing returns,” Latimer said with a wave of his hand), and was weighing another with 20/20.

The book-sale prospects were also looking good. “We’ve got seven publishers that have already signed nondisclosure agreements to read the proposal,” Urbahn said. “Hopefully, we’ll have a few that want to fly Barbara to New York for a meeting.”

Next up was a children’s book on free-market economics—“It could find an audience with parents who think their kids aren’t getting a good education on Hayek and Friedman and all that stuff,” Urbahn said—and even more promisingly, a new title by Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal.

“The editors love him,” Latimer said of Jindal. “He’s got enthusiasm. On one of his calls, he talked for 45 minutes straight!” (Jindal’s project, tentatively titled Hinges of History, sold in December for a mid-six-figure advance.)

Dean, the PR manager, jumped in. The next morning, she was scheduled to fly to Nova Scotia for the Halifax International Security Forum, where she hoped to obtain a few new clients. “I’m kind of obsessed with two women,” she said, smiling. “One is Alaa Murabit, a women’s-rights activist from Libya. She was on Qaddafi’s list of the most wanted. She’s young and smart. She’s been out there a bit, but she hasn’t written a book.”

Urbahn was skeptical: “We’d have to find the larger story there. The bigger narrative.”

He was much more enthusiastic about the prospect of securing an audience with Tulsi Gabbard, a personable 33-year-old Democratic congresswoman from Hawaii. A surfer, an Iraq veteran, and the first Hindu in Congress, Gabbard had recently been appointed vice chair of the Democratic National Committee. “I wonder if we could get her to write about the future of the Democratic Party,” Urbahn said.

For a literary agent, no skill is more important than the ability to find talent before the other sharks in the tank take notice. But for Washington agents on the make, this doesn’t always involve scouring literary journals for some unknown gem. In fact, it’s not that different from the work of the political pros Urbahn and Latimer used to be: They’re seeking rising stars whose electoral potential or cable-TV appeal could keep them in the news—and their books on bestseller lists—for decades to come. Though the agents want to expand into history or culture books, their main skill is identifying people, not authors.

Latimer asked Dean how she was planning to approach Gabbard’s team. “Well, I don’t know how this is going to go down,” she joked. “Who knows what might happen if the lobster keeps flowing.”

“I’d go with the soft sell,” Latimer said. “Just tell them about the books we’ve done and ask for another conversation.”

Meeting adjourned. Or almost: Latimer had one more point to bring up. For months, he’d been trying to make contact with Joe Biden, whose 2007 campaign tome, Promises to Keep, had sold poorly and earned the then senator a relatively measly $112,500 advance. Latimer believed he could help Biden craft a blockbuster post-White House book. He’d already penned one letter to the VP without any luck. But he’d recently made contact with a relative of Biden’s and was now preparing a second note. “I’m optimistic,” he said. “I think if we can get this in front of him and detail all these new projects, we’ve got a shot.”

Later, Latimer told me Biden was more than a white whale—he was an opportunity to boost Javelin into a class of agents currently occupied by only one other person.

“We’d love to represent Biden. We’d love to represent Obama,” Latimer said. “People think it’s crazy to say that, and I imagine Bob Barnett will probably do Obama’s next book, but why? He doesn’t have any special talent that we don’t have. Why shouldn’t it be us?”

Urbahn and Latimer–at work in the office building they bought last year–think the book business is begging to be disrupted. Photograph by Eli Meir Kaplan.

Literary agenting in Washington is a big-money game, and no DC agent in history has earned more cash for his clients than Robert Barnett. His run effectively began in 1985, with a seismic $2.4-million deal—$5.3 million in today’s dollars—for David Stockman, Ronald Reagan’s budget director. Barnett’s track record since then would take pages to recount. It’s probably best to stick to the highlight reel: Edward Kennedy’s memoir True Compass ($8 million, reportedly), Bill Clinton’s My Life ($10 million, ditto), Hillary Clinton’s Living History ($8 million, ditto), Tony Blair’s A Journey (roughly $7 million, ditto), George W. Bush’s Decision Points ($7 million, ditto), and Obama’s The Audacity of Hope, a book that has helped make the President a very wealthy man.

Barnett has represented Amanda Knox, the college student accused and acquitted of murder in Italy; Queen Noor of Jordan; Prince Charles; thriller novelist James Patterson; and bestselling author Khaled Hosseini of The Kite Runner fame. But his real brand is American politics, a world in which he’s seen as both powerbroker and—per Mark Leibovich’s not particularly flattering portrait in This Town—the epitome of “the Suck-Up City operator who plays all sides, is tireless in his self-promotion, and is mercenary in his alliances.” (It may be worth pointing out that Latimer and Urbahn, who secured their first deal, and thus their reputation, by dint of their association with Rumsfeld, have benefited from their own type of insider alliance.)

A Democrat, Barnett has sold books by Karl Rove and Sarah Palin. He has also leveraged a network of industry contacts to negotiate extremely lucrative media deals, including a $3.4-million exit package for outgoing Wall Street Journal editor Marcus Brauchli, who eventually wound up, for a time, atop the Washington Post. (Soon thereafter, Leibovich points out in This Town, the Post published a sugary profile of Barnett.)

Traditionally, a literary agent takes a 15-percent commission on all royalty and advance money. A lawyer at the white-shoe Washington firm Williams & Connolly, Barnett charges an author a flat hourly fee, allegedly in the neighborhood of a grand. Big bucks, obviously. But considering the amount of money he’s able to get from publishers, he probably often saves his clients money. After all, 15 percent of $8 million is $1.2 million, and Barnett almost certainly charged Hillary Clinton less than that for his work on Living History.

Barnett has said he represents almost 300 authors, but in an average year he’ll close only a dozen deals—another sign, in a way, of his prestige. He has no need for the small deals that sustain other agents. He gets to pick and choose his bets, and he almost always chooses right.

As PublicAffairs founder Peter Osnos has argued, “Nobody games the system better than Bob Barnett.”

Indeed, to speak to other agents about Barnett is to hear a mixture of naked jealousy and grudging respect: The man, whatever his faults, gets it done. Not only did he essentially create the market for big-money political memoirs, but he has kept it cornered, year after year.

“You learn to think that there are the type of clients that you’ll be able to snag and the type of clients that are going to go for Barnett,” one young DC agent says. “Basically, there’s a momentum that accrues—if you’re a retiring politician and Barnett has made millions for all your friends, you’re going to sign with Barnett, too. I don’t take offense at that. I adjust.”

Compared with New York, with its dozens of agencies, literary Washington is a claustrophobic place. There’s Barnett, there are a couple of one-person operations, there are some New York agencies with DC offices, and there are Sagalyn Literary Agency and Ross Yoon—two local shops with deep benches of author talent. But although Sagalyn and Ross Yoon sell big political books—Sagalyn did the bestselling George W. Bush-administration history Days of Fire by Times scribe Peter Baker; Ross Yoon handled Gabriel Sherman’s The Loudest Voice in the Room, about Roger Ailes and Fox News—neither has demonstrated much success with the politicians and heads of state who constitute Barnett’s client base.

That’s the market Latimer and Urbahn want.

• • •

Once there are alternatives out there, I think Barnett is going to have a harder time,” Latimer told me. We were sitting in the office he shares with Urbahn, drinking coffee. On the wall behind him, alongside a bottle of ten-year-old Bulleit bourbon, hung a framed version of what he considers his most effective speech—a 2007 George W. Bush number honoring the Tuskegee Airmen.

“This was my one moment I was proud of in the administration,” Latimer said, flushing.

Latimer had suggested that the President salute the airmen, a gesture that provoked tears from the assembled pilots. “President Bush later asked who was responsible for that salute idea and said, ‘Tell that guy he’s a genius,’ ” Latimer remembers.

Javelin’s proposition to authors is that it can offer them that same type of genius. Other agents might tweak a proposal and get it to the right people, but Urbahn and Latimer are available, for a fee, for chapter editing, full-on ghostwriting, and occasional stagecraft.

“We come at it like we would a campaign,” Latimer says. “Months ahead of time, we’re thinking, ‘What is our strategy for the rollout? What about leak strategy? And what reporters do we need to get interested?’ ”

It’s also a different economic model in that fees vary depending on the needs of the client. With some authors, they’ll take the standard 15 percent. For others, they’ll charge an hourly rate for proposal writing, or a higher commission if a lot more work is needed on the manuscript.

“Sometimes we’ll say to people who have never done a book before, ‘We’ll help you with the writing, we’ll help you with editing and the drafts and the research and the copyediting, we’ll help you organize it and structure it,’ ” Latimer says. “Of course, a lot of young or starting-out writers don’t have a lot of money to do this, so basically, in place of giving us a big flat fee, we take a larger percentage of [the sales].”

Urbahn and Latimer say they earned $4.6 million in advance money for clients in 2014, with the average sale in the mid-six figures—a pittance by Barnett standards but no small deal in an era of shrinking publisher budgets.

For the time being, literary representation is the largest single component of Javelin’s business, but the firm is expanding into other sectors: Javelin has overhauled Foreign Policy’s website and built the magazine a new digital press kit and helped design and brand a blog for the John Templeton Foundation. In October, Latimer and Urbahn arranged a deal that saw political reporters Eli Lake and Josh Rogin move from the Daily Beast to Bloomberg View.

Lake and Rogin are, in a way, ideal Javelin clients: young, energetic, and on the rise. They represent an investment of the kind that a Bob Barnett would never have to make. “The hope is to go out and find the people who are going to be reporting and telling stories about Washington for the next 20 years, the next 30 years,” Urbahn says. “To find the talent early and to stick with them.”

There’s a reason most agents have been content to stick with the straightforward 15-percent commission: It can be easy work. You send out a proposal to publishers, you sit in on conference calls with editors, you collect your cut of the advance, and you move on to the next sale. It’s a model that—to use a trendy 2014 term Urbahn and Latimer aren’t afraid to deploy themselves—is begging to be disrupted.

Of course, there are legions of would-be publishing industry disrupters who’ve gone belly-up over the years. Will Javelin’s bet—that writers will opt for a one-stop shop offering a much broader array of services at occasionally higher prices—pay off? To continue to grow, they’ll have to add clients consistently, both up-and-comers and established ones

Perhaps more pressing is the question of how Javelin will define itself. Latimer and Urbahn are conservative; they came up through conservative administrations, and most of their clients are right-leaning. Neither founder is unaware of this: In fact, Urbahn credits it as part of Javelin’s appeal.

“There are a lot of people in this town who became our first clients because they didn’t feel that literary agents gave them the time of day, and yes, sure, a lot of them were sort of Republican conservative center-right,” he says. But he and Latimer hope to broaden Javelin’s reach.

“I could write just as good of a speech for Barack Obama as I wrote for George W. Bush if I knew what he wanted to say, if I knew how he talked,” Latimer says. “The same thing goes for our clients.”

Among Javelin’s newest signees is Tim Naftali, a left-leaning historian who is currently working—with right-leaning reporter Jamie Kirchick—on a book about gay life in Washington. “Intellectually honest people can sell a project that doesn’t necessarily align with their interests,” Naftali says. “To me, the important thing was that Keith and Matt really got the idea and were very enthusiastic. Because let’s face it, if your agent doesn’t believe in a project, editors are going to sense it.”

Others are more skeptical about whether Javelin can attract a broad cross-section of clients.

“In a sense, a lot of DC agents have it pretty easy: They don’t have to hustle, they have a couple big clients—they’re incumbents in the market, if you will,” one Washington editor told me. “That means that a disruptive outsider can come and eat their lunch. But the idea, to me, of Javelin going bipartisan is slim. With that client list, are they really going to be able to come to a Democratic event and schmooze and convince liberal politicians to sign with them? I’m not sure.”

He paused. “Then again, there’s more conservative media in Washington than there’s ever been: the Daily Caller, the Washington Free Beacon, and so on. There’s a huge pool of conservative writers that they can tap into, and in that sense, they may not even have to go bipartisan.”

Javelin’s weekly meeting. At a book agency built by Washington operatives, the talk focuses less on literary merit than on who has the potential to become a big political name. Photograph by Eli Meir Kaplan.

On a stormy night last fall, a hundred-odd Washington grandees gathered at the Georgetown residence of Michael Pillsbury, a former senior Defense Department official, and his wife, Susan, an arts patron. The occasion was the release of Stonewalled: My Fight for Truth Against the Forces of Obstruction, Intimidation, and Harassment in Obama’s Washington by TV reporter Sharyl Attkisson. In March, Attkisson departed CBS News in circumstances allegedly related to her work on the Benghazi attacks and the flawed rollout of the Affordable Care Act; later, she claimed that the government had hacked into her computer in an effort to silence her. (Reports in Vox and the Washington Post, among other places, questioned whether Attkisson’s computer had ever been hacked.)

Outside the house, a line of drivers waited to deposit their BMWs and Benzes with the valet. Inside, there were waiters in white jackets, carting flutes of Champagne, and a chirpy bookseller armed with an iPad and a Square credit-card reader. Budget warrior Grover Norquist was on hand, as were Howard Kurtz and Juan Williams from Fox. Darrell Issa, the House Republican who led an investigation into the Benghazi attacks, gave a short speech praising Attkisson’s tenacity.

Latimer and Urbahn looked on. This was largely a scene of their construction: Pillsbury was a Javelin client, as was Attkisson, whom Latimer and Urbahn had approached, cold, when she was still at CBS.

“She was like, ‘Well, let me think about this,’ ” Urbahn recalled of their first meeting. “But she’s a very fast writer and she pounded out a proposal in four or five days and sent it to us. We gave her some edits and feedback, and then we were ready to go.” Javelin sold the Stonewalled proposal to HarperCollins for a deal in the “healthy” six figures.

“Her story is much more than the stuff that’s made headlines,” Urbahn told me. “It’s actually the story of the decline of investigative journalism in America and the PR flacks who make sure their bosses never hit the news.” He did not note that “PR flack” was a large part of his former job description—and that those dark arts remain part of what Javelin sells to clients.

Latimer cut in: “It’s also about the rise of a mentality which was present in the Bush administration and the Clinton administration and now the Obama administration, which is by all accounts worse than ever, of just denying reporters access to information.”

Attkisson was doing the conservative-media rounds, from the Daily Caller to The O’Reilly Factor, and her book had made a strong showing on the Amazon charts. But Latimer and Urbahn, who had been advising her on the publicity campaign, thought it could shoot higher still. A couple of days after the book party, Urbahn e-mailed me to say “we’ll see on NYT but looking pretty good”—a reference to a possible debut by Stonewalled on the New York Times bestseller list. Sure enough, by mid-November there it was, occupying the number-five slot, just above Lena Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girl.

But Latimer and Urbahn were already thinking ahead. Ideally, Latimer told me, “Sharyl would have a very successful first book, and then she’d do a second book where she’d talk about the same themes some more and discuss stories she hadn’t shared in the first book. Or she could take it another direction and give speeches. No problem there—people want her to give speeches all over the place. She could craft a reputation and career on being the whistleblower, if you will, of modern investigative journalism.”

Attkisson could build a brand, and Javelin would help her do it.

A staff writer at Smothsonian, Matthew Shaer has written for magazines including GQ, New York, and Wired.

This article appears in our February 2015 issue of Washingtonian.