How one literary agent learned how to make the internet into books
Illustration by Annika Lammers
“If loving to help create bestsellers is wrong, I don’t want to be right,” reads Byrd Leavell’s Twitter bio. Leavell is a literary agent at United Talent Agency, “one of the world’s leading talent and entertainment companies,” as its mission statement explains: “We help the world’s most inspiring people make the world a more inspiring place.”
In September of 2019, Natalie Beach published her heavily-clicked, tell-all for The Cut, revealing herself as a ghost-writer for Instagram celebrity Caroline Calloway. Like many of the masses, tragically too-online, I found myself enthralled with the story1, her failed book deal, and the idea of the self-proclaimed “scammer” attempting to write a memoir entirely of Instagram captions. What exactly would have been a memoir made of Instagram captions? We may never know, as she prematurely aborted her $375,000 book deal with Flatiron Books*, after allegedly spending a good chunk of her advance.
1This is where I found Leavell’s name, looking to write a story about the impact social media influencers were having on the publishing industry; *Flatiron Books is a division of Macmillan.
If she had actually written the book, it very well might have become a New York Times bestseller. If anyone could be sure of this, it was Leavell, who has propelled a vast hodge-podge of other high-profile Internetters to book publishing fame and fortune. 2
On Calloway’s book deal, Beach wrote, “She had an agent, Byrd Leavell (who also represented the Fat Jew, Cat Marnell, and we didn’t know it at the time but the author of Crippled America, Donald Trump).”3
3All of the names on Beach’s list “wrote” NYT Bestsellers, naming infamous New York City socialite and author of the Vice Column, “Amphetamine Logic” Cat Marnell and meme man Josh Ostrovsky, more commonly known by his internet persona “The Fat Jew.”
I was fascinated that the same person who sold Calloway’s ghostwritten memoir also sold Donald Trump’s ghostwritten 2016 campaign-trail book. The details of book deals, and their advances, are often not available in the public sphere. However, one can gather from press clips, Twitter, and Wikipedia that Leavell had also worked with Andrew Yang, frat-bro icon Tucker Max, Fox and Friends’ Brian Kilmeade, GloZell Green of Youtube fame, and Tiffany Haddish, among others. It was especially apparent that Leavell has a special knack 4 for turning social media stars into published authors.
4I found myself pulling at this common thread between Leavell’s clients –– they were all pre-baked branded identities. Leavell was selling books for a public that had already subscribed and was craving more content and (perhaps feigned) access to the personalities they consumed online. His clientele list was stock full of internet celebrities who, thought oft shrouded in controversy, are pre-equipped with a built-in cult following online, ready to buy their memoirs.
As Calloway herself once described Leavell in an Instagram caption, “Byrd is the Ari Gold of New York literary agents. He wears a bluetooth headset, edits ruthlessly well, and when he likes something he slaps his desk in excitement, grinning, ‘This is fucking money.’”
Looking at a few of Leavell’s Twitter books, I thought of his work as the art of selling books to people who don’t actually read. Even though a Calloway book has yet to make it to the printers, her ill-fated first book represents the underbelly of what is ‘fucking money’ to the publishing industry. Leavell, the king of the middlemen for low-brow memoirs, has been cashing in on this trend for decades. The publishing industry is printing clickbait for the mass market, in the form of a new memoir or manifesto, maybe even just an exclusive photobook. “There’s a number of books that have pubbed that just say, you know, I had too many drinks, I banged him, I kicked him out of bed, and I went to work,” Leavell said in a 2013 interview with The New Republic. “Like, it’s out there, but I think there’s room for more.”
With this persona in my mind, I reached out to Leavell for an interview, and he agreed.5
5I expected a cartoon villain caricature with a cigar, sitting on a pile of books and money, unashamed of selling the Trumpian Manifesto to Simon and Schuster for a rumored $14 million advance, after it was passed on by big publishers several times, dismissing his bid for the presidency as one that would be irrelevant in a few months. The book lived on the bestseller list for 13 weeks.
UTA’s New York office sits on 7th Avenue, a five minute walk to Central Park and a ten minute walk from Trump Tower. The building is all towering green glass and steel, formidably modern, aggressively midtown. In the waiting room, a receptionist asked me if I wanted tea or coffee while I sat in what appeared to be a West Elm catalog brought to life. The life it had always imagined for itself. The assistant I had arranged the interview time with came to collect me and led me to Leavell’s office. On the long winding path lined by windowed offices, he rambled off stats about UTA’s growing employee headcount and homebase offices in Los Angeles.
Leavell wore a maroon sweater and had what appeared to be children’s art hanging up in his office (rather wholesome, not exactly an “Ari Gold”). He sat in front of a display case full of choice books he has worked on; later, I noticed the liquor cabinet adjacent to the display. I further explained to him that I wanted to write a story “largely on the impact of social media on publishing.”6 Before I could even tap go on my voice recorder, he began to explain that, traditionally, literary agents would find clients via literary journals. This was not his “vibe” and he was one of the few people who began to look online for potential work. He made an immediate transition and said, “Your email mentioned Tucker Max. I have really tried to distance myself from those books. I don’t like being associated with it, and here’s the thing, you know, it was a seven thousand dollar advance that sold two million copies.7 I used to talk about that all the time. And that’s great. People laughed. But you look back and you realize there’s a lot of things in those books that are not great, right? I defer to you to write your piece, but for me, I would love not to be linked to those books.” Max rose to fame chronicling his sexual escapades and drinking habits in the form of bro-fuelled short stories on his website. Like Trump, many publishers did not want to touch his proposed memoir. But Leavell did.
6I had written to him, “I’m very interested in how you identify talent online and especially in the stories behind your signings of online personas Cat Marnell and Tucker Max.”
7This is a pretty big margin in the publishing world. Leavell had said in previous interviews that “Originally, I couldn’t give Tucker Max away.”
I was caught off guard. Where was Ari Gold, slamming on his desk? My sole reason for being there was to link him to those books.8 He continued on, needing nothing, but a few empty nods and air-filler “right” from me, trying to collect my thoughts on this unexpected declaration of an emotion adjacent to remorse. “I can talk about any number of clients. For me, it’s like just a little fraught because the world’s shifted and now you look back on that guy and it’s like ‘you were just a fucking asshole.’ If you look at those books, he’s actually making fun of himself, as much as anyone else.” Without stopping, Leavell pulled back the curtain on the success of Max.9
8Editor Jon Baskin wrote: “Maybe comment on how he doesn’t want you to write about it but he can’t stop talking about it.”
9A 2011 New York Observer piece on novelty books references the book and Leavell. “Byrd Leavell was, in his own words, ‘this broke 24-year-old agent’ who tracked down and signed a Lothario blogger named Tucker Max. Since then, Mr. Max has sold almost two million books—one of the most successful blog-to-book transformations ever. “
“That was how I got started on it, which was essentially this pitch was that this person has this audience that is responding to what they’re doing. And there’s an alchemy kind of going on there. And that within that alchemy a book can be created. You know, you can use that same formula to create a book. Right? So you think it’s working and you create a book and use that fan base to get the book deal. It’s just this is this pitch that I’ve basically kind of stuck with like the last 70 years, right? They have it. They have an audience. Something’s working. We’re going to work with them to get the right book of what’s working. People are responding to it. It’s hit a nerve. That can work in the bookstores as well.”
With the rise of Amazon and online book selling, books are being made and marketed almost algorithmically. Social media stars, who already have an audience to sell to, are the perfect targets. They make the perfect display books for their fan’s coffee tables and Instagramable bookshelves. A large chunk of these “books” are comprised mostly of images, social media posts, and very short stories, marketed as exclusive new content.10 This new type of memoir imitates intimacy, a step closer to the lives of beloved icons and celebrities.11 However, the idea of “celebrity” expanded outside of its traditional understanding. The public obsession with personalities has crept beyond the realm of A-listing politicians, movie stars, and musicians. The very idea of fame is continually being challenged by the ever-changing social media landscape.12
10The tell-all celebrity memoir is not a new phenomenon. For as long as they have possessed the tools to write, civilizations have sought to collect and immortalize their memories. From the ancient texts of Julius Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic Wars to Britney Spears’ 2000 Heart to Heart, public and cultural servants alike have granted the masses access to the intricacies of their rise to prestige via the memoir. 11The memoir also dominates bestseller lists, raking in millions for publishing houses.
12This is why Youtuber memoirs consistently hit #1 on the New York Times bestselling list. Tyler Belvins, more commonly known as “Ninja” is the most watched gaming streamer in the world. He released three books this year with Penguin Random House. Simon and Schuster published a memoir by Lele Pon, the first book written by a Viner. Vine was a short-form video app that flew too close to the sun and crashed in 2017, but introduced us to many social media starlings.
Shit My Dad Says, a Twitter-account-turned-book represented by Leavell, sold more than a million copies in its first year with Harper Collins.13 Tucker Max’s I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell sold over one million copies in its first year alone, was a New York Times #1 Bestseller, and made the Best Seller List for six years in a row. Jeremie Ruby-Strauss, the editor of Max’s book had this to say of the book, “It’s offensive, it’s gross, it’s mean, it’s scatological.” Max is also his son’s Godfather.
13From the New York Observer: “His bro/new media credentials thus established, Mr. Leavell took another risk in September 2009, when he signed a Maxim senior named Justin Halpern who had a Twitter feed called Sh*t My Dad Says. At that time, Twitter was only three-and-a-half years old, and the first wave of Twitter-based books was just starting to come out. As for Mr. Halpern, he had started his feed a month before. He had 500,000 followers.”
Leavell explained to me that it’s not just about having a fan base. “Editors are very careful about this, because there are so many ways to do this pitch poorly. I feel like it’s always about ‘someone has 100 million YouTube subscribers.’ That person could still sell 12 books, right? Does it mean anything? What editors are trying to figure out is like, where’s the real. What is the causality in those numbers? So what I try to get my clients to do is to think about how can you show how your fans have turned out today?
Did they stand in a line, blocks long to meet you one day? I mean, things like that. We’re interested in actually seeing the numbers in real life. People would buy a book just to have a piece of that person.”14
14In the idealistic version of the publishing cycle that we would like to imagine, an editor would bless a piece of writing as genius and share it with the world. In contrast to all the movies I’ve devoured about writers and their first big breaks, this is not what happens. Today, the public has already indicated what interests it online. An editor just has to give them what they want. As Leavell once said in a Q&A with Kirkus, an American book review magazine, “We are not in the dream-granting business. We are in the work-on-books-that-go-on-to-sell-copies business.”
This brought me back to thinking about Trump’s book. I remembered in my research I came across an old quote from Leavell, “Tucker Max is offensive because he broke though.” Did he leverage the silos of Trump-mania in the same way he monetized the fervor around his other clients?
I asked him if the same formula was applied to his political realm books, pointing to Andrew Yang’s “The War on People” on the bookshelf behind his chair and referencing Crippled America, which was missing from the display case.
“It always comes back to the same point, which is the platform. That’s the thing,” he said. He told me how wonderful it was to work with Andrew Yang, selling the book before his step into presidential limelight. He then paused. “I don’t like talking about Trump. I hate that I did that.” I laughed and apologized for bringing it up.
“I mean I did it, I have to own it, but it’s tricky. He was presented to us when I had my own agency. My agency did the deal and I would never work with him again,” Leavell said.
I responded, “Do people ask you about it a lot? Or is that not really public?” He said, “I had been working with an extremely unwell person. Caroline Calloway. She was like a bad penny that kept turning up and my name kept getting mentioned.”
“Right,” I said. “I will say that I only knew that because I was reading something on her and she mentioned you and that you had done Trump’s book.”
He paused. “She had her, actually, I mean………I don’t know how to do these without telling you everything…. It was a huge bummer. Her writer Natalie wrote a piece and it linked me to Trump. I don’t want anything to do with him. I can’t stand that I am linked to him. And that was not good, for that piece to go viral. I mean she really did a number on me. Putting Trump next to my name in there. I mean, I would hope for you….I mean, again, you have complete control over this…I would ask…it can be very harmful for me to be associated with these old things. I’ll talk about anything you want. You can sit here and talk to me for as long as you want. But it does expose me. As an agent, you have to be very careful.”
“Of course,” I replied.
“I’ve done a lot of other wonderful books that I’m very proud of,” he said.
Then I asked, “Okay, one more sort of contentious question. How much are you ‘allowed’ to talk about the deal with Caroline?”
For a minute, I felt remorseful. Tucker Max’s book came out almost 15 years ago. I didn’t want to dig up old skeletons for an industry professional whose standards and tastes very well may have developed and changed. He had published so many other books at this point. Yet, I was stuck trying to calculate in my head how much money Leavell must have made off the Trump election, if the rumours around the advance were true. His name was mentioned in passing in almost every article on Calloway’s failed book deal, without much further scrutiny of his work.
“That was someone who made it past our system at the time, wound up in a room with me and then I was presented with this proposal that I thought she had written,” Leavell said. “You know, right away you knew there was something there. We went out to editors and she kind of did the social media thing, the whole dog and pony show. And we got the deal. Then it quickly became apparent that Caroline was essentially struggling. She was clearly on way too much A.D.D. medication and just all that. She was deeply unwell, deeply dishonest. As an agent, it’s very tricky because there’s no filter and you end up linked to these people.”
He went on, “It was awful. I just wanted her to write the book, but she was never in a place where she could begin to write that book. It was more important to her to be seen as an author than it was to be an author. She didn’t know how to be an author…I feel bad for everyone involved, certainly for Flatiron who bought the book.”15
15He told me he also felt bad for Natalie Beach, but that he did not think her piece in New York Magazine was the right thing to do. “She did that for her own reasons.”
The pill addiction reminded me of another contentious Leavell client. Cat Marnell is one of his other successes who broke through, and publicly broke down. Like Max, she pushes personal narratives of sex and drugs. She has written for Lucky, xoJane, and Vice. Her dependency on prescription pills became a major tenet of her online persona. Her first memoir, How to Murder Your Life, was a half-a-million dollar deal and an instant New York Times Bestseller. It was referred to as an “anti-recovery memoir.” Marnell has often depicted her addiction as a lifestyle choice. Many criticized Simon & Schuster for giving this sentiment a platform, while enabling and exploiting an addict. Leavell said this in response to a 2013 article in Forbes on Marnell, “There is no ‘exploitation’ to be had here. Just a very talented author getting the advance that the market determined that her book was worth.”
After publishing her memoir, she hit rock bottom, blowing through all of her advance, flitting in and out of rehab, and dealing with intermittent homelesses. Some media clips on her mention her going to Leavell for money. She went to Europe and disappeared from the limelight for a while. This is where her new memoir picks up, also represented by Leavell. Cat Marnell returned to us in a New York Times interview titled “Cat Marnell Is Back From the Brink,” where she promoted her next book Self-Tanner for the Soul. A Q&A published in The Cut told us that she even pays taxes now. She says she’s healthy, but “definitely not in recovery.”
The general public’s fixation with celebrity breakdown fuels the memoir business, the need to know the whole story and all the grimy details. Calloway’s responses to controversy and online tantrums keep her name in headlines.16 I asked Leavell if he saw any connections between Caroline and Cat.
16When the Marnell article came out, she posted a screenshot of the piece to her Instagram, writing, “Sometimes @cat_marnell and I dm on Instagram and I love that for us. Cat gives me advice on surviving a love-hate relationship with the New York media that paints me as more caricature than human and I prove all those party-girl dum-dum stereotypes about me sooooo wrong by typing things like, Cat I just took shrooms at a club in Bushwick my friends are looking for me I have to goooooooo; hit send.”
“I mean Cat was like a real writer,” he beamed. “Cat was an extremely impressive person who at the time struggled with drug addiction and now it’s come out the other end and this terrific place. So that’s a much different thing because Cat is one of the most talented people I’ve ever worked [with]. Caroline couldn’t write her book at all. It’s a very different scenario. Cat could kind of buckle down and write her incredible book.” As a parting gift, Leavell gave me a copy of How To Murder Your Life.
As I was leaving and had stopped recording, I made a comment that I was glad Marnell was having her comeback moment. Leavell said that he agreed, but just that morning Cat had texted him asking for money. He shrugged.17
17Not the first time. In her interview with the Cut, Marnell said, ” I have two agents, a Hollywood person and then Byrd Leavell, who also represents “Weird Al” Yankovic and, you know, other literary luminaries. He’s loaned me money when I’ve been really desperate, like $500 here and there.
Before that, I asked him what the future held for him. He told me he had some of the biggest people on social media with books in the works that he couldn’t talk about yet. We talked about podcasts as a new media frontier. I asked what books he liked to read. He told me he had just read Arnold Schwarzenegger’s biography and Ann Patchet’s new book for UTA’s book club. I realized I forgot to ask him the quintessential question of how he even got started in the industry.
“My dad used to, we had these lunches, and he’d be like ‘what’s the plan’ I typed in ‘publishing jobs’ into Yahoo and found this thing called Radcliffe Publishing Course. And it was a six week course. Now it’s called the Columbia Publishing course. And I went to my dad and said, ‘If you pay for this,’ and it was expensive, ‘If you pay for this six week course, I’ll go get a job.’ And I did.” He told me about starting his own agency, and eventually working his way up to where he is now at UTA.
As I left, I wondered if the trend of printing celebrity clickbait was keeping the book-printing business alive in the Internet age. Content is mined from social media to keep our attention spans fed. Over the past decade, nearly every person has become a producer of content. We have increasingly looked at our own lives as brands, experiences to be documented, edited and curated to achieve a marked aesthetic, crafted to communicate our essence. With social media, we are constantly updating ourselves by the minute and we grow bored in the lulls. The people who succeed at commodifying their identities become celebrities and we want more and more access to their lives so we can mimic them. Leavell keeps this machine churning by spitting out books made by and for the Internet, sniffing out personalities and selling us more of their essence, niche by niche.18
18Out the door, he told me it was “sweet” that I had thought of him for this piece. I left feeling conflicted. I went home and revisited some of his past interviews. In 2015, he declined to comment on Trump’s book deal and speculations on the advance.
Later that day, after the interview, I emailed Leavell and thanked him for his time. He reminded me that potential clients google his name and if they see Trump or Tucker Max it can hurt his reputation. He also reminded me that he has done over a thousand books and 50 NYT bestsellers. “It is a huge bummer that those two keep being linked to me.”