“If loving to help create bestsellers is wrong, I don’t want to be right,” Byrd Leavell boasts on his Twitter biography.
Leavell is a literary agent, currently at United Talent Agency (UTA), one of Hollywood’s most powerful agencies, representing artists and other professionals in the entertainment industry. Based in Beverly Hills, it has divisions focused on film, television, digital, video games, and music, in addition to books. As the agency’s mission statement puts it, “We help the world’s most inspiring people make the world a more inspiring place.”
I first heard Leavell’s name in 2019, shortly after I began researching a piece about the impact social media influencers have had on the publishing industry. New York Magazine’s The Cut published a bombshell tell-all piece by a woman named Natalie Beach, revealing how she served as Instagram celebrity Caroline Calloway’s ghost-writer. Beach admitted that she had written many of Calloway’s most famous captions, and also much of the book proposal Leavell turned into a $375,000 deal with Flatiron, a division of Macmillan. The book was supposed to be a memoir, based on Calloway’s Instagram. She had risen to fame with self-confessional and lengthy social media captions chronicling her misadventures as an American at the University of Cambridge. Returning to America, she promised a tour of creativity workshops that she couldn’t deliver on, stoking outrage among some former fans. And then there was the book she promoted heavily online, but never wrote. Calloway withdrew from the deal, after failing to fulfill its terms – and allegedly after spending a good chunk of her advance.
If Calloway had been able to write the book it may well have become a New York Times bestseller. If anyone could be sure of this, it was Leavell, who has propelled a number of other high-profile internetters to book publishing fame and fortune. Among his bestselling authors were Cat Marnell, a New York City socialite, who had an online column at Vice entitled “Amphetamine Logic”; and Josh Ostrovsky, better known by his internet persona “The Fat Jew.” But his list also included some well-known politicians, including Donald J. Trump — it was Leavell who brokered the publishing deal for Trump’s 2015 campaign book, Crippled America: How to Make America Great Again.
I was fascinated that the same person who sold Calloway’s ghostwritten memoir also sold Donald Trump’s ghostwritten campaign opus. And that’s not all. Leavell also worked with Andrew Yang, frat-bro icon Tucker Max, Fox and Friends’ Brian Kilmeade, GloZell Green of Youtube fame, actress and comedian Tiffany Haddish and too many others to name over the course of his decades in book publishing.
Leavell’s clients, almost all of them, are people with branded identities. His list is full of celebrities, many controversial, some of them infamous for outrageous public personas that had attracted large cult followings. But what about Leavell? Who, exactly, was this literary agent to the stars of entertainment, politics, and the internet? I reached out to Leavell for an interview.
To my surprise, he agreed.
Leavell’s office at UTA’s New York location sits on 7th Avenue, a ten-minute walk from Trump Tower. The building is all towering green glass and steel, formidably modern, aggressively midtown. Leavell’s office, on the other hand, is decorated with what appeared to be children’s art. Informally dressed in a maroon sweater, he sat in front of a display case filled with books he has worked on.
In my email, I had explained that I wanted to record an interview in order to write a story “largely on the impact of social media on publishing.” Before I could even turn on my voice recorder, Leavell began to talk.
He explained that, traditionally, literary agents would find clients via literary journals. This was not his “vibe” and he was one of the first people who began to look online for potential authors. He stopped and looked at me: “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. 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.” (Tucker Max had risen to fame chronicling his sexual escapades and drinking habits in the form of bro-fuelled short stories on his personal website. Most agents did not want to touch his proposed memoir. But Leavell did.)
I was caught off guard. My sole reason for being there was to link him to these internet books – and now, here he was, almost immediately expressing something like remorse.
“I can talk about any number of clients,” Leavell continued. “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 pausing, Leavell pivoted back to Tucker Max and how he came to represent “the Lothario blogger,” as the New York Observer once called him: “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,” he continued. “You use that fan base to get the book deal. It’s just this is this pitch that I’ve basically kind of stuck with over the years, right? They have it. They have an audience.” Leavell is proud now: “People are responding to it. It’s hit a nerve. That can work in the bookstores as well. ”
Leavell has been cashing in on this trend for decades. He has mastered the art of selling books to people who don’t actually read books. With the rise of Amazon and online bookselling, 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. All they have in common? Internet fame. There’s the laugh-out-loud, profanely funny Sh*t My Dad Says, a book based on a Twitter feed created by Justin Halpern, an aspiring screenwriter who has gone on to write and produce several TV shows, including one based on the same Twitter feed. It sold more than one million copies. But, again, there’s Tucker Max. His book I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell was a New York Times #1 Bestseller, and made the Best Seller List for six years in a row, from 2006 to 2011. Jeremie Ruby-Strauss, the editor of Max’s book for Citadel Press, has said, “It’s offensive, it’s gross, it’s mean, it’s scatological.” He also asked Tucker Max to be his son’s godfather.
Leavell notes that a large following on the Internet is not all that it takes to produce a successful book. “Someone has 100 million YouTube subscribers – that person could still sell only 12 books, right? What is the causality in those numbers?” He wants social media stars willing to “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.” He wants to sign the internet celebrities who attract “people would buy a book just to have a piece of that person.”
I asked him if the same formula applied to his political authors, pointing to Andrew Yang’s The War on People on the bookshelf behind his chair, and mentioning Trump’s book Crippled America, which–oddly–was missing from the display case.
“It always comes back to the same point, which is the platform. That’s the thing,” he replied. He said it was gratifying to work with Andrew Yang, selling the book before his turn on the Democratic Presidential Debate stage.
Pausing for emphasis, he pivots again: “I don’t like talking about Trump. I hate that I did that.” I apologize 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.”
Why? I wondered: “Do people ask you about it a lot? Or is that not really public?”
“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,” Leavell begins to explain.
“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.”
“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.
“Okay,” I said, “one more sort of contentious question. How much are you ‘allowed’ to talk about the deal with Caroline?”
Leavell didn’t hold back: “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,” he 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.”
“It was awful,” he continued. “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, which bought the book.”
After my conversation with Leavell, I reached out to Caroline Calloway for a comment. She has yet to reply.
But she has responded to the Beach piece and talked about her business relationship with her now-former agent. In a series of essays posted to her personal website – behind a $10 paywall that now seeks to raise money for COVID-19 relief – she describes admiring Tucker Max’s book, and writing down Leavell’s name in her notebook, determined that one day he would become her agent. She confirms that she did in fact con her way into a meeting in Leavell’s office, and – after she built more media buzz – he eventually decided to work with her. She has posted a photograph of the two of them at lunch the day he signed her – and Leavell is beaming. And Calloway hints she will tell more in a forthcoming essay: “One of the biggest misconceptions about my life is that I’m not still under contract for that fucking book deal.”
With social media, we are constantly updating ourselves by the minute. Some of the people who succeed in commodifying their identities become, for various reasons, “celebrities.” At a certain point, some people become famous merely for being famous, or for being infamous.
Some of us, whether horrified, amused or simply curious, want to know more about these people. Leavell indiscriminately satisfies these desires.
By buying a book, and displaying on a coffee table, fans can signal their tastes and values. More than money, the celebrity authors earn an air of cultural respectability: a book is a symbol, validating them as participants in the larger conversation of culture.
Caroline Calloway craved the respectability a published book bought her – and so did Donald J. Trump. Crippled America: How to Make America Great Again wasn’t just another New York Times Trump bestseller that earned Leavell a bundle. Trump’s manifesto laid out the basis for his vile Presidential campaign of 2016, a campaign that was fueled, in part, by support from the darkest corners of the Internet.
Some have argued that publishing celebrity clickbait is keeping the book-printing business alive in the Internet age. Leavell, they say, is only giving the people what they want, offering them hardbound copies of content they already consume on social media and the Internet. Leavell earns a living by sniffing out celebrities, politicians, and social media personalities, and selling us more of their essence.
But when Leavell’s books sell, they build an expanded platform for all his successful authors – the good, the bad, and the ugly. Nobody will be harmed by laughing at the jokes in Sh*t My Dad Says. But what about the ugly content and lies in Crippled America: How to Make America Great Again?
Leavell stressed to me that he doesn’t regret working with most of his clients.
Before we finished our conversation, he boasted about Cat Marnell, who he described as “a real writer,” and “one of the most talented people I’ve ever worked [with].”
Ushering me out the door, Leavell told me it was “sweet” of me to think of him for my piece about the impact social media influencers have had on the publishing industry.
The night after our interview, I emailed Leavell and thanked him for his time.
He reminded me that potential clients Google his name, and if they see that he has been the agent for Trump, or Caroline Calloway, 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,” he said, “that those two keep being linked to me.”
Alexa Mauzy-Lewis is a MA student in Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism at the New School for Social Research. She writes, edits, designs, and is currently the Art Director of Back Matter magazine. She tweets mostly about bylines, birds, and her cat, Goat, at @AlexaMauzyLewis.
A longer version of this piece originally appeared in Back Matter, a publication of the New School’s Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism program. For more backstory on Leavell, the interview, and his other controversial clients like Cat Marnell, go here.
The headline of this essay was altered on July 28, 2020, at Mr. Leavell’s request, to reflect the fact that he is no longer Donald Trump’s agent.