It turns out that the pool of writers a Beltway-based agent might encounter (who reside disproportionately but unevenly in the Capital area) is attractive to things beyond the scoop of the minute. Between the crises, book authors from the DC think tank and journalism worlds, have long been on the kind of historical trivia and real-life lost characters that drive a ton of content in the age of streaming and podcasts.
On the industrial side of the equation: It’s all about gigantism. WME, in which Ross Yoon directors Gail Ross and Howard Yoon are now partners, is part of Endeavor, the publicly traded entertainment giant led by legendary superagent Ari Emanuel.
In addition to its sports and entertainment properties (Ultimate Fighting Championship, World Wrestling Entertainment, Professional Bull Riders) and its media groups (Asylum Entertainment Group, the unscripted television group whose brands are behind things like TNT’s « Shaq Life » and « Eli Roth’s History of Horror ») the conglomerate remains large in its original mission of representing talent. The WM in WME stands for William Morris, the venerable company whose client list extends from movie stars to pop musicians to broadcasters to podcasters and speaker loops.
The business logic of bringing all of these properties under one roof is that it makes it much easier to turn one cultural product into another profit line, or three. If one of their recording artists wants to make a book, there’s someone inside who can sell it. If that book has the makings of a movie, there’s someone whose Rolodex contains just the right names. And if the writer behind the movie wants to become a TV talking head… well, you get the idea. (A few years ago, WME also bought the Harry Walker Agency speakers office, in case our talking head wants to hire himself for corporate events.)
Against this backdrop, the Washington side of the takeover looks different: It’s more than just a collection of newsboys, think-tank pundits and political memoirs, folks whose books sometimes hit big but more often occupy the not particularly high-paying middle rungs. of the book world. Rather, it feels like a broad and diverse range of the industry’s favorite commodities: « intellectual property, » those building blocks of tomorrow’s streaming series and podcast sensations.
« It’s an IP supply chain, » said Larry Weissman, a Brooklyn-based agent who works with a similar roster of writers but has kept his agency independent. « You are buying an intellectual property provider. »
Ross, a lawyer before retiring as an agent a couple of decades ago, said that in just his first week at the larger firm, he had attended meetings with colleagues looking for ways to turn his clients’ ideas into things other than the books – areas where he hadn’t had a lot of prior expertise. Of course, writers could always connect with other agents handling film or TV rights, but it’s convenient to have them in the same meeting. It also means that there are now people dedicated to thinking of ways to further monetize some researcher’s passion project who may not have thought about synergy when they sat down to work on that less-than-best-selling book.
« Part of what I talked about with people around me when we were exploring this was me being kind of an ambassador to Washington on behalf of the whole company and looking for — we can call it IP, or we can call it talent, » she told me said. « It’s just this thriving ecosystem of people talking to each other. »
« Beltway culture has profound implications for the rest of society and inspires much thought and scrutiny and leads to many book publications, » said Jay Mandel, who runs WME’s books business. « So having the boots on the ground, there was clearly going to be an advantage. »
Ross’s agency wasn’t actually the first example of a DC talent rep being acquired by an entertainment industry big fish. Rafe Sagalyn’s agency, which represents bold Beltway writers like David Ignatius and Eugene Robinson, joined giant agency CAA last year, having merged a few years earlier with ICM, another in Hollywood. As with WME’s move to Washington, the acquisition didn’t change much the type of writers the company represented, but it did offer a quicker path from one medium to another.
The third of Hollywood’s big three talent stores, United Talent Agency, doesn’t have DC apparel but throws a glittering annual bash before the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, an indication of interest in flexing its talent muscles. in front of a Washington audience. (The firm represents a large number of broadcast journalists; its most recent night attracted both Chris Licht, then the head of CNN, and Don Lemon, the celebrity anchor he had just fired.)
There’s also been corporate interest in Javelin, the high-profile Alexandria shop founded by a pair of veteran GOP politicians that originally made a name for themselves representing conservatives but has since expanded its roster to include the best journalists and bipartisan Beltway notables. Keith Urbahn, one of the company’s directors, said it was easy for him to leave: « We wanted to be independent, » he said. « There’s not much upside, particularly when you’re still building something. »
Ironically, the Washington acquisitions come as Beltway-themed books are in the tank after Trump-era raging sales. Books about Joe Biden and his administration have been slow to arrive and slower to sell. The only vaguely Washington book on the latest New York Times the bestseller list is by Utah Congressman turned Fox commentator Jason Chaffetz. Conventional wisdom has it that American book buyers, movie goers, and TV streamers want escape, not reports from the front lines of our national turmoil.
But I think that misunderstands the universe of writers that gathers around Beltway-focused agents — or the kinds of IPs that are most sought after by big spenders elsewhere in the media and entertainment industry in the 21st century.
From a spinoff perspective, the industry is less interested in what Washington-type writers produce in the face of big news than in what the same demographic creates between news cycles: history books, biographies, ideas discussions. Ross Yoon’s client base is actually pretty sparse on partisan screeds, senatorial vanity books, or even Bob Woodward-esque short-lived scoop sensations.
On the other hand, it’s a long list of narratives, which has produced its share of bestsellers and spin-offs: The Netflix series « Self-Made, » about entrepreneur Madam CJ Walker, was based on a book by client Ross Yoon A’Lelia Bundles, longtime ABC News executive. Another customer, Kate Andersen Brower, wrote The residence, about the White House, currently made into a TV series by Shonda Rhimes. And this summer’s Christopher Nolan big movie about Robert Oppenheimer is inspired by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin American Prometheus, that Ross sold years ago.
A book by Ross’s client Christian Cooper, the Black Central Park birdwatcher whose racist encounter with a dog walker in 2020 went viral, came out this week. “The TV people are working on it as we speak,” he told me.
Which is just to say that it’s not all scoopy dish about who’s currently in power.
For WME’s book business, serious nonfiction was a relative weakness. So it was a pretty intuitive purchase no matter where the company was based. (According to Yoon, about 35 percent of their current writers are in the capital.)
« We have an entire intellectual property-based business, from books to movies and television in Los Angeles, » said Mandel, a longtime friend of Ross’s before they spent nine months negotiating the acquisition. “Presumably there are rules about what can work or what can’t work, certain types of protagonists, or certain historical eras or certain components of the culture. Those rules go out the window when something excellent emerges. It’s not so much about trends as it is about confidence. I trust her. »
Yoon says he thinks an agency in Washington might have an easier time taking the national pulse than one in New York, where nearly all the top book agents do business. « They’re both bubbles, » she told me. « But I’m a bigger bubble. » Both partners say they’ve been assured they’ll still go their own way despite being part of a much larger enterprise — aka no special favors for that random power broker who might be able to pull the strings for some other corner of the empire company.
For Ross, who has worked with screenwriters in Washington for more than 35 years, the idea of being part of a famous Hollywood company represents a turning point. A history and Spanish double major who went to law school before realizing big corporate firms weren’t for her, she made her way into the industry via a legal colleague who worked for a group of DC writers. At the time, many writers didn’t have much in the way of representation and found themselves baffled by book deals. Ross developed an experience reading them, which she led to writing them, portraying the writers as something of a sideline.
It wasn’t until after 2000 that he actually set up an agency, although he continued to practice law as well. She hired Yoon, who had worked for her at her law firm, then made him her partner about a decade ago. I first met them at a happy hour for their writers at a second-floor bar above U Street not long afterward. It wasn’t the kind of place you would imagine spotting a master of the universe like Ari Emanuel. Ross says the lo-fi vibe will continue, although there are rumors that there will be a much more elaborate launch party for WME fusion this fall.
Meanwhile, Ross says she’s getting to know a number of clients with expertise that may have mystified her a few years ago. One of her assignments: She sits on a committee on « thought leaders » and ways to turn their intellectual property into a product. “We represent a lot of them,” she said. “Whether it’s journalists who know their pace better than anyone else, or experts in their field. It’s all about talking about possibilities.