Byrd Leavell oversees the publishing department at UTA, a leading global talent and entertainment company. He is based in the New York office and represents clients including Tiffany Haddish, Don Lemon, Constance Wu, Ali Velshi, and many more.
Leavell joined UTA from his own literary agency, Waxman Leavell Literary (now Waxman Literary), where he oversaw the publishing of dozens of bestsellers.
He recently began working with Chip and Joanna Gaines, two of today’s most successful authors. He also set up a deal between Flatiron Books and iHeartMedia, marking the first-ever imprint deal for a line of podcast-based books between a major book publisher & podcast network. The first title, Stuff You Should Know, published in November and was a major bestseller.
He additionally closed a deal for Guy Raz’s book How I Built This, based on the titular podcast. Other highlights include upcoming books for The Jonas Brothers, Brian Kilmeade, Julia Haart, Bret Baier, Penn and Kim Holderness, Pastor Cal Roberson, Aubrey Marcus, Drew Magary, Zac Levi, KevonStage, Amirah Kassem, Sebastian Maniscalco, Tyra Banks, and more.
Where did the idea for your career come from?
When I was 21 years old I went to a panel of literary agents. Previously to that, I had never even heard the phrase. But as I listened to the people on that stage and realized what the job entailed, I had this profound response. Everything about it felt like something I would love to be able to do. So I basically never had Option B after that. I managed to land a job as a secretary at a small, but wonderful literary agency called Carlsle and Company, and here I am 21 years later.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
Working at UTA is the best job I’ve ever had, but it took a while to learn how to handle the amount of incoming clients and deals we had coming in. What I eventually figured out was that I had to start every day with a long walk with my dogs, a swim, or a workout. To me, that is the key to ensuring that I’m in a place where I bring my best self to each interaction.
How do you bring ideas to life?
It all comes back to the process of working with each client to create great books that will reach the readers. That means getting on the phone before there is a word on the page and talking the approach through until you both know you have it.
What’s one trend that excites you?
The truth, made starkly true during the pandemic, is that people love to buy and read books. Sales went up through 2020-2021, and that speaks to the generations of readers out there consuming what our business creates.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
I believe in starting with the fundamental question: why is anyone going to care about this book? Too often, people take that answer for granted. This isn’t Field of Dreams, “If you build it, they will come.” You have to give them a reason to buy and read your book.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Diverse voices matter, and you can help make a difference. Don’t turn down Tim Ferriss and keep an open mind when your first starting off.
Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.
I don’t know if nobody agrees with me, but I am a huge believer in positive energy. What you put into the world is going to come back to you. So make people’s days better that interact with you. That little thing, adding up over a lifetime, is one hell of a thing.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
Easy: read more. Read fiction. Read non-fiction. Turn off your phone. Don’t go on Twitter. Learn to immerse yourself for hours in a book, without distraction. To be clear, I struggle with this myself. But when I find a great book and all I want to do is read it, I am in such a great, healthy place.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
When I listened to James Clear’s Atomic Habits, he talked a lot about the process. I really have tried to apply that to my job and to the philosophy of our department. The occupation of being a literary agent is a never ending roller coaster ride. If you buy into each phase of the process: creating great books, selling them to the right publishers, and working with the client through the entire creative process and then through the publication. That is the job. Focus on that, and the results will follow.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
Not every book works. When you’ve been doing this job for over 20 years, you’ve had to learn to cope with this truth. The way I personally cope is with the same point I keep making: embrace the process. Do the job at the highest level you can every day.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
Read more books, and you will have a better, more successful life.
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
I bought new AirPods and use them to listen to podcasts and audiobooks while I walk my dogs, and it’s just the best.
What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?
If you aren’t listening to audiobooks you are missing out on one of the great things in life. I truly love it. Just finished OPERATION HAIL MARY by Andy Weir. Which is so well done and completely incredible. My wife and I listened to THE LAST THING HE TOLD ME by Laura Dave, which was great. THE GREAT GATSBY by Jake Gyllenhaal is incredible. I could go on and on.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
Stephen King’s book ON WRITING is just so damn good and tremendously informative. Mostly though, just read any book. It’s one of the best, most enjoyable things you can do. Full stop.
What is your favorite quote?
“This life is slow suicide, unless you read.”
― Herman Wouk, The Caine Mutiny
- Trust the process.
- Keep an open mind when your first starting off.
- Not everything will work, sometimes tough decisions have to be made when things don’t work out.
- Read, while it may sound like a chore reading brings a lot to the table for readers whether it’s informing them about something they didn’t know or captivating them in a story where they can’t put the book down. The possibilities are endless.
Steve (Stefan) Junge hails from Germany and helps with the day-to-day publishing of interviews on IdeaMensch. While he and Mario don’t share a favorite soccer club, their enthusiasm to help entrepreneurs is a shared passion.