Boyd Tonkin: The real power behind the tomes

The Week In Books

For anyone who seeks to understand how power works in the modern world, the most important name in Tony Blair's A Journey appears on the first line of the first page of acknowledgements. Our former PM pays tribute in the opening breath of his memoirs to Bob Barnett, the "lawyer, friend and negotiator extraordinaire" who acted for Blair in place of an orthodox literary agent and eased his passage to that £4m-odd deal with Random House. Look more closely at Robert B Barnett, the conciliatory Washington Svengali who so amiably works both sides of the political street, and you will truly get a glimpse of the kind of clout and sway that transcends mere party politics.

Raised in a modest Midwest home, Barnett studied law at Chicago University. He came to Washington in the early 1970s. As a lawyer for big business – a partner since 1978 at the illustrious firm of Williams & Connolly LLP – he has acted on behalf of (as his company website says ) "major corporations in litigation matters", among them McDonald's, General Electric, Comcast, Sunbeam, Toyota and Deutsche Bank. But it's as "one of the premier authors' representatives in the world" that he moved from now-smokeless back rooms into the public eye. Barnett has done the deals for Tony Blair and Barack Obama – whose ample publishing advances in 2004 greatly smoothed his way towards the presidency. His political A-list also features Sarah Palin (Going Rogue: around $3 million) and, of course, George W Bush (the forthcoming Decision Points: around $7 million).

Before that came the memoirs of both Clintons (perhaps $15 million for Bill; $8 million for Hillary), Queen Noor of Jordan, Benazir Bhutto and Ted Kennedy; Bob Woodward, Alan Greenspan, Karl Rove and – a rare excursion into overt fiction, this – the mega-selling thriller factory, James Patterson. His latest Alex Cross mystery, I, Alex Cross, slips in a little client's homage to the doyen of DC deal-closers.

Barnett's expertise in behind-the-scenes memoir-making began in 1984 with the autobiography of Democratic vice-presidential candidate, Geraldine Ferraro. Although a lifelong Democrat (and backstage adviser since the Carter era), he impartially works the room, and seals roughly 15 book deals each year. He's as happy to work with Republicans as Democrats but draws the line at "purveyors of hate". Not only publishing contracts at every stage come within his eagle-eyed purview. Blair's lucrative speech-making career and his consultancies with multinationals – neither gig sacrificed so far to Royal British Legion funds - also bear the Barnett stamp.

Apart from his peerless insider contacts and meticulous attention to detail, Barnett also seems to come relatively cheap. How so? He charges top-dollar Washington counsel rates: reportedly, $975 per hour. It's a fair whack, yes, but a bargain compared to the percentage a star agent might normally take. Around two hundred hours at that tariff would relieve a client of $200,000 or so: a major saving compared to 15 per cent on a deal worth several million dollars. No surprise, then, that so many big beasts stampede in his direction.

To talk of a "permanent government" that stands above and beyond the clash of ideas and parties in a democracy sounds like hair-brained paranoia of the sort that you might find in the pages of Dan Brown – for some reason, not yet a Barnett client. There is no secret conspiracy here: every Beltway insider knows Bob Barnett; all talk about him. Yet his ubiquitous presence at the hinge of so many career transitions both in the US and – with Blair and others – in the wider world opens a window onto the common interests that people of power share. Barnett clears the road as they convert elective office into family wealth, media fame and corporate influence. Such fixers will flourish for as long as politicians view public authority as a prelude to personal enrichment.

Who, in the West, will pledge to break this mould and return after high office to modest private life, like the Roman leader Cincinnatus to his plough? Any candidate who did so might well forfeit a fortune, but guarantee a landslide.

Children's classics go on giving

Blair's donation of his advance to charity pales rather beside the £10m gift JK Rowling unveiled this week to support a neurological research centre at Edinburgh University in memory of her mother Anne, who died of MS aged 45. The record suggests that creators of the best-loved children's classics have been unusually generous with such philanthropy. Most famously, JM Barrie granted Great Ormond Street Hospital all royalties from Peter Pan. AA Milne's Winnie the Pooh copyrights have long swollen the Royal Literary Fund. And, in the wake of his own diagnosis, Terry Pratchett has both given much to Alzheimer's research - and spurred others to do so.

Richard & Judy off the shelf

After slipping from Channel 4 into a digital TV backwater, Richard & Judy's book club has now resurfaced as a website in association with WH Smith. The sofa stars will review one book from their selection of eight every fortnight on richardandjudy, with promotions across the 1000-odd WHS stores. And the books? A respectable selection, even if every title fits a clear market niche, they include Maria McCann's terrific 17th-century drama The Wilding, Rosamund Lupton's missing-person mystery Sister, Ben Macintyre's wartime secret-service investigation Operation Mincemeat, Jo Nesbø's Oslo psycho-thriller The Snowman and Delphine de Vigan's Parisian tale of friendship between a super-bright teen and a homeless girl, No and Me. So: translations account for 25 per cent of the R&J picks. Bravo! But WHS has opted to starve customers of choice elsewhere with the monopolistic deal that means its travel stores stock only Penguin Group titles. That's still a total scam.

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