Monday, October 10, 2016
"Ask the Agent" Interview With Mark Gottlieb
Q. You’ve assisted countless authors in telling their stories. It’s a pleasure to have the opportunity to share yours. Can you tell us a little about your professional and educational backgrounds?
Unlike many people who choose book publishing as somewhat of an accidental profession, it was always expected of me that I would one day work at Trident Media Group, a family-owned and operated literary agency. I think it comes as a comfort to many of my clients that I’m not leaving the literary agency, nor book publishing anytime soon. Anyway, you could say I was sort of groomed for the position at a young age. That’s why I chose Emerson College in Boston, as they were one of the only schools at the time offering an undergraduate study in publishing. My company bio expresses my professional journey from my time at Emerson College, onward:
Mark Gottlieb attended Emerson College and was President of its Publishing Club, establishing the Wilde Press. After graduating with a degree in writing, literature & publishing, he began his career with Penguin’s VP. Mark’s first position at Publishers Marketplace’s #1-ranked literary agency, Trident Media Group, was in foreign rights. Mark was EA to Trident’s Chairman and ran the Audio Department. Mark is currently working with his own client list, helping to manage and grow author careers with the unique resources available to Trident. He has ranked #1 among Literary Agents on publishersmarketplace.com in Overall Deals and other categories.
Q. Why should authors choose Trident Media? What makes your agency unique?
What makes our literary agency unique is that we rank #1 on Publishers Marketplace for fiction, non-fiction and literary agencies, both in overall volume of deals and six-figure+ deals and higher. (Of course we do deals for more than six-figures, but that is what publishersmarketplace.com allows one to report). We’ve ranked that way for over a decade, which is about how long Publishers Marketplace has been around for. That ranking is a result of the tremendous resources available to us at Trident Media Group for advancing the careers of our clients. For instance, I think one would find it difficult to find another literary agency that has a Digital Media and Publishing department, focusing in large part on digital marketing and publicity strategy for our authors. Many clients of ours have greatly benefited from such a service, by hitting the New York Times and USA Today bestsellers lists.
Not to speak ill of the competition, but most literary agencies tend to be very small (several employees in a home office setting) and therefore they have to farm a lot of their work out to third party companies and they are more inclined to give rights away to publishers where they either can’t fend the publisher off or just plain don’t have the resources to properly sell those rights on their own. However, at Trident, we as a company of close to fifty employees with the entire 36th floor of a Madison Ave. building in NYC (huge for a literary agency and bigger than most independent publishers), do not farm our services out to third party companies. Trident Media Group’s contract review, accounting, foreign rights, audio books, film/TV, etc. is performed within our company walls. This is a huge benefit to a client, since we’re more inclined to keep communication between departments rather sharp and we hold onto film/TV, foreign and audio book rights for our clients more readily, in order to help them properly exploit those rights with other publishers. Were those rights to get tied up with a domestic publisher, they might never get made or properly exploited, plus the economics are not entirely in favor of the author in sharing those rights with a domestic publisher.
Ultimately because of the clout of our agency having many #1 New York Times bestselling authors and award-winning authors, and the fact that our business really goes to the bottom line of most publishers, we can get the very best things for our clients in their book publishing deals and contracts.
Q. What’s the biggest myth about agent representation or having a book published through a traditional publisher?
The biggest myth about book publishing in trade publishing is that once the author writes the manuscript, their role in the book publishing process pretty much ends there. That is no longer the case as the author has become central to the marketing/promotional process, as ultimately fans will want to hear directly from the author when possible. Anything an author can do in the way of blog outreach, readings/talks and interviews, will ultimately help their publication along the way.
Q. What is the most common reason for manuscripts being rejected? Any pet peeves here?
In the case of literary fiction, lending some accessibility is what I find to be important. The literary community as a whole tends to be very insular and the books themselves also read like they're too cool for school. Uncompromising literary fiction often contains prose that are more concerned with being stylish and flowery, thereby torturing the narrative and losing the reader in the poetics. A piece of advice I tend to share with clients in such a pitfall is a famed quote from the author Charles Bukowski: "An intellectual says a simple thing in a hard way. An artist says a hard thing in a simple way." That will help the moral of the book shine through, which is ultimately what attracts me to a manuscript, since many of the books I represent are concerned with important social messages.
For genre fiction and commercial fiction, it is important to be aware of the genre conventions and tropes, in order to either generally avoid them, or spin them in a new and interesting way. For instance, I find it the strangest thing that in most every zombie novel, the protagonist wakes up in a hospital bed from a coma, to suddenly realize they're in a world full of zombies. I'm sure that was a neat trope when it started out, since the motif of dreaming/waking kind of plays with the zombie theme in reverse (our protagonist wakes from the world of the living to the dead, whereas his antagonists have fallen asleep from the world of the living to a dream-like state in the world of the dead). Nowadays that trope is just old hat to most readers of zombie books.
Q. How important is “platform” in terms of authors securing representation?
I’m finding that the importance of platform in an author’s career has also made its way into the world of fiction, to an extent. In looking for an ideal fiction client with a platform, I look for authors that have good writing credentials such as experience with writing workshops, conferences, or smaller publications in respected literary magazines. Having awards, bestseller status, a strong online presence, or pre-publication blurbs in-hand for one’s manuscript is also very promising in the eyes of a literary agent.
Platform is even more important in considering nonfiction authors. It is not enough for an author of nonfiction to be a respected authority on their subject matter—it’s important to publishers to know that such authors have a big online presence or social media following. That’s why selling celebrity fiction to publishers is almost a no-brainer. Publishers get this strange thought in their minds that if any given celebrity has 100,000 followers or more, if even just ten percent of those followers buy the book, then the publisher is already in good shape.
Q. How might authors compensate for small blogs or modest social media numbers?
An author having only small blog coverage of their work and/or a small social media following won’t be as problematic to fiction as it might be to a work of non-fiction. An author might compensate by trying to beef up their social media following, improve upon their author website, do more blog outreach for review/interview attention, appeal to established authors for pre-publication blurbs, etc.
Q. What’s the typical response time for manuscripts submitted for consideration?
Literary agents differ in their response time to a manuscript. This will also depend on the length of the manuscript, how full the literary agent’s plate is already, etc. I think a reasonable response time is within a month’s time, though. Of course this is a hurry-up-and-wait sort of business, so it could take longer as it takes time to read. In my case I prefer to read within the first few days or week of receiving a manuscript from an author in order to express my level of enthusiasm, rather than just sitting on my hands.
Q. What would it surprise others to know about you?
I have two singapura cats, named Dingus Khan and Willow. My wife posts photos and videos of them on Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/dingusandwillow
Our friend who is an artist/illustrator made us a mock children’s picture book about them called THE TAILS OF DINGUS AND WILLOW, by Jackie Cantwell.
Q. Is there a proper length for Ebook manuscripts?
Book length for self-published electronic manuscripts tends to be all over the place, but there’s a price corollary to page count, which is important to keep in mind when considering pricing against what the profits might be. Conversely, traditional book length is 80-120K. For commercial fiction it tends to be around 80-90K. Of course the book length for YA is flexible and the word count for MG is much lower. Once you get down into chapter books and picture books, it is far less.
Q. You have quite an impressive track record. I see you’ve been ranked # 1 in overall deals at Publishers Marketplace. To what do you attribute your success?
If I could attribute my success to anything, it would be my restless soul. Book publishing has become more of a lifestyle than work for me, and I think that’s a good thing, rather than merely viewing my work as a job to be done. Spending my time as a literary agent excites me and makes for an interesting life. It’s not always easy but I love what I do. Certainly there are worse things I could be doing, like working on the Trump campaign or slaving away as a lawyer for a big oil company.
Anything else you’d like to add here?
I would like to encourage readers of this interview to please visit our website where there’s a lot of good information on the literary agency, the authors we represent, as well as some information about book publishing:
Thanks so much for your time, Mark.
Your turn, readers.