Literary Agent Interview: Mark Gottlieb of Trident Media Group

Mark Gottliebmark gottlieb has ranked #1 among Literary Agents on Publishers Marketplace in Overall Deals and other individual categories. Using that same initiative and insight for identifying talented writers, he is actively building his own client list of authors. Mark is excited to work directly with authors, helping to manage and grow their careers with all of the unique resources that are available at book publishing’s leading literary agency, Trident Media Group. Since his time at Trident, he has represented numerous New York Times bestselling, as well as award-winning authors, and has optioned and sold numerous books to film and TV production companies. Mark is actively seeking submissions in all categories and genres.

Mark also maintains a blog with author resources about all things writing, literature and publishing here.

Markthank you for agreeing to this interview. Despite living in the Information Age, we are overwhelmed with misinformation about the publishing industry and the role of literary agents. Let’s set the record straight. What does a literary agent do for a writer and why are they still important in today’s industry?

Literary agents, by their very nature, have highly symbiotic relationships with authors: when an author does well, their literary agent does well; and when an author does not do well, a literary agent does not stand to benefit from that. So it stands to reason that a literary agent would not seek to tarnish a relationship with an author, especially because our work is commission-based, or performance-based.

Most book publishers, especially major trade book publishers such as big five publishing companies, do not want to hear from first time authors directly. Those publishing companies tend to prefer that authors work with literary agents that know their way around the business. For that reason and many other reasons, literary agents remain the gatekeepers of the book publishing industry.

Your first position as a literary agent was in foreign rights. The workings of foreign rights elude many authors, myself included, which has prompted me to seek representation with my own works. After attending book fairs in London, Bologna, and Frankfurt, you have heard a gamut of questions from authors. What common misconceptions do authors have about foreign rights and how does Trident Media Group respond?

Foreign rights, or books in translation, can become a big source of income for an author. At the Trident Media Group literary agency, foreign rights comprises over a third of our overall income. So an author looking at any given book or a cross section of their books can expect foreign rights to make up the same or more of their overall income. Foreign rights are clearly nothing to write off or scoff at. Either a publisher or a literary agency will handle an author’s foreign rights, depending on how a deal negotiation goes.

It is always best for a literary agent to keep foreign rights for a client, wherever possible. For if a book publisher holds onto an author’s foreign rights, it’s usually for a nominal increase in the book advance and publishers take upwards of 50% of the proceeds on foreign rights. Keep in mind that’s after the U.S. publisher recoups their book advance. In the worst case scenario, sometimes U.S. publishers are granted foreign rights to an author’s book and they never properly exploit those rights. The foreign rights simply end up sitting on a shelf, collecting dust and seldom will U.S. publishers return the foreign rights to the author.

In the case of a literary agency representing foreign rights for an author, our commission is much smaller than what publishers take, and a literary agency’s representation in the foreign markets is a direct advance and royalties paid to the author from foreign publishers. An author allowing their literary agency to directly handle their foreign rights makes for direct payments and allows for much more hand-selling for the client.

literary agentIn the past, you have placed an emphasis on writing a good query letter. Where do authors typically go wrong?

There are so many things an author can do wrong in writing a query letter, which is why I tend to want to focus on the types of things authors should focus on doing correctly when writing their queries: a strong hook, two to three comparative titles, a couple of body paragraphs detailing the plot details, and a short author bio paragraph containing relevant writing experience/credentials. Seems easy enough, right?

I still see a lot of mistakes in query letters such as query letters that are too short, or query letters that exceed a page. Other times, I see query letters that have the incorrect manuscript word count listed for a given genre, and sometimes I’ve received query letters for fiction manuscripts that hadn’t even been written yet! I have also even seen misaddressed query letters, or addresses such as, “Dear Agent.” That’s a very impersonal thing to do. The same thing goes with putting a bunch of literary agencies on an email all at once.

A major hiccup for authors seeking agents are the horror stories that float around in writing communities. What should authors be wary of when seeking agents? What are some good questions they should be asking?

Authors should read about a literary agency on their company website to get both a sense of the literary agency’s profile, as well as that of the individual agent. After doing that, I would suggest that authors research the types of deals, number of deals, and amount of money for deals a literary agent has performed. The proof is in the pudding when it comes to deal-making. The Trident Media Group literary agency typically is ranked #1 across the industry in both number of deals and amount of money for deals, consecutively every year since 2004. Our work follows our deeds which is one of the reasons I’m typically leading the literary agency where I work in volume of deals in any given six-month or twelve-month period. At one point I also ranked #1 in overall deals on Publishers Marketplace and have since then regularly climbed into the top three spots for deal makers. Most recently, I just performed by 145th book deal for a quarter of a million dollars.

literary agentI recognize that you have offered pointers to how writers might be more marketable to an agent. Could you indulge us and reiterate some of those suggestions?

Write a terrific manuscript with a breakneck or entertaining plot, profound character development and an important message so we see why we urgently need to read that book. Watch the bestsellers lists to see what’s working well and to be sure it’s in keeping with current genre trends if it’s to be a genre book.

Build a strong platform. If you’re an author of nonfiction, that means social media followers, newsletter subscribers, speaking engagements, etc. If you’re an author of fiction, network, garner advance praise, collect pre-publication awards, attend prestigious conferences and workshops, publications in esteemed literary magazines, etc.

Craft a knock-out query letter and hook/elevator pitch.

In your interview with Writer Digest, you stated that you were born into the family business at Trident Media Group. I am curious how the role of the literary agent has evolved during the time of your predecessors and how you believe it might continue to manifest in the years to come.

Some things have certainly changed in the publishing industry over time. For instance, book publishing used to be much more of a cottage industry than it is now, with many thriving independent book publishers in existence, along with a thriving independent bookstore community.

There was a time after that when independent bookstores got eaten up by big chain book retailers such as Borders and Barnes & Noble, while big six book publishers bought up lots of tiny publishers and formed them as book imprints under their company umbrellas. There was a time after that when Borders closed, B&N consolidated and big box stores such as Costco and Sam’s Club were taking over. Today, the big six publishers are now the big five, after the Penguin Random House merger, the big fish Amazon eating up all the little fish like mass independent bookstores, major chain retailers and mass merch stores.

Well, guess what? Someone will come along to eat Amazon one day. It’s the nature of capitalism when a bigger fish comes along. A further reckoning might also come for big five publishers and Amazon Book Publishing, if it hasn’t already. Literary agents, as the gatekeepers of content in our industry, have been here through it all and will continue to be in helping authors navigate the forever changing book publishing climate. So I wouldn’t just go and jump on the publishing doom and gloom bus just yet.

It has been a pleasure, Mark! Please tell us where authors can find you and what submissions you are currently seeking.

Authors can regularly find me writing on my blog at Talking Books: Literary Agent Mark Gottlieb on the Book Business. If authors are interested in querying me, they can read about me and my current releases here and use our submissions form here.


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