Advice to Writers with Literary Agent Mark Gottlieb

In the lead up to Pitch Wars 2017, I'm running a series of blog posts focusing on writing and publishing. First in the series is an interview with Literary Agent Mark Gottlieb of Trident Media Group (TMG). I asked Mark a handful of questions about his job and what makes a good query letter. Here's what he had to say:

Please tell us about Trident Media Group and how you began your career as a literary agent.

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. 

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What's your favourite part of the job?

The interesting thing is that there really is no average day in the life of a literary agent, or at least there shouldn’t be, for when a literary agent’s days begin to stagnate and look the same, then that person’s career is in trouble.

Every day that I walk into the office, I think of ways to try to reinvent myself in a way to make myself competitive, while improving the careers of the authors I work with in creative and innovative ways. Every day should not be about drudgery—life is an adventure.

Of course there are a few things typical to most every day in the life of a literary agent, such as reading query letters, meeting/calls/lunches/drinks with editors and publishers as well as clients, pitching manuscripts to publishers, meeting with film/TV companies to adapt books for the screen, attending conferences/workshops, looking for new talent, etc.

How would you describe your ideal client?

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.

What advice can you give writers in relation to query letters?

My advice to authors along the querying process is to really nail the writing of that query letter. A query letter that reads well is usually a good indication to the literary agent that the manuscript will similarly read well, inclining the literary agent to request a manuscript. Often the query letter can go on to become the publisher’s jacket copy, were the publisher to acquire the manuscript via the literary agent.


A good query letter is: upfront in one-two sentences what the book is about in hook or elevator pitch fashion (should mention the title, lend a sense of genre, and contain one-three competitive/comparative titles that were bestsellers or award-winners, published within the last few years). If the author has pre-publication blurbs, those can appear before those first two sentences.


Next is a couple of body paragraphs detailing some of the plot details without too many spoilers and in that space the literary merits of the manuscript can be mentioned. The last paragraph is usually reserved for a short author bio, mentioning relevant writing experience/credentials, and a link to an author site or social media page(s) can be included there.
The Trident Media Group literary agency prefers to be queried by authors via our website at http://www.tridentmediagroup.com Our query letter instructions are there.

How would you define a strong query letter? 

There are many mistakes that I’ve seen in query letters, but I will name just a few that would absolutely deter me from requesting the manuscript from an author, since it's probably easier to try and avoid these mistakes in order to make for a strong query letter.


-Submitting queries for novellas, short story collections, poetry or textbooks will usually turn a literary agent off, as most literary agents do not represent such things. Publishers tend not to buy from literary agents in those areas in the first place.


-Word count is also very important. Traditional book length is 80-120K, and commercial fiction tends to be in the 80-90K-word range. Going outside of normal book-length will not produce good results for an author querying a literary agent for a shot at going into major trade publishing.


-Writing within struggling genres such as cozy mysteries, erotica, or urban fantasy is also another way to turn a literary agent off in the querying process. We tend to be weary of that at Trident Media Group.

What sort of considerations come into play when you're thinking about offering a client representation?

I call them “the three peas in a pod,” and often look at them in this order:


Persistence: Don’t be discouraged by rejection. This being a subjective business that is bound to happen many times over. It does not mean that you’re not good—it means you’re not quite good enough as of yet. Learn from constructive criticism and grow.


Patience: This being a “hurry-up-and-wait business,” since reading and editing can take time, it is important to be willing to wait patiently for editors/publishers to consider work once it is submitted by a literary agent. There have been instances, though, where I’ve sold a project in as little as four days. In other instances, it has taken months. It may seem like a nail-biting experience while rejections start to flow in along the submission process, but it is often worth the wait once an offer finally arrives.


Participation: An author has a central role in the book publishing process. Authors that merely want to write their manuscripts, then check out, rarely experience successful publications. Asking one’s publisher or literary agent how they can help leading up to publication and in the months thereafter, is a great starting point. Being curious about a publisher’s marketing/publicity plans and commenting on them is also of key importance.

How important is an online presence for fiction authors these days? 

Online presence is most important to nonfiction as it integral to platform, which is essential for selling nonfiction. 

Is there anything in particular you're currently looking for? What does an ideal project look like to you?

I am very open to most any kind of genre, excluding poetry, short stories and textbooks. There are also struggling genres that I am generally not open to such as horror, erotica, cozy mysteries, and paranormal romance. My current list is generally comprised of science fiction, fantasy, crime, mystery, thriller, literary fiction, women’s fiction, young adult, middle grade, picture book, graphic novel, creative nonfiction, humor, celebrity memoir and pop culture. In addition to more commercial books, I would like to see some more serious fiction on my list and perhaps some more literary fiction.

About the Agency:

Trident Media Group (TMG) is a prominent literary agency located in New York City that originally formed in 2000. TMG represents over 1,000 bestselling and emerging authors in a range of genres of fiction and nonfiction, many of whom have appeared on the New York Times Best Sellers Lists and have won major awards and prizes, including the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the P.E.N. Faulkner Award, the P.E.N. Hemingway Award, The Booker Prize, and the L.A. Times Book Award, among others. TMG is one of the world’s leading, largest and most diversified literary agencies.
 
For more than ten consecutive years, TMG continues to rank number one for sales according to publishersmarketplace.com in North America. TMG is the only U.S. literary agency to consistently be in the top ten in both UK fiction and UK non-fiction and has ranked as highly as number one in UK fiction deals.