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The One Literary Agent Interview All Writers Need To Read

I recently had the good fortune of interviewing the literary agent, Mark Gottlieb, who has ranked #1 among Literary Agents on Publishers Marketplace. This interview was an eye opener for me. If you’re an author, trust me, you’re going to want to read it.

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Most agent interviews are boring, so with that in mind, I did not ask Mark what his favorite color is or why he became an agent or anything that would put you to sleep. This interview is filled with serious questions that directly matter to you, as an author considering self-publishing or traditional publishing.

If you’ve considered self-publishing and wondered how many units you would need to sell in order to interest a traditional publisher, today you’re going to find out where that number starts.

You might not like all of the answers, but I will tell you this, as an author, you need to know them. And there are very few agents on the planet that know the answers as well as Mark does. He’s a straight shooter and not interested in blowing any smoke, so strap in and become informed.

Background:

Mark Gottlieb is a graduate of Emerson College, where he was a founding member of the Publishing Club, later its President, overseeing its first publication and establishing the Wilde Press. He began his career as an assistant to the Vice President of the Berkley imprint at Penguin, working with leading editors.

Mark currently works at the #1-ranked literary agency, Trident Media Group. 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.

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TMG Homepage

From TMG Homepage

The Interview:

Q1 Bryan:

There are a lot of disillusioned authors who are tired of asking agents and publishers to pick them. And since it’s so easy to self-publish today, why should an author still hire an agent?

Mark:

Yes, it is all too easy for an author to feel discouraged and turn to self-publishing. However, many successful self-published authors eventually go into traditional publishing in order to take advantage of having a team of professionals who help them take their work to the next level.

A literary agency with industry knowledge and expertise can bring a huge value add to the table for an author, evidenced by many of the success stories we’ve created for our clients, the bulk of which are award-winning and bestselling authors. We’ve actually built a lot of self-published success stories into mega-bestsellers, giving authors a Godzilla-like footprint in the industry.

Trident Media Group is a full-service literary agency for authors, handling accounting, legal review, management, foreign rights (books in translation), book-to-film/TV, audio books, etc. We’re also a literary agency with tremendous clout in the industry, so we can get many things for authors from publishers and film / TV buyers that an author otherwise would not be able to get on their own.

I’d like to think that a literary agency would save an author a lot of headaches in order to help the author focus in on their own writing, thereby allowing the author to become more prolific. Meanwhile, the literary agent would work in concert with their subsidiary rights people and departments within the literary agency. In looking at a literary agent and considering paying them a commission on a deal, an author should be asking what they stand to gain in having a literary agent.

Q2 Bryan:

When it comes to royalties, there’s a lot of confusion out there, but it seems most authors believe their royalties are higher if they directly publish with Amazon and other self-publishing offerings. What’s the reality and what should authors consider when it comes to royalties?

 Mark:

It is no lie that an author receives a larger share of royalties in the digital space in self-publishing, but there’s still a common misconception there. In self-publishing, authors sell in smaller numbers than a literary agent and publisher could do for an author.

Authors that self-publish are primarily in the digital format, rather than being in the other revenue tributaries of major trade publishing. Overall it’s better to diversify one’s publishing portfolio with a major trade publisher, offering various publishing formats, online and physical retailers, etc.

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Q3 Bryan:

Even if an author hires an agent and traditionally publishes a book, he or she might still want to self-publish. Where does your agency stand as far as the author’s royalties on the work they publish themselves – does your agency want a cut? Is there an industry consensus on this either way?

Mark:

As a legitimate agency (book publishing’s leading literary agency), we only commission deals we do for a client. I can’t speak for other literary agencies, but we tend to feel that it is wrong of a literary agency to try and commission works self-published by an author when the agent did not play a role in that self-publication.

Self-publishing can be complimentary in a hybrid publishing model between traditional and electronic self-publishing, especially since traditional publishers aren’t really open to publishing novellas and short story collections, even from established authors.

Q4 Bryan:

There’s a popular belief among authors that if they self-publish and demonstrate that their books can generate huge sells, a traditional publisher will take an interest in their work. Is this true? What’s the reality?

Mark:

The self-publishing sphere has become something of what the farm league is to major league baseball, but the odds of that success can be lower than were an author to try and approach a literary agent as an author attempting to make their major debut in trade publishing. The bar is quite high in terms of self-publishing to attract an agent or publisher. An author usually needs to have sold at least 50,000 copies at a decent price.

Q5 Bryan:

The biggest complaint I hear from authors who have traditionally published is that they are left holding the marketing bag. When you sign an author with a traditional publisher what should they expect as far as marketing?

Mark:

Thanks to the tremendous resources available to our company and our Digital Media and Publishing department, Trident Media Group often helps our clients in their marketing/publicity efforts. We also try to put the publisher on the hot seat in encouraging them to perform marketing/publicity tasks for the author, by sharing ideas and having in-depth meetings with publishers.

Trident will also make recommendations to our clients on how they can think about improving their social media presence and look to online efforts to market / promote their books. Otherwise, book publishers normally devote their marketing dollars and other resources toward authors that are huge successes or are making a major debut.

We at Trident might even recommend a private book publicity firm to a client, but that doesn’t come cheap. An author should still know that their role in marketing and promoting the book is integral to the process since, at the end of the day, readers / fans will want to hear from the author.

book-marketing

Q6 Bryan:

A lot of traditionally published authors complain that their books never see the inside of a bookstore. How can you help authors get their books in stores?

Mark:

This is a pitfall our literary agency has avoided in most instances by having things such as the mandate to publish within a certain timeframe, along with the format of the book written into the agreement with publishers.

As book publishing’s leading literary agency, our business goes to the bottom line of a lot of publishing companies so we are able to get the best form agreements with publishers. Making sure an author’s book gets into stores is also a matter of marrying the book to the right publisher in the first place.

Q7 Bryan:

What is it that makes an agent take notice of one author over another?

Mark:

If an author is involved in the writing community at a grassroots level with conferences, workshops and has published in esteemed literary magazines, that can help. As far as an insider tip goes, it’s great to see an author that comes to us with pre-publication blurbs from bestselling and award-winning authors. So it certainly doesn’t hurt to reach out to well-known authors and ask them to review your work, if they’re interested and if they indicate they do like it, see if they’ll provide a short blurb.

Also Listing a few competitive / comparative titles that were bestsellers and / or award-winners, published within the last few years, is also key for a literary agent’s consideration. At the end of the day, though, the manuscript must be an amazing read.

amazing-read

Q8 Bryan:

Could you elaborate on what constitutes an amazing read?

Mark:

What constitutes an amazing read in a manuscript can be a number of factors, but firstly it’s important to be aware of the rules of writing in order to bend and even try to break them, while avoiding potential pitfalls. The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers by John Gardner is a good book for authors just starting out to keep in the back pocket. I’d also recommend
The Elements of Style and grab yourself the latest edition of The Chicago Manual of Style while you’re at it since most of book publishing conforms to the style manual.

From there an author can begin to learn the bare bones of what goes into writing a book, such as conflict being the main driving force behind plot, the various shapes and positions of the narrative arc, establishing character, etc.

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.

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Q9 Bryan:

When should authors start querying agents?

Mark:

In addition to what I mentioned above in terms of what attracts a literary agent to an author, once an author has gone as far as they can go with the writing / editing of the manuscript and honed in on a knock-out query letter / hook, then it is time to begin the process of querying a literary agent.

Q10 Bryan: 

Is your agency currently taking manuscript submissions?

Mark:

We are currently accepting submission via our submissions page on our website.

Thanks, Mark! I appreciate your time and I know my readers will gain much insight from your answers.

Readers:

Tell us what you’re currently writing about in the comments. Have you started a book yet? Share a little about it. What’s the premise? We’d love to hear about your story.

About Bryan Hutchinson

I'm a positive writer and when that doesn't work, I eat chocolate. I help fellow writers overcome doubt and thrive! In my free time, I love visiting castles with my wife, Joan. Join me on Twitter and Facebook.

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Like a good friend, Bryan guides you through the process of facing your inner demons, conquering the craft, and creating work that matters. ―Jeff Goins

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  • I’ll start the comments by saying this is the most priceless and informative article I have read in a very long time. I am currently finishing up my novel manuscript (which I self-published in installments on Amazon Kindle), and am getting ready to query.

    The story itself is a re-telling of Christ’s Passion, Resurrection, and the beginning of the early church, told through the eyes of the Roman soldier who crucified Christ. It follows the personal story of Marcus, as he comes to accept Jesus as God’s Son and realizes that he must escape the legions or be executed. His decisions result in the life-threatening adventure of a fugitive in the Roman Empire, and he encounters many names that we recognize.

    I am brand-new to the world of querying and publishing, so articles like this really help me to better understand it. Thank you so much for sharing!

    • You sure know how to make a blogger’s day, Reagan. 🙂

      Thank you, too.

      • Mark Gottlieb

        Yes, Bryan, this is a testament to you asking all the right questions, congratulations!

  • Allison Merrill

    I’ve had the privilege and honor of working with Mark before, and I know from personal experience why he is ranked THE #1 literary agent in the nation, a well-deserved title indeed. He’s professional and knowledgable and genuinely cares about people. He’s simply the best.

    • Awesome. Thanks for sharing with us, Allison!

    • Mark Gottlieb

      Thanks again for the kind words!

  • I just finished my first series, and am at the beginning of a second series, Seasons. I’ve turned historical this time, set in 1912, in the small town of Saisons (ergo Seasons) in South Carolina. Four young friends, two daughters of plantation owners, two of them plantation servants, each tell their story in turn.
    An inciting incident took place fifteen years prior, with several events leading up to it.
    It’s sort of a cross between Upstairs Downstairs and Gone With the Wind, with some Gullah and Congaree Indian influence mixed it.

  • Excellent interview Bryan. I really enjoyed it. My WIP is a book I wrote a while back. With all I’ve learned over the last few years, I think I can get it ready for important eyes to see.

    • Hi Anne, hope all is well. Yep, it’s a high number. Thanks for reading.

    • Mark Gottlieb

      If you’d like some elaboration, 50K copies sold at a low-priced eBook will sort of be the minimum. If the eBook was priced higher, you might be able to go below the 50K. Of course, the way in which royalties are paid from Amazon nowadays in terms of pages read is different, so some publishers also look at the earnings of the eBook and whether or not it hit the NYT bestsellers list, USA, or WSJ list.

      • Mark, Thank you for that additional information. May I ask your opinion for a book that has NOT sold that many copies but one I feel strongly needs to be out there? It was about my sister’s death to domestic violence. I’m willing to do whatever it takes to get it into the hands of as many people as possible. I’m just not sure what I should do next.

        • Mark Gottlieb

          My suggestion would be to do one of two things. Either remove the self-published edition from online and not make mention of how the book had self-published and performed, thereby repositioning this as a major debut. Or leave the self-published edition online, and perhaps consider a pen name while remaining quiet about the self-published edition and its performance.

          Beyond that, personal memoirs and autobiographical fiction/veiled memoirs with an ax to grind can be tough. I find that fiction is the best vehicle to explore that moral lesson/catharsis.

          That will also help to protect you from libel claims. Although, even with fiction, the definition of libel can be fulfilled: publishing a false, defamatory statement about a single, identifiable living individual. Fulfill any portion (not necessary to fulfill all of the definition) of that definition and the person may have a claim. So, if the person that performed the abuse was able to identify themselves and deemed the statements as defamatory, you could run into that problem, especially if they are private individuals, not held in the public eye… Some folks even make a deplorable living out of libel shopping. Publishers inevitable vet such works for libel with their legal departments.

          • Mark,
            Thank you for your suggestion. I am not worried about libel claims because the book has her story in it but that is only part of it, and I was careful not to say anything derogatory. I only brought up what was brought up at the trial. My sister waited too long in sharing what was going on, I just want others to not wait.

            If I were to do your first suggestion, would I need to title it something different, different cover?

          • Mark Gottlieb

            That’s not a bad idea, along with the change of author name if you decide to go that route.

          • Mark,
            Another question. If I leave the book alone and try to get a traditional publisher for another book I’m writing, will that publisher be looking at other books I have out there? Will this book shadow others to come?

          • Mark Gottlieb

            It’s easier to reinvent oneself with nonfiction as it is subject-driven, but typically the same would apply in the instance you described.

          • Mark,
            I understand what you meant by it being easier to reinvent oneself with nonfiction, but I don’t understand what you meant by the second part of your statement. Will it work against me as far as approaching a traditional publisher if one book did not do well?

          • Mark Gottlieb

            Whichever way you look at it, bad sales on a self-published title will become a scar upon your name for publishers that are risk-averse in considering an author’s work/track record. That works against you. In a business full of people who can say ‘no’ with only a handful of people who can say ‘yes,’ why would you give them any reason to say no? My suggestion is to go into battle like a Spartan wearing red. Spartans wore red so that their enemies could not see them bleeding on the battlefield. Hopefully you can think of this in the spirit of reinvention. It worked for Bob Dylan (his real name is Robert Allen Zimmerman), or look at how many times David Bowie and Madonna have reinvented themselves! If you’re a fan of Lady Gage, she’ll reinvent herself several times in changing costumes within one concert! Stephen King used to write under the name of Richard Bachman and those books never sold. Once he became the author we all know and love as Stephen King, he went back and changed the name on those books. Suddenly there were bestsellers! Go figure…

  • Way to go, Bryan! You asked Mark thoughtful questions and provided many of us with information we had probably never read before. Thanks!

    My current WIP is a thriller about a 40-something man who becomes obsessed with his neighbor. He thinks the neighbor’s husband is abusive; his method of “saving” this woman is stalking and kidnapping her (to keep her safe from the wackos, you know). But we quickly learn that Mr. Demento comes from an extremely abusive background himself. He quit school as a teen and tried to save himself by taking a geographical cure to escape the abuse.

    After finding his way back home, years later, he reconnects with his mother. We discover that his mother – who is truly demented – blames this guy for his younger brother’s death 25 years earlier. And she keeps her developmentally/emotionally/mentally disabled daughter (who is now in her late 30’s) locked up in what used to be an extra room on their property.

    She’s a nasty bitch.

    The villain becomes the hero, which I’ve never tried to write before. This story is about vulnerability, compassion, deep-seated fears, anger, and anxieties, redemption (or not), and how this man survives it all. Wait, maybe he doesn’t survive…

    I’m having a blast writing this!

    Thanks!
    Laura Becker

    • Thanks, Laura! 🙂 She sounds nasty!

    • Mark Gottlieb

      I give Bryan a lot of credit, too as he wasn’t afraid to ask the tough questions in digging deeper.

  • Chrystal Stevens

    I actually just self-published a YA Fantasy called The Coming of Jack Walker. It is about former bullied nerd Jack Walker. After his grandfather dies while trying to save his girlfriend from getting kidnapped Jack discovers that his grandfather was part of an organization that he founded called The AMS (Administration for Monster Studies) that protects humans from evil monsters. The most evil monster a vampire named Stefan is the one who kidnapped his gf and has every intention of stealing the Sun Amulet. Jack has to go to Vladimir Island to find the leader of the good monsters who help the AMS protect humanity named Cassandra. Cassandra and her friends deliberately exiled themselves to Vladimir Island where the Sun Amulet is kept under lock and key because the got tired of being persecuted for the deeds done by the evil ones of their kind. They are all from different countries and races and get along well. Jack gets to read his grandfather’s journal and Cassandra’s memoirs in the book.My ultimate lesson of the book though it was never my initial intention is that the book shows tolerance for your fellow man. That people shouldn’t be prejudiced or racist and should learn to coexist.

    I also have a book called The Black Leather Belt Murders. It is the first in my planned mystery series and is complete and ready for publication. This book follows the investigation into a string of serial murders being committed by a guy who calls himself Mandrake. As Mandrake stalks his victims it is a first person narrative but the rest of the story is told in third person this way no one can tell exactly who Mandrake is. Blonde women are being found strangled with the murder weapon a men’s black leather dress belt found fastened tightly around their necks. An FBI profiler named Rick is on his tail and a female college student named Destiny who is also a PI in training joins in the investigation after her best friend is found dead like Mandrake’s victims but is a redhead not a blonde. It hasn’t been published yet because I was still hoping that a literary agent or publisher would want it first before I self publish. Wonder if Mark would be interested in this one.

    I’m currently working on the sequel to The Black Leather Belt Murders called The Red Silk Handkerchief Murder. I’ve also worked out the main plots of another sixteen mysteries involving Destiny and Rick. Their lives together continue and each book contains a new mystery to be solved. I’m also working on the Journal of Jack’s grandfather Blake and Cassandra’s memoirs to be released as prequels to The Coming of Jack Walker with at least 3 sequels planned in that series. I also have other ideas too numerous to mention but since Mark made a mention of zombie stories I had one in mind that is different from any other I’ve read before. My story entitled Cleo Sloane Zombie Hunter is about a woman who is head of a group of security guards at a facility that creates viruses. And when those viruses escape she has to go eradicate the threat. It is told through her first person narrative via journal entries and she talks about going to the grocery store or to the doctor then talking about getting a call to go kill zombies somewhere. Contrary to other zombie books there hasn’t been an apocalypse yet and according to Cleo there won’t be as long as she is alive. Cleo goes places and knows that zombies exist even if no one else other than her team and employer does. It is a work in progress and no where near finished but I’ve worked out at least 6 sequels for it too..

    • Wow, 6 sequels? That’s some writing! Sounds interesting!

      • Chrystal Stevens

        Thanks Bryan. Yes. Cleo will be killing zombies for awhile once I get the ball rolling. I don’t have them all finished but as I’m writing any story in any genre I like to think 2 steps ahead I like to see into my character’s future. I see if there is anything down the road for them. If/when I find it it becomes the next book. I have an outline (usually 1-20 handwritten pages) that tell the entire summary of the next book. So then when I get to that book I just have to expand the story. And I usually do that by handwriting my entire first draft.

    • Mark Gottlieb

      You could always query the Trident Media Group literary agency at http://www.tridentmediagroup.com/

      • Chrystal Stevens

        Thanks Mark. I will.

  • Judy Peterman Blackburn

    Hi Bryan,
    Enjoyed this post, informative. I’ve written a novel, self-published it, sold a few copies, then have taken it out of circulation. I’ve been re-writing, editing and would like to publish it through a traditional publisher. It’s about a lady homesteader and her dream to live on her father’s homestead and train horses. Oh, she wants to do this all on her own. She doesn’t need a man in her life because she doesn’t trust any of them anymore after being betrayed. Thank you for the opportunity to talk about what I’m writing. I also write short stories. 🙂

    • Mark Gottlieb

      Thanks, I am glad to hear that you enjoyed the interview and found it informative.

  • Stevie Turner

    Hi Bryan, I’ve written several novels over the past few years, and enjoy writing blogs on WordPress. May I share this blog please? Most of my readers are authors too, and would enjoy this post.

    • Feel free to use the share buttons under the post. 🙂

      • Stevie Turner

        Thanks. I’ve added the link to next Friday’s Roundup on WordPress, as I think this is where it will get the most attention rather than on my Facebook or Pinterest sites.