Mark Gottlieb is a literary agent with Trident Media Group in New York. We recently had the opportunity to talk with him about publishing, literature, poetry, the life of a literary agent, projects he’s worked on, and expectations of authors.
He will tell you that he was born for the publishing industry. Gottlieb attended Emerson College in Boston (at the time, the only college offering an undergraduate program in publishing). After graduation, he worked for Penguin and then joined Trident Media Group, the No. 1-ranked literary agency according to Publishers Marketplace. At Trident, he’s worked in foreign rights acquisition, served as executive assistant to Trident’s chairman, and led the Audio Department. Currently he’s working with his own client list, and has ranked No. 1 among literary agents on Publishers Marketplace in Overall Deals and other categories.
In Part 1 of the interview, Gottlieb discusses what a literary agent’s job is like, how he became involved in publishing, publishers and poetry, and what expectations publishers and agents have of authors. Part 2 will be published Friday.
We have a vision of what a literary agent’s job is like, and we know it isn’t always long lunches in famous restaurants with famous authors. Tell us a little about what a day is like for you.
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 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 did you come to be a literary agent? Are there any specific literary projects you’re particularly proud of?
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.
A manuscript that recently spoke to me that I decided to take on, and subsequently sold to a publisher, is World Fantasy Award-nominated author Christopher Brown’s Tropic of Kansas. Description: on the front lines of a revolution whose fuse they are about to light, a fugitive brother and sister are harboring explosive government secrets; pitched as a novel of political dissent akin to the Americana of The Road, the brave new corporate world of Jennifer Government, or a post-9/11 Man in the High Castle; the story of ordinary people seeking to refresh democracy in a mirror America ruled by a telegenic dictator of a businessman. The famed and award-winning editor David G. Hartwell of Tor Books had bought the book in his very last book deal, but suddenly passed away in a terrible freak accident. We were able to move the project over to David Pomerico of Harper Voyager, where the project now happily resides and is slated for publication in 2017.
What initially drew me to the project was that the author not only had a lot of “street cred” as an award-nominated author and short story writer—he had already collected pre-publication blurbs from William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, and Cory Doctorow, as well as trade reviews from Locus, Boing Boing, Tangent, and many other trade review sites and notable authors. Christopher had also tapped into the heart of near-future sci-fi with an important social message—a hot topic for right now in SF.
Christopher’s writing focuses on issues at the nexus of technology, politics, and economics and often fits within the literary subgenre sometimes denominated avant-pop—“pulp fiction for smart people,” in the words of the author, answering questions such as “Whatever happened to the guest appearance of Jorge Luis Borges on The Love Boat?” or “What if Beltway psychological warfare operatives co-opted Saddam’s Frazetta-dealer?”
What literary areas do you specialize in (which is a more polite way of asking, “What are looking for right at the moment”)?
I really do most every kind of fiction and nonfiction book, but nonfiction usually requires a huge author platform or celebrity status. Otherwise I’m wide open to submissions right now!
We often (and repeatedly) hear that poetry is dead, and yet publishers keep publishing it and poets keep writing. How do agents and publishers see poetry?
I think major trade publishers and literary agencies view poetry with a lot of respect but at the same time they know poetry collections are extremely difficult to publish to major success. We tend to see clients of ours putting out poetry collections only once they’ve become highly established/award-winning authors, and even then we’re primarily doing those deals as a service for our clients.
There’s a belief that, no matter who the publisher might be, authors are expected to do most if not all of their own marketing. When you consider a manuscript, are you also considering “the whole deal,” which includes the author? As an agent, what are your expectations of authors? And what do publishers expect?
Thanks to the tremendous resources available to our company and our Digital Media & 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.
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