What are literary agents really after? Do they want first-time authors who’ve already built a huge platform … or simply a great book?
New York agent Mark Gottlieb, who’s currently building his list, has been kind enough to answer some questions about his job and the state of publishing in general.
If you’ve been reading Aliventures for a while, you’ll know I’m very much a fan of self-publishing … but I also think traditional publishing still has a huge amount to offer. Mark argues the case for going down the agent and publisher route here.
#1: What’s a typical day like for you, as an agent in New York?
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.
#2: What sort of manuscript would you love to find on your desk / in your inbox?
An ideal project would carry an important social message or moral to the story, and while not only being beautifully written, it should be accessible or have some aspects of commercialism to the writing, even if it is literary fiction.
We represent all genres, generally excluding poetry, short stories, novellas, and textbooks.
We are always seeing a high demand for commercial fiction, genre fiction, thrillers, women’s fiction, romance, YA, literary/general fiction, high-end nonfiction and health books written by authors with major platforms in the areas of history/politics/current affairs, business books and celebrity nonfiction.
#3: Are there any genres or types of book that you would never represent?
Generally speaking, I am not interested in struggling genres such as cozy mysteries, erotica, urban fantasy, horror, paranormal romance, and personal (non-celebrity) memoir.
#4: A lot of authors dread writing a synopsis and covering letter. How important are these to you … and how do people typically go wrong?
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.
Despite the struggle to write a synopsis, such a document can come in handy, especially once a manuscript is on submission and a publisher is struggling to get coverage within the publishing house. That struggle can intensify once an offer is on the table from a competing publisher, but a synopsis can alleviate that tension and thereby help other publishers compete with offers on the table by getting the right coverage they need on short notice.
A synopsis should contain exciting spoilers and be complete, containing the exposition, conflict and resolution of the narrative. The reader of the synopsis should experience the primary characters there. I usually suggest a synopsis not exceed one or two pages double-spaced.
#5: Do you look more favourably on writers who already have titles available, and maybe a mailing list, or does it really just come down to the book?
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.
#5: If an author has already self-published the book they’re sending you, is that a plus or a minus, in terms of you potentially taking that book on?
The self-publishing/indie 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.
If an author is involved in the writing community at a grassroots level with conferences, workshops and has published in esteemed literary magazines, then 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.
#6: What big changes do you think are likely to happen in the publishing industry over the next five years?
It has become all too easy for an author to feel discouraged and turn to self-publishing or small indie 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.
Marketing Books in a Digital World
The digital landscape has seen our literary agency evolve. 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.
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.
#7: If you could give all aspiring novelists one piece of advice, what would it be?
The most important advice I can give to writers just starting out is to learn and grow from constructive criticism and rejection, rather than being discouraged by that feedback. It is not an editor or literary agent saying the author’s writing is not good—we’re saying the writing is not good enough, at least not yet. So, hang in there…
Whether you’re seeking an agent or striking out on your own in the world of self-publishing, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this interview. Just drop a comment below.