Every year, the Writers’ League of Texas brings a faculty of close to thirty agents, editors, and other industry professionals to Austin for its Agents & Editors Conference. As we look ahead to the 23rd Annual A&E Conference in June, we’re happy to share Q&As with some of our faculty here.
An Interview with Agent Mark Gottlieb
Mark Gottlieb’s focus on publishing began at 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 graduated with a degree in writing, literature and publishing. Mark enjoys working directly with authors, helping to manage and grow their careers with all of the unique resources that are available to Trident. Since becoming an agent, he has ranked as high as #1 in Agents on publishersmarketplace.com in Overall Deals. He has also ranked #1 in categories such as Science-Fiction/Fantasy, Children’s, and Graphic Novels. He has ranked in the top five for Thriller, Mystery/Crime, Women’s Fiction, Romance, Young Adult, and certain nonfiction categories such as Pop Culture, Memoir, How-To, and Humor.
Mark Gottlieb: Being highly-communicative, and involved in a client’s career behind the scenes with publishers, are just a couple of the qualities I’d like to think make me unique as a literary agent working with authors. Sometimes when I sign a new client they will ask me what my preferred method of contact is, or how often I like to be contacted. My usual response is to inform them that I tend to think of working in book publishing as a lifestyle career, rather than merely a job. For that reason, I tend to think of myself like a doctor on call, always available to my clients when they need me, like a friend they can count on. In an interview, one of my clients said he found it difficult to get my voice-mailbox because I am always picking up the phone and answering emails. Rather than only being a transactional agent that disappears after the deal is closed, I also mentioned that I like to work behind the scenes on a client’s behalf with the publisher, in order to help make for a great publishing experience. That way authors and editors can focus on creative matters, rather than having to sort out business headaches between one another, which can tarnish a creative collaboration in the publishing process.
Scribe: What do you look for in a debut author?
MG: An author making their debut should, at the very least, be curious about the publishing process, and willing to participate in a central role in helping the process. Fans will obviously want to hear from an author directly, rather than their agent, editor, or publisher. Regardless of the truth of the matter from the perspective of publishers, generally speaking, I always tell clients making their debut, to never rely solely on publishers to market and promote their books. Any promise made by publishers are usually immaterial, or at best cookie-cutter publicity plans, that have been copied over from another author’s campaign that has come and gone before. Not to speak pejoratively of publishers, but there’s really no promise that the publisher will keep to the marketing/publicity plans, either. For these reasons I tell my clients not to come to rely on publishers, except to print/format and distribute their books in stores and/or online. I encourage authors making their debut to think about how they might approach marketing and publicity on their own, either through social media and online ads, or by using book trailers, local signings/readings, character sketches, website build-outs, contests, and giveaways, etc. Some of my clients like to hire book publicists to handle their publications. If nothing else, having an author’s participation in the marketing and publicity of their book means another set of hands on deck.
Scribe: Do you think social media presence is critical for a successful writing career?
MG: When it comes to technology, the sword is double-sided and cuts both ways. Social media presence is very important to an author’s career, certainly in the eyes of many publishers, but it is not the be-all/end-all of a successful writing career. For instance, how do you suppose authors were successful before the time of social media? That’s an important question some folks should ask themselves, especially in looking at a crowded/distracted venue such as social media. There are other grassroots approaches, rather than always looking to social media for answers. Oftentimes I see authors using social media in the right way, but sometimes it can be used incorrectly or to one’s own detriment. I see a lot of authors over-selling their books on social media, when sometimes their audience just wants to engage with authors and their interests related to the author’s books. It’s OK to sell books to fans straight-out, but not too much, nor too little, which makes for a difficult balancing act. What I find works best is when an author can sell their books across social media with subtlety, so that fans do not necessarily know that they are having something sold to them. Think of the type of product placement we now see in TV and the movies. The Truman Show was really on to something very clever and smart in the film’s critique of that aspect of media advertising.
Scribe: If you could give writers one piece of advice, what would it be?
MG: The most important piece of advice I could give an author is to not be discouraged by rejection. With book publishing being a subjective business, experiencing rejection is a normal part of the process. It’s important to keep writing and press onward. We have many clients that were rejected all around town by publishers, who then went on to become award-winning and bestselling authors. I’m sure the editors that passed on those projects felt rather awkward, having to explain that to their publishers, after many a Trident Media Group author went on to win the Man Booker Prize, or become an Oprah Book Club pick and land on the New York Times bestsellers list. Learning from rejection and editorial feedback is also important to artistic growth, so it is important to register rejection not as someone saying you are not good, when they’re really saying you are not yet good enough.
Scribe: Tell us about a project you took on because there was something special or unique about it, even though it wasn’t like projects you usually take on; or tell us about an exciting or proud moment in your career as an agent.
MG: A unique project I had taken on was one that I had discovered had been self-published to little or no success. This can oftentimes happen to authors that self-publish in the overcrowded eBook landscape, especially when a book is not properly marketed/promoted. It’s unfortunate but most self-published books sell less than a dozen copies in the lifetime of its publication. Authors obsess over the outliers that experience incredible success from self-publishing, but the chances of winning that way are smaller than playing the lottery. Regardless of the widespread snobbishness among book industry professionals toward self-published authors, I was able to look beyond that crooked view to see the merits of the author’s book. We were quiet in the submission process about the fact that the book had previously been self-published, and a week later we had a deal with Penguin Books. That book went on to be optioned to Ron Howard’s company, Imagine Entertainment, where they’ve attached the actor Jason Bateman, as well as a highly talented scriptwriter behind films such as Now You See Me and Eagle Eye.
— Thanks, Mark!
Click here for more information on the 2016 Agents & Editors Conference, a weekend long event in Austin, TX (June 24-26) that focuses on the craft of writing, the business of publishing, and building a literary community.