Mark Gottlieb is a literary agent with Trident Media Group who will be a guest lecturer at this summer’s Odyssey Writing Workshop. He attended Emerson College and was President of its Publishing Club, establishing the Wilde Press. After graduating with a degree in writing, literature and publishing, he began his career with Penguin’s Vice President. Mark’s first position at Publishers Marketplace’s #1-ranked literary agency, Trident Media Group, was in foreign rights. Mark was Executive Assistant 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.
As a guest lecturer at this summer’s Odyssey Workshop, you’ll be lecturing, workshopping, and meeting individually with students. What do you think is the most important advice you can give to developing writers?
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…
What are the most common problems in the manuscript submissions you receive?
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:
-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 wary of that at Trident Media Group.
In terms of manuscripts:
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 is 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.
Most writers don’t understand that an agent can only represent a limited number of authors, and that agents specialize in particular types of fiction. Can you discuss how many authors you represent and why you’ve settled on that number? Can you describe the areas that you specialize in and why you’ve chosen those areas?
Every literary agent is different. I happen to represent a few dozen authors or so, but they are all at different points in their careers. Some of those clients might write a book a year like with a continuing series, while others might write a book every five or ten years. With other clients, they might just write one book their entire life! There are some agents that like to be known solely for representing one genre or type of author. I prefer to have a lot of different irons in the fire at once, working on projects and various genres that interest me, rather than placing all my chips in one basket. With that being said, my list tends to skew more toward SFF and graphic novels, and I happen to rank #1 on Publishers Marketplace in deals for those categories. I also do a lot of mystery/crime/thriller, as well as some women’s fiction, general fiction, creative nonfiction, pop culture, humor, celebrity memoir, picture books, YA, MG, children’s fantasy and various other nonfiction categories. I’m open to receiving more clients.
Many authors struggle to write synopses of their novels to submit to agents and publishers. What do you want to see in a synopsis? How long do you like it to be?
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.
Describe how the qualities of a recent manuscript affected your decision to take on the author and work with him or her.
A manuscript that recently spoke to me that I decided to take on, and subsequently sold to a publisher, is Christopher Brown’s Tropic of Kansas. Description: Acclaimed short story writer and editor of the World Fantasy Award-nominee Three Messages and a Warning eerily envisions an American society unraveling and our borders closed off—from the other side—in this haunting and provocative novel that combines Max Barry’s Jennifer Government, Philip K. Dick’s classic Man in the High Castle, and China Mieville’s The City & the City. 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 editor 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?”
Harper Voyager has also compared Tropic of Kansas to Ready Player One, Station Eleven and High-Rise.
What do you wish aspiring authors knew about querying before querying?
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. Oftentimes 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 puts 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.
If you’re interested in a manuscript, what’s the next step? How often do you request revisions? Do you offer representation before or after revisions?
If interested in a manuscript, I tend to offer representation upfront, with the expectation that an author will remain open to editorial discussion, if need be. Every manuscript is different; I have read manuscripts that read very tightly and needed few if any editorial comments from me. In those instances I might provide just a few bulleted points or so for the author to keep in mind. In other instances I have written ten- or twelve-page editorial letters. While that may seem like overkill, it expresses my firm belief in an author’s career growth.
Which subgenres do you see way too much of? Which subgenres do you not see enough of?
For the sake of this workshop focusing on SFF, I will mainly speak to SFF and related genres. The genres that are struggling in the marketplace, which I would prefer to see less of, are paranormal romance, urban fantasy and horror. Editors are saying that they’ve gotten enough post-apocalyptic YA. Of course they say that until another bestseller comes along to change sheepish opinions. Meanwhile, fantasy and science fiction are working well in YA, especially with a female character made prominent, as boys tend to be reluctant readers. Literary/low fantasy has forced high fantasy to take a back seat. Similarly, hard science fiction has forced soft sci-fi, space operas and similar science-fiction genres to also take a back seat. For obvious reasons, I’d prefer to see more submissions from thriving SFF genres than from struggling SFF genres.