Mark Gottlieb is an agent representing authors at one of the largest literary agencies, Trident Media Group. He places both publishing rights and dramatic rights, such as TV and film. Here’s a peek into how one agent perceives the current market for books. I conducted this interview by email and edited it slightly for length.
Mark, is publishing still a healthy business? People are reading less these days; how does it look from the perspective of an agent pitching books?
Book publishing is something of a cottage industry. It has therefore traditionally been a small margins business when it comes to publishing for profit. While many sales were flatter this year for publishers, there are some factors that help to bolster the publishing industry, especially when a big book breaks out and becomes the tide to lift all boats. I have read that the readership has stayed the same and in some cases grown, but it is the ways in which people are reading today that has changed. The advent of the internet and eBooks has propelled readers toward the digital sphere. All of this has driven publishers to consolidate and publish fewer but bigger books in certain cases. This can make the work of agencies a bit more challenging when it comes to getting books published but that helps keep things interesting.
Many publishers have told me that the main thing that matters to their making an offer for a business book is the marketing plan in the proposal. Of course, as authors, we would like to believe that the main thing that matters is our idea and storytelling. Where does the truth lie?
All of these factors are important. A nonfiction book proposal and sample chapters is really only as strong as the sum of its parts. There are indeed some important sections such as the competitive review section where comparative titles are discussed. Surely the quality of the writing, the author as an authority on the subject matter and the idea behind the book all come into play. Ultimately the driving force behind nonfiction is an author’s platform. That can certainly be a factor in the marketing of the book, since a publisher wants to see that a potential author has a built-in audience. So an author that can show a publisher they have many social media followers with a high level of engagement; or an author that does a lot of speaking engagements throughout the year and country, will have a high rate of success with getting book publishers interested in their work.
If an author wants to get the attention of a major agent like yourself, what’s the best way to do that?
I would suggest that a potential client try to get to know me through some of my social media profiles such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. That way they can get a sense of who I am and some of the books I have worked on. [My] agent page on the Trident Media Group site may also be of help. That will also help a writer personalize their address in a query letter and to see what type of books I have been able to place with publishers. From there I would suggest the author have an amazing idea that is well-executed and demonstrated in a knockout query letter. A good query letter will have a strong hook and demonstrate that an author has a strong platform and perhaps some relevant writing experience or writing credentials. Very important to nonfiction is that author platform, but there are ways of demonstrating that one has or can construct a platform.
Some authors are thinking they should go without an agent — or even without an actual publisher. How would you succinctly describe the benefits of an agent and publisher for a business author?
Most book publishers do not accept unsolicited submissions, unless they come by way of a literary agent. This is because book publishers see the benefit authors have in working with a literary agent. We know the book publishing process and can procure better book deals for authors. Agencies also keep strong boilerplate agreements with the publishers they work with. We exist to provide services to authors such as editorial guidance, deal negotiation, contract negotiation, accounting and information tracking, film & TV sales, foreign rights sales, publishing management and much more. I find that authors get the best result when they work with an agency and a publisher.
Audiobooks are on fire right now. I’ve seen advice that authors should retain the audiobook rights — and the contradictory position, that publishers will not accept a contract that does not include audiobook rights. What are you advising your clients about audio?
The audiobook market is indeed booming. A lot of this has to do with the growth of digital audio which has been a direct result of Audible’s success at marketing themselves. Physical retail audio is all but gone now. Given the recent strains on publishers in today’s book publishing landscape, most book publishers make it a prerequisite that they obtain the audiobook rights along with the print and eBook rights in a new book deal. It is really only in the rarest of scenarios that I am seeing authors hold onto their audiobook rights in new book deals. This tends to happen more so with authors that have been publishing for many years and have pre-existing relationships with their audio publishers. I have also seen a lot of backlist book titles receive audiobook license renewals. Where we can, we try to fight for audiobook rights but it is not always possible.
What’s the biggest misconception that authors have about agents?
One misconception I have heard is that a lot of authors tend to think of literary agents as being highly transactional in their nature. A lot of literary agents are more so interested in performing a book deal and then waiting for the next deal to come along. That is not true of every literary agent. Personally, I like to help authors beyond the deal-making stage in the book publishing process itself. Sometimes that can mean commenting on a publisher’s marketing and publicity plans, or helping an author hone in on the perfect book cover with the publisher. I also do a lot of work on behalf of my clients in the areas of foreign rights and book-to-film/TV adaptation.
What are the trends you’re seeing in business book publishing right now? What’s hot? What do you think ought to be hot next?
I am seeing a lot of business books that address the changes that technology have brought about. There is a lot more automation with the advent of AI. Business books having to do with highly successful startups have been perennial bestsellers too. Occasionally I see business books that mix in the philosophy of how sports or history can inform business thinkers. I am also seeing business books that pave the way for women in business.
For all the potential authors hatching big book ideas out there: what’s your advice to maximize their chances of success?
There are a lot of things a potential author could do wrong in trying to hatch a big book idea, so I try to focus on what is right and works well. My advice is simple: come up with a brilliant idea, be an authority on your subject matter, demonstrate a strong author platform, write a tight book proposal with strong sample chapters, and present all of this in a query letter that’s sure to grab someone’s attention.
Based on my discussions with agents and publishers, I think Mark’s attitudes are representative of what’s going on the market today. Your best bet is to find an agent with whom you have a connection, such as a recommendation from a friend, but Mark has now put himself out there on my blog, so feel free to connect with him. (His email and phone are on his page on the agency site.)
Like all the agents and acquisitions editors I’ve interviewed, Mark is focused on traditional publishers that pay advances. For some authors, hybrid publishing or self-publishing are better options, but because they generally result in lower book sales and author compensation, agents don’t generally get involved. (Keep in mind that there are more ways to author success than a traditional publishing contract.)
If you’re pursuing traditional publishing, you’ll get your best results with an agent like Mark. For more detail on how agents work, see this.