Literary agent Mark Gottlieb began his publishing career while still at Emerson College, where he helped establish Wilde Press. After a stint at Berkley Books, Mark went to the Trident Media Group, Publishers Marketplace’s number one ranked literary agency, first in foreign rights then audio rights, and now as a literary agent. Mark has himself ranked number one among Literary Agents in Overall Deals, and other categories, as he continues to build a client list of his own.
Philip Athans: Please define “fantasy” in 25 words or less.
Mark Gottlieb: Fantasy fiction is a highly imaginative, improbable universe, often drawing upon magic or the supernatural, with many roots in the oral storytelling tradition.
Athans: Please define “science fiction” in 25 words or less.
Gottlieb: Science fiction is often comprised of imagined futures, technologies, societal changes, often with intellectual and practical thinking as a basis for knowledge.
Athans: For a while now we’ve been hearing about the about the indie/self-publishing “revolution” and the demise of traditional publishing. Has the former been overstated or is it indeed happening? And do you think we actually are seeing the demise of the traditional publishing model?
Gottlieb: Don’t believe the hype. You can’t believe everything you see and read. I remain a firm believer in that no matter how far technology takes us, there’s always a need for the human element, and I’m not talking about a “ghost in the machine.”
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. 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.
One day I see traditional publishers having an even bigger presence in the digital sphere for books in terms of placement among online retailers in buying co-op deals, key site-placement, and more, exactly the way music and movie companies originated subscription services and digital access. Print won’t become a thing of the past but perhaps a nostalgia, much like the way in which music aficionados appreciate vinyl records. Like the LP, the hardcover book is a technology that has been perfected and is ideal to the experience of reading. Regardless, readers will always opt for their preferred format, whether that be print, audio, or eBook.
Athans: What is the single most important thing that a good agent can do to help an author start or maintain a successful career as a working professional?
Gottlieb: Remaining within the spirit of constant reinvention is important. 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 and the careers of their client(s) 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.
Athans: You probably read a lot of query letters. Besides the basics like the author’s contact information and the title of his or her book, is there one thing you think every query letter absolutely must have, and conversely, what have you seen that’s an absolute query letter no-no?
Gottlieb: The single most important thing a good query letter should exhibit is good writing within the letter itself. That’s everyone’s first impression of how good the manuscript might be.
The biggest no-no in query letter writing is querying a literary agent with an unfinished manuscript since fiction can only be sold on a full manuscript to publishers.
Athans: What is the most common mistake that aspiring authors make in their writing?
Gottlieb: For the purposes of this article being about SFF, I will say that in fantasy, I see the mistake of under- or over-worldbuilding; whereas in science fiction, I see either a complete and utter lack of hard scientific evidence, or other times the overuse of hard science to the point of boredom.
Athans: What is the most common mistake that inexperienced authors make in their professional lives?
Gottlieb: The most common mistake I see among inexperienced authors in their careers is taking the very first offer of literary representation they’re presented with. Most aspiring authors are happy just to have that. Instead, they should take time to think about their decision in researching how a given literary agent or literary agency ranks on a site like Publishers Marketplace.
Athans: Can authors cross genres? If your first published novel is an epic fantasy can your second be a contemporary romance?
Gottlieb: I see no reason why an author couldn’t write across genres if they can do it successfully. Obviously it’s better to replicate success wherever possible. If the first publication within a given genre was successful, I’d usually recommend that an author continue within that genre. If the first publication in a particular genre weren’t successful, then I’d recommend that the author find another genre and a penname. Speaking of pennames, I wouldn’t recommend that a children’s book author write erotica and publish both types of work under the same name.
Athans: Tell us about a few books you’ve represented that are available now and that you’re particularly excited about.
Gottlieb: For the purposes of this article being about science fiction and fantasy, I will share some recent SFF deals I’ve done where the books are currently on sale:
World Fantasy Award Nominee Christopher Brown’s Tropic of Kansas, 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.
Deborah A. Wolf’s The Dragon’s Legacy, pitched in the tradition of Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Sarantine Mosaic and the darker folkloric tales of Arabian Nights: set in a desert world of sand and honey, the series balances and contrasts the grim with the wondrous, the heartbreaking with the humorous, and takes an unflinching look at real-world issues such as the plight of indigenous peoples in a world mad for power.
Social media @XplodingUnicorn leader James Breakwell’s Only Dead on the Inside: A Parent’s Guide for Surviving Zombies, pitched as styled in the tradition of Max Brooks’s The Zombie Survival Guide and The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbooks, providing practical advice on how to raise happy, healthy children in the midst of the zombie apocalypse, by joining the genres of parenting advice books and undead survival manuals in an unholy union that is both ill-advised and long overdue—the narrator, an inept father of four young daughters, uses twisted logic, graphs with dubious data, and web comics that look like they were drawn by a toddler to teach families how to survive undead hordes.
Athans: Are you currently open to new clients, and if so, what genres/categories are you most interested in and what’s the best way for authors to contact you?
Gottlieb: I am open to receiving new clients for consideration and am open to most every genre. The best way for potential authors to contact me is through our website’s submissions/contact us page at http://www.tridentmediagroup.com/contact-us.
Athans: And I’m sure you’ll be hearing from more than one Fantasy Author’s Handbook reader/author—thanks, Mark!