Mark Gottlieb grew up surrounded by literary genius. His passion for novels and publishing led him to study at Emerson College. He received a degree in degree in writing, literature, and publishing. After graduating from Emerson, Mark began his career at the Berkley imprint at Penguin. He is now a top-selling literary agent who is actively building his client list at Trident Media Group. Here, Mark offers publishing insight and advice to aspiring authors.
How did you become a literary agent?
This happens to be my family business. I grew up around books all my life, authors coming to my house all the time. I remember going to a Japanese restaurant with Dean Koontz and visiting Janet Evanovich in New Hampshire. So, I was born into this. While I might look like a young guy, I have the experience of someone who has been in this for decades.
What something that comes out soon that you’re excited about?
I’m proud of a lot of my books. All the Castles Burned by Michael Nye is being published by Turner Publishing. They are a small, regional publishing company from Tennessee—but they punch above their weight. No one has been buying fiction, debut fiction especially, in the way that they have. And this book has been getting a lot of great attention. It was one of the most anticipated books for February in Lithub and elsewhere. The community is really gathering around that book.
Are you open for submissions? If so, help writers understand what kind of fiction and nonfiction projects you take queries for.
I’m fairly wide open to all kinds of fiction and nonfiction. Random House got their name from publishing at random—and look how successful a company they have become. While I understand that certain agents want to make a name for themselves by doing one particular kind of book, life’s more interesting when you walk into the gym and you don’t only get on the treadmill. Maybe you get on the elliptical… try different things. I figure people will come to know me by my brand of representation. If there is one commonality about the books I do… for nonfiction, it’s mostly platform-driven. Some of it is born out of fiction, in a sense—for example, Only Dead on the Inside: A Parent’s Guide to Surviving the Zombie Apocalypse by James Breakwell. It’s barely nonfiction. I like high concept, commercial fiction and up-market fiction. I also do the occasional literary novel.
What makes fiction masterful in your eyes?
I look for the urgency in the story. Why do we need to hear the story and why now? What is the moral? I look at writing by the line. I look for what moves the story forward. Those are the things I look for in fiction; not the medals and feathers in an author’s cap. [For fiction], more than anything else, I just like something that gets a reaction, makes me want to jump out of my seat and be excited for the book. For nonfiction, I like platform-driven authors. I like [nonfiction] authors with a huge social media following.
Do you have any tips for writers on opening and closing a novel well?
[In openings], I look for a strong sense of voice and place, so it becomes a fully immersive experience. In terms of closing a novel, you look at the shape of a narrative arc; you don’t want to chop it off at the last third or half. You need a nice sense of closure, even if it’s a continuing series. Even if you leave a novel open-ended, you want the feeling of a bow at the end and a feeling of fulfillment.
Besides “good writing,” what are you looking for right now and not getting? What do you pray for when tackling the slush pile?
Publishers are looking for authors with proven track records. If an author receives a sophomore slump, it’s harder to sell them to a publisher, because their track record has been damaged. There has been more resistance to fiction debuts. The areas of fiction I see growth in are children’s books and middle-grade fiction. Non-fiction is continuing to move well—basically anything that publishers see independent bookstores willing to carry. A lot of literary fiction is read in print. A lot of the rules remain the same… but publishers have become more selective of what and how much they acquire.
What are you tired of seeing?
Personal memoir. I get a lot of picture book submissions for children’s books. Most publishing companies have in-house people for these. I would like to see fewer children’s picture book submissions. I remain open to MG and YA.
Do you have any tips for querying authors?
There are times when a query letter for a manuscript is really good, so I request the manuscript—and they say it’s not written yet. Maybe that’s not the time to be querying. Know appropriate word counts. For fiction, it tends to be 80,000 to 120, 000 words; for commercial fiction, it’s 80,000 to 90,000. You can go above or below those counts by 5,000 words or so, but adhering to those conventions is important. If a query letter grabs me right away, that is usually what compels me to request the manuscript. It shows they know how to speak about their words and themselves. Oftentimes, the query letter can end up becoming the back cover text on a book. Know what the trends are for your genre and where they might be going. For science fiction and fantasy, they are on a grim, dark, George R.R. Martin kick. There is still a lot of interest for dystopian themes and alternate histories in science fiction and fantasy. In YA, people are doing a lot of contemporary YA, but there has been resistance to break-in new YA books. It almost feels like big names have a stranglehold on that genre. Very few publishers are acquiring YA in ways that they used to. [However], young adult graphic novels are experiencing a bit of a renaissance. In all genres of YA, they want diversity and own voices books.
What things should authors be aware of when seeking agents?
Do they charge a reading fee? Some agencies that do are almost shell companies. If you look at them on Publishers Marketplace, they are not making any book deals. They just make money on submissions. We don’t do that. Some literary agencies are so small that they don’t have any legal representation, so authors are signing contracts that haven’t been reviewed, or the client has to pay an outside attorney to review it. Hopefully, if an author has to do that, they get an attorney with a background in intellectual property law and publishing. It’s scary to me that authors are signing contracts that haven’t been reviewed. Here, we have a contracts department and an accounting department.
To protect themselves, what questions should an author ask a prospective agent who is offering representation?
Can you give me a portrait of your company and you and your background?
What type of services does your agency offer?
What is your commission structure? Does it follow industry practices and norms?
Will we sign an agency agreement, or are we working more informally on a handshake agreement until we find a publisher?
What other books has the agency sold, and how high do they rank on Publishers Marketplace is the industry standard for reporting book deals, so you can see how agents and agencies rank by volume or monetarily.
When agents discuss career moves with their clients, what do they want/need them to know?
Authors need to know they are central to the process. You can’t write a book and be done with it. Directly connecting with readers is important. It’s in everyone’s best interest to do what is best for the book. Even at our agency, we try to comment on and improve the publisher’s publicity plans, and, in some cases, we do marketing of our own. It’s not enough to write a book. You have to see it through to help get your novel in the hands of your audience. A dream client for me would be someone who understands this.
Tell us more about your dream client.
Someone willing to improve the art and craft of their writing. They can obtain an MFA, attend events, get published in literary magazines, or attend a prestigious conference and event or build connections of their own… Those things can be like bells and whistles to publishers.
Will you be at any upcoming writers conferences where writers can meet and pitch you?
I will be at the Writer’s Digest Conference this summer. I’m planning on attending the Maine Writers’ Conference, the Yale Writers’ Conference in New Haven, and the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Conference.
[Editor's Note: Mark Gottlieb will no longer be appearing at the Writer's Digest Annual Conference.]
And, finally, any last piece of advice for writers seeking an agent?
The best thing an author can do is begin with a website like Publishers Marketplace and work their way down the list of the top 100 agencies. Set your sights high. Go to those companies’ websites. Read about the agencies. Read the submission guidelines so you submit the right way. Really polish your manuscript. Read it again and again and again before submitting it.