Today's Publishing Landscape: Two Generations of Literary Agents Speak Out

[Note: This interview originally appeared on Jane Friedman’s website on April 24, 2017.]

How do agenting styles vary within the same family? Are there generational differences when agents approach opportunities such as self- and hybrid publishing, which didn’t exist until a few years ago? Or in how they define their role, which in some ways is continually evolving, and in other ways hasn’t changed at all?

I asked legendary publishing veteran Robert Gottlieb, who founded Trident Media Group, and his son Mark Gottlieb, who is growing his list and has been groomed to work in his family’s business from the start. 

SANGEETA MEHTA: What is the primary role of the agent today, and how has it changed during the course of your career?

MARK GOTTLIEB: A literary agent exists primarily to provide services to authors who are clients of the literary agency. Some of those services might include, but are not limited to:

  • submitting manuscripts to publishers for their consideration

  • negotiating deals

  • handling contract review

  • accounting

  • editorial review of manuscripts

  • book-to-film/TV deals

  • audiobook deals

  • foreign rights deals

Literary agents today cannot merely do a deal for a client and walk away from the author’s publishing experience. It’s now more important than ever for a literary agent to take a bigger and active role in a client’s life with their vested interest.

At the Trident Media Group, we perform additional services for our clients such as publishing management, as well as commenting on a book publisher’s marketing/publicity plans, or even commenting on cover design, among many other services in going far and above what a literary agency would normally offer a client.

ROBERT GOTTLIEB: Agents are more involved in the business activities of an author’s career beyond making the initial deal. Trident as a firm is set up to support the activities of our clients and as agents we are results oriented for our authors.

Would a debut writer be better served by an agent who is just starting out—or an agent with many years of experience? Which agent is more likely to have the right contacts? To give the writer the attention they might need?

MARK GOTTLIEB: Usually a debut writer will be best served by the right type of literary agent specializing in authors trying to make their major debut. It won’t have too much to do with the age of a literary agent, how established that literary agent is, nor how full a literary agent’s client list is already. A literary agent’s client base and type of deals will be a good indication of whether or not they are particularly strong in the area of working with debuts.

ROBERT GOTTLIEB: The good news for a debut author is they don’t have a track record. The bad news is they don’t have a track record. Debut authors can get lost in a house’s publishing program. The agent has to have the right connections in order to convince the publisher to invest in the marketing of a debut novel, as opposed to relying primarily on reviews of books by previously published authors.

The release of Lee & Low’s Diversity Baseline Survey last year revealed something that many in the field already suspected: That book publishing is predominately white. Publishers Weekly recently suggested that it may be too liberal. Do you think there is much diversity among employees at literary agencies? How can literary agents address this issue?

MARK GOTTLIEB: Compared to publishers, literary agencies are much smaller in terms of the number of employees at an agency, so the picture of the diversity at a given literary agency will look much different than that of a publisher with thousands of employees. It has to be viewed on the scale of the size of a company. A lack of diversity is more of an issue for a publishing house to think about addressing, in terms of who they employ and the type of books they acquire from literary agencies submitting diverse books. That said, I am always open to diverse voices.

ROBERT GOTTLIEB: Publishing has always been a welcoming environment for anyone who wants to make a career in the field.

What is the general attitude toward self-publishing and hybrid publishing at Trident Media? Are attitudes toward self-publishing are changing among the editors you typically do business with, or does a stigma remain?

MARK GOTTLIEB: Many literary agents at our agency have taken on clients from the self-publishing sphere, us both included. Bestseller status from a self-published writer is usually what prompts a literary agent to approach a writer in the self-publishing space. Were a self-published book to have sold 50,000 copies or hit the USA Today, Wall Street Journal or New York Timeslist, then that would usually prompt us to reach out to a self-published writer. Many editors are now open to self-published authors where they have met that bestseller threshold at a decent price. The stigma of snobbery toward self-published authors is waning.

ROBERT GOTTLIEB: It’s all about giving our clients options that feed the root system of their career. Hybrid publishing is a wonderful way to cross market and at the same time hold ground in a format of self-publishing. If you are an author with contracts with a publisher, you can still write e-books that have different characters, story lines, and genres, and let us help you broaden your brand.

The New York Times recently asked if the fresh crop of doomsday novels are channeling the country’s collective anxieties. Considering the popularity of dystopian fiction today, would you nudge any of your established clients to write in this direction? Most agents advise their clients not to write to trend—but should they write with the country’s cultural climate in mind?  

ROBERT GOTTLIEB: I’ll let Mark answer that one.

MARK GOTTLIEB: The rise of doomsday books are likely a direct result of the country’s collective panic over the nation’s selection for president, rather than the reverse, since it was a deeply divided election and Trump is a highly controversial figure. Particularly in fiction, we usually encourage clients to pursue whatever they are interested in writing about, rather than doling out writing assignments. It’s still valuable for an author to be aware of current trends in book publishing, but not to merely pander to trends. It’s better for authors to be making waves than riding out behind them.

At this point in your career, how likely are you to take on a project that resonates with you personally but probably won’t receive much more than a modest book deal? Are you able to pursue passion projects?

MARK GOTTLIEB: The occasional passion project is good for every literary agent’s sanity. With that being said, there’s likely to be fewer passion projects from more highly established literary agents than with literary agents in the process of building their career.

ROBERT GOTTLIEB: All of us at Trident want to make sure that when we take on an author it is for the long term. If we make a modest deal for an author it’s a start to something bigger down the road.

Can you demystify any other aspects of agenting for writers who are hoping to secure representation with you? To become a part of Trident Media’s client base?

MARK GOTTLIEB: Not every literary agent is a hotshot—some just put on airs to seem important in the eyes of others. Many literary agents are actually very down-to-earth, so writers shouldn’t be afraid to approach a literary agent at a conference or event. Too many authors get themselves psyched-out over that and miss opportunities to find literary representation as a result.

ROBERT GOTTLIEB: It all starts with a great book. Agents are only as good as the authors they represent.


Mark Gottlieb (@Mark_Gottlieb) attended Emerson College and was president of its Publishing Club, establishing the Wilde Press. After graduating with a degree in writing, literature & publishing, he began his career with Penguin’s VP. Mark’s first position at Publishers Marketplace’s No. 1-ranked literary agency, Trident Media Group, was in foreign rights. Mark was EA 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 No. 1 among literary agents on in overall deals and other categories.

After graduating from Elmira College, Robert Gottlieb (@Trident_Media) began his career in the mailroom of the William Morris Agency as part of the company’s agent-in-training program. After 24 years at William Morris, where he rose to Executive VP, he founded Trident Media Group, LLC, where he currently serves as Chairman. Robert explains, “I started the Trident Media Group agency in 2000 so that I could inculcate the entrepreneurial spirit into the DNA of the firm from inception.”