Today we are lucky enough to have Mark Gottlieb, Literary Agent for Trident Media, guest posting on PsychWriter. Before we start I wanted to say how much I appreciate Mark sharing his time and knowledge with us. Seeing as rejection is very much part of the publishing journey for most writers, I thought it would be valuable to have an understanding of the factors that influence the ‘no thank you’s’ we receive – particularly when publishers and agents frequently don’t have the capacity to explain why (like all of us in this ever-changing industry, there’s only so many hours in the day and we all need to focus our time on the parts of our business that makes it sustainable and viable).
So, lets find out what some of the factors influencing the question – ‘Why Did I Get a No?’
- I have an upcoming post discussing the psychology of humans being attracted to ‘the same…but different’. Trends, tropes and genres demonstrates we love a level of predictability, but we are equally primed to be attracted to novel stimuli, and will stop paying attention when something becomes ‘same old, same old’. Does this play a factor in agent’s choices?
We live in a post-modern society where everything has essentially already been done, but it’s still important to take existing story types and spin them in a new and interesting way, despite our familiarity with a similar idea. On some level, I do think that we unconsciously seek out the familiar, although our minds need to be tricked into thinking that a novel idea is new and exciting. It was actually Kurt Vonnegut, who taught at the esteemed Iowa Writers Workshop and deemed/identified that there only six story types. Vonnegut went as far as to explore these story types and the familiar types of story arcs they can take on by drawing out the shape of various traditional and nontraditional story arcs. To a certain extent I think we expect and yearn for certain tropes within a given genre of fiction. For instance, in fantasy, we can expect there to perhaps be a sword or an ax, maybe a bearded man on horseback or a blacksmith. Of course seeing all of those tropes on the first page is a turn-off for the reader, but sprinkled throughout a manuscript is a way to meet a reader’s expectations. Maybe in taking it further the man’s beard is purple and the horse is actually a Pegasus and the sword he carries is a flaming sword.
- We currently have a flooded market, the last I heard Amazon has 6.7 million books listed on it. How does this impact an agent’s acceptance or rejection of a manuscript?
It has become all too easy for an author to feel discouraged and turn to self-publishing or small indie publishing. However, many successful self-published authors eventually go into traditional publishing in order to take advantage of having a team of professionals who help them take their work to the next level. The self-publishing/indie sphere has become something of what the farm league is to major league baseball, but the odds of that success can be lower than were an author to try and approach a literary agent as an author attempting to make their major debut in trade publishing. The bar is quite high in terms of self-publishing to attract an agent or publisher. An author usually needs to have sold at least 50,000 copies at a decent price.
- Does an existing social networking platform make a difference in an agent’s decision?
I’m finding that the importance of platform in an author’s career has also made its way into the world of fiction, to an extent. In looking for an ideal fiction client with a platform, I look for authors that have good writing credentials such as experience with writing workshops, conferences, or smaller publications in respected literary magazines. Having awards, bestseller status, a strong online presence, or pre-publication blurbs in-hand for one’s manuscript is also very promising in the eyes of a literary agent. Platform is even more important in considering nonfiction authors. It is not enough for an author of nonfiction to be a respected authority on their subject matter—it’s important to publishers to know that such authors have a big online presence or social media following. That’s why selling celebrity fiction to publishers is almost a no-brainer. Publishers get this strange thought in their minds that if any given celebrity has 100,000 followers or more, if even just ten percent of those followers buy the book, then the publisher is already in good shape.
- Do people really NOT follow submission guidelines???
I am just as surprised to find that many authors do not follow the submission guidelines of our website, despite having submitted through our website form. It’s not really going to take a writer out of the running when a literary agent is considering a query letter, but I don’t think a writer will get a good result by bucking the system. That just creates more vulnerability in a query letter. I often ask myself why, in a business full of people who can say ‘No,’ would a writer give a literary agent reason to say anything but ‘Yes’…
- How much does an agent’s personal preferences have an impact on the decision of ‘yes’ or ‘no’? This is a highly subjective field, we’ve all heard the stories of best sellers like JK Rowling being rejected 12 times (and look where they ended up…), so I imagine it can be tricky to navigate publishing trends, personal likes/dislikes and marketability.
Every experience for a writer with an agent can be different as this is a subjective business and every work of writing is unique in what its need are. Persistence among writers in this business is important. Don’t be discouraged by rejection. This being a subjective business, that is bound to happen many times over. It does not mean that you’re not good—it means you’re not quite good enough as of yet. Learn from constructive criticism and grow.
- What would you say are the top 3 factors that influence your decision whether to represent a book or not?
Were I to boil this down, I am always eager to see highly entertaining/excellent writing, bestseller/award-winner status, and a very big and strong platform.
Thank you again Mark, some of these answers validated what I suspected, while others certainly shed some light on the mysteries of the querying process, and why we sometimes get a ‘no’.
EXCITING ANNOUNCEMENT! Mark has generously agreed to answer YOUR questions in a follow up post. This is your opportunity to have those questions you’ve always wanted to know answered by a representative of a highly successful literary agency, allowing you to hone those manuscripts and submissions. Email me TWO questions and I’ll collate them into the major themes. I can’t guarantee all questions will be answered (I could be opening a floodgate here…), but I will try to identify common trends so as many people as possible benefit from this opportunity. Keep an eye out for an upcoming post with Mark’s responses!
Email address (just in case the link above doesn’t work): email@example.com
I look forward to hearing from you,
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 #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 #1 among Literary Agents on publishersmarketplace.com in Overall Deals and other categories.