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Five Essential Questions to Ask Your Potential New Literary Agent 

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Mark GottliebAs a literary agent in major trade publishing, at book publishing’s leading literary agency—the Trident Media Group literary agency—I often get asked some important questions by savvy authors wanting to gain literary representation. These five essential questions for an author to ask of a prospective literary agent ought to help new authors unfamiliar with what to look for in a credited literary agent.

Does your commission structure follow industry practices and norms?

A lot of authors are mistrustful of their literary agents and how their money is handled. At the Trident Media Group literary agency, we are very transparent about our commissions (we list them on our website for the world to see) and in being a legitimate literary agency in the book business for over fifteen years, we do not have the sort of problems that an illegitimate literary agent or literary agency might have. We’re comfortable in following industry practices and norms. Every deal we do for a client, for instance, carries our agency clause, which stipulates that monies and agreements flow through Trident Media Group, so the publisher is privy to that. Deals are commissioned by us with our standard commission, and we pay on the remaining monies to the author, with fully-signed copies of their agreements, accounting and royalty statements.

A legitimate literary agency will keep a standard commission structure that is in keeping with what every other literary agency maintains as their commission structure. Any deviation from that norm ought to raise concern in the eyes of an author. If a literary agency keeps a higher commission structure, that is certainly a red flag. Similarly, if a literary agency keeps a lower commission structure than the norm, it demonstrates that they are attempting to undercut the business of larger/legitimate literary agencies for a chance at a larger piece of business.

Will I have to sign an agency agreement?

Most every literary agent or literary agency will want for a prospective client to sign a literary agency agreement, effectively marrying them to the literary agency. Some individual literary agents might be the exception to the rule, though, so it’s not unreasonable to ask to not have to sign an agency agreement, or at least be able to comment/request changes within an agency agreement. The three main types of literary agency agreements are: All Works Term Representation Agreement with Automatic Renewal, Single Work All Rights Representation Agreement, and less commonly, Single Work Print Publication Rights Representation Only. The literary agency agreement is usually for a term of a few years and states that during the term of working together, the literary agency is entitled to its commission on deals the agency performs for the client.

Are you a dealmaker or a career-builder?

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.

What kind of presence does your literary agency have in subsidiary rights?

As the Florida Writers Conference takes place in October, Trident Media Group will be fully-geared up around that time for the Frankfurt Book Fair, one of the biggest media events in the world, where publishers from everywhere gather to buy the rights to books for translation. We also attend the London Book Fair, BEA and the Bologna Book Fair, all of which are similarly big events for the sale of rights. Those are expensive and time-consuming trips as we take hundreds of meetings per day and send a contingency of at least six literary agents to hand sell.

On a regular-basis, we have foreign publishers into our offices, audio book publishers, as well as film/TV companies looking to do book-to-film/TV. It is very difficult for an author to navigate subsidiary rights such as foreign rights on their own, since the written word can take many manifestations that are extremely beneficial to an author’s career. For instance, audio usually ends up comprising about ten percent of an author’s overall business, and foreign rights often comprise about a third. Foreign, audio and film/TV buyers are more turned on to an author’s project when there’s the backing of a major literary agency and a traditional publisher in the picture.

Are there any other services offered by your literary agency?

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 the following services an author will want to look for in an esteemed literary agency:

  • 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

Mark Gottlieb will be at the 16th Annual Florida Writers Conference this October.

Read more about him and his workshops and panels here.

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Follow 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 #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.

5 Responses

  1. Antaeus Balevre

    Thank you for writing the article. I found it very informative, particularly the information about foreign rights on books for translation. I have self-published several books, and found that I sell more books in other countries then in the United States. I keep getting emails from people saying they want to translate my books (for a price and 30-40% of sales), but I have been reluctant to fork over money up front. It never occurred to me that I might also be turning over my publication rights to these people.
    Thanks again,

  2. RJ Wilson

    I’m not asking these questions. What I am going to ask is, why do literary agents have no imaginations. Then my second “question” will be: what 5 things would you like to know about me? I’ll be seeing you in October.

    • Lauren

      “Why do literary agents have no imaginations.” How rude and how ignorant of the publishing process. I would suggest you’re wasting your money by making an appointment to interview with an agent unless you drop your arrogance and study up on how publishing works!

      • RJ Wilson


  3. RJ Wilson

    Lauren, I’m not being rude, but you are of small mind. Apparently you are new to the realities of a real world. I’ve worked as a producer and director in Hollywood (California NOT Florida) and I know quite well how things work. I’ve dealt with charlatans and with people who thing they know what’s good. Have you read anything out there lately? All the genre is the same. Just give the story a different character, different setting, change the time period and it’s all the same.