How to Sell and Negotiate a Book Publishing Contract

Writing a book is hard but selling it can be even harder. To help navigate this process, one of the top literary agents in New York shares practical advice on marketing and selling your book.


Oct 08, 2021

Writing a book is hard but selling it can be even harder. To help navigate this process, one of the top literary agents in New York shares practical advice on marketing and selling your book.

Mark Gottlieb is a prominent literary agent working at literary agency Trident Media Group in New York City. He has ranked highly among literary agents across the industry for overall number of deals and other individual categories. While at Trident Media Group, Mark Gottlieb has represented New York Times bestselling authors as well as major award-winning authors. He has optioned and sold numerous books to production companies and studios for film and TV adaptation.

The discussion covers these topics:


Mark Gottlieb: It's like I'm panning for gold for the publisher, yes.

How can authors get a publishing contract?

Michael Krigsman: How do you get a book contract? How do you figure out the topics? How do you know it's going to sell? And how do you negotiate that contract? Mark Gottlieb is one of the top literary agents in New York City.

Mark Gottlieb: Assuming you've gone through some other steps of having written a manuscript in full (if it's fiction) or, if it's nonfiction, chances are you've done a book proposal with a couple of sample chapters. You've then gone out on submission and found an agent. The agent has procured a book publishing deal for you. Once you've accepted an offer, at that point a publisher is going to be presenting you with a contract for your initial review before signature.

Michael Krigsman: Can we take a step back? For many people, getting the contract is that first hurdle. I guess, for all of us, that's the first hurdle. Maybe we can talk about that and then move into the negotiation. How do we get the best deal?

Mark Gottlieb: Probably an author has, at that point, signed with an agency. They probably signed an agency agreement.

The agent has prepared their work for submission. They've gone out on submission to various editors at different publishing houses.

Hopefully, they've been able to secure an offer or multiple offers, as the case may be. What the agent will do (or should do) is negotiate the terms of each of those offers to the best of their abilities to see how much a publisher is willing to offer in the way of, for instance, a book advance, royalties, and the other terms of the agreement such as the territories the book will be published in and where the rights will be situated. All of this will kind of flow from a deal memo that the agent were to present to the author for their consideration, you know, whether or not they wanted to accept that offer.

Is a literary agent essential?

Michael Krigsman: You mentioned having an agent and, of course, you're a literary agent. Is it really necessary? If I'm an author and I'm going out – I've written a book and now I want to sell that book – is a literary agent essential?

Mark Gottlieb: If an author wants to be published in a very big and meaningful way then, yes, a literary agent is essential because most book publishing houses (authors will find if they call the mainline) it'll be like getting hit with a customer line, basically, and it will explain that these book publishers do not accept unsolicited submissions unless they come by way of a literary agency.

Part of the reason for that being is a lot of these publishing houses (the editors who work there, the publishers who work there) do not really want to work with an author who is kind of wet behind the ears. They'd rather work with an agency that has experience or has established a good contract and a good rapport with a publisher and can help steer the author through the publishing process.

Now, there are some maybe much smaller publishing houses who are probably used to hearing from some authors directly. But I can't really promise that that will always be a very lucrative publishing experience for an author or that it will really just result in a good publishing experience at all.

I think, again, if an author wants to go into major trade book publishing and be with a place like perhaps a big five publishing house or a larger independent publishing house, then really the way to go is through an agency.

Michael Krigsman: Has it always been that way or is this a more recent development?

Mark Gottlieb: I think, for a very long time, it has been that way. But I think a lot of this is a result of how big these publishing companies have grown, too. It used to be that there were very, very many book publishing companies. It was almost like a cottage industry where it was just the tiniest of publishers everywhere.

Then, over time, these big conglomerate publishers like Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, Harper Collins, Hachette, even Macmillan (St. Martin's Press), began buying up these small publishing companies. You had these companies that went from perhaps 50, 100 employees to many thousands of employees, and so they can't really hear from people just by picking up the phone when an author cold calls.

How can authors find a literary agency?

Michael Krigsman: How can an author find the right literary agent? You must have solicitations all the time. How do you decide which author you want to represent?

Mark Gottlieb: An author, in seeking out a literary agent, one of the things they can do is certainly visit the website of the literary agency, read up on the agency, read up on the agent. Ready their company bio. Look at the kinds of books they're publishing. That will give you a sense right away. Obviously, read their submission policies.

Another good thing to do is, their deal reporting is online. For instance, Publishers Weekly has a great deal reporting section where they limit it to just the six biggest deals of the week. There are other websites like Publishers Marketplace, which kind of had humble beginnings as a publishing blog and became basically a publishing Rolodex.

Now, a lot of deals are announced there. You can see the rankings of agents and agencies there, and it breaks the information down into what kind of books they're doing, how recently for how much money, and their contact information is there. Authors can go through websites like that and basically see how the agencies stack up and know who they want to reach out to.

On the agency side, yes, we're getting inundated with submissions and queries every day. Really, how do we boil it down? Probably two ways.

One is, obviously I'm going out into the world and looking for authors. Part of that is reading widely online, reading news articles, staying up on things, what's going on on social media and things like that, and reaching out to people who I think should write a book. At the same time, people reach out to us.

Then, as a part of that – and we talked about this in the previous show – I really look at the author's platform to see if there's a big enough platform there, if they have a big enough reach to be published in a meaningful way. What's attractive to publishers, for instance, is an author who might have a huge newsletter list or a social media following in the hundreds of thousands or millions. Publishers just see that as a built-in audience.

Michael Krigsman: Correct me if I'm wrong. You're looking for at least two characteristics. One, obviously the caliber of the book, the quality of the book. Number two, is that author in a position to command sales, to drive sales of that book?

Mark Gottlieb: Certainly in the world of nonfiction, the platform is very central.

Oddly enough, since we last spoke, I'd say it's starting to become even more important in the world of fiction, which is the strangest thing to me because you read a fiction book, and you think to yourself, "Well, this author must have become a brand or a household name by extension of just the quality of their writing," which of course goes without saying.

More and more, publishers are looking for those bells and whistles like: Did a writer come out of a prestigious writing program? Do they have an MFA? Did they attend such-and-such workshop or conference? What kind of role do they play within the literary community?

In a sense, that's almost like what their platform is.

How does a literary agent evaluate authors?

Michael Krigsman: A writer comes to you and says, "Take a look at my book." You do an initial filtering process to see; does this make sense at all? You maybe do a little bit of background research about the author. It appears that it might be a good book and the author has got some followers on social media – that platform, as you describe. What's the next step?

Mark Gottlieb: I've evaluated the work and the author themselves. I would reach out to the author in probably a phone call and offer representation. If there's any work that I think the manuscript could benefit from, we might have an editorial discussion about how to improve the work itself.

In the case of a nonfiction book, we probably will look at something like the author's book proposal and see if there's a way to finesse that a bit. Oftentimes, that's just a matter of showing the client examples of what I feel is a very strong nonfiction proposal. I just show them proposals I've sold to publishers to work off of.

Then from that point on, yeah, I just explain to them what the deal-making process will look like, the submission process leading up to the deal-making process. I'll basically say to the client, "Assuming the manuscript or the proposal is ready to go to publishers, then I will craft a pitch, a list of editors, along with submission."

I'll present that to the client so they can see and if they have any feedback. Then I would go out on submission, field offers from publishers, negotiate to the best of terms, and hopefully, present the client with an offer or, again, multiple offers (as the case may be).

Michael Krigsman: From the publisher's standpoint, your initial role is filtering, finding authors who have the appropriate characteristics or pieces in place in order to create a successful book. Is that a correct way to put it?

Mark Gottlieb: Yes, it's like I'm panning for gold for the publisher. Yes, that's a great way to look at it because you're right. It's a gatekeeper or an initial filter that publishers need because they would be too inundated otherwise.

How do publishers decide author advances and royalties?

Michael Krigsman: You have found this author. You've accepted them. You think that there's a good chance that they can get a contract, that you can help sell a contract on their behalf. You have given the author feedback. Everything is now in place. What happens next?

Mark Gottlieb: Assuming I've procured an offer for the author, and what I've done at that point is I've negotiated with the publisher. I've basically gotten to the point with the publisher where we have a final offer to present to the client.

The kinds of things you'll typically see in the way of those deal terms are a book advance, which is a large lump sum of money the publisher pays for the chance to publish the book. Typically, they pay that in halves, but sometimes they pay it maybe on signing, delivery of the manuscript, publication just to help their cash flow.

That's an advance against royalties. So, the publisher (in addition to paying the advance), they pay money on the back-end after the advance has earned out. It's kind of like a bank you can borrow money from and never have to pay it back if God forbid the book doesn't live up to our expectations.

But the point we all want to get to is you sell so many copies of your book that you earn your advance back in the number of copies sold. Suddenly, then you're making money on the back-end in royalties – a percentage on every book sold. That percentage is different in terms of the format, various formats of the book.

Those are sort of the two main terms people really look at. Obviously, there are other things in the contract like, for instance, never let the publisher have the film and TV rights to the book. We always try and help the client properly exploit those rights directly.

Which territories is the book going to publish in? Is it publishing in the English language here in the United States, throughout the world, or more languages than one?

Basically, things like that I can go into more details in terms of what an author might expect in a deal memo. But those are some of the major deal points.

They're going to put in the delivery date of the manuscript in there. They put in their intended publication date and format. They might put in something there like they want to have an option to look at the author's next book before anyone else does so they don't have to compete with other publishers. They'll put those sorts of things into an offer or a deal memo.

Michael Krigsman: We all read about these enormous, multimillion-dollar advances. I imagine that for us mere mortals who are not nationally or internationally famous (and we're writing professional, nonfiction books) that those advances are much smaller. Can you give us a sense, any idea of what kind of advances might a professional author, a nonfiction author receive?

Mark Gottlieb: The world of nonfiction is going to be different than the world of fiction. Fiction advances tend to go for more money because those books sell in bigger numbers.

Nonfiction books, I would say non-celebrity nonfiction can sometimes sell in the low to mid-six figures (on the high end). But we've also seen it climb.

We did a book – I can't say for which author – a book deal, it was just shy of a million dollars, a nonfiction book on the history of capitalism. So, there are books that do sell for a lot more money sometimes in the nonfiction space. Certainly, if you're a celebrity (in the nonfiction space) the advances start to look much different.

In the world of fiction, it can be all over the place, really, depending on the book. Generally speaking, the advances will tend to go for more than nonfiction. But things change in the world, too. Sometimes there's more demand among publishers for nonfiction (depending on what's going on in the marketplace).

How can an author command a higher advance and royalty?

Michael Krigsman: As an author, what can I do to shape my entire package (from myself to my platform to my manuscript) in order to try to drive a higher or command a higher royalty? Obviously, if I'm writing a book, you know, I care about that – for many of us.

Mark Gottlieb: There are a few things. Obviously, first and foremost, you have to have written a great book. It's got to be a fantastic idea, unique idea or a new take on something, and it's got to be well written. Of course, that goes without saying.

After that, you want to accompany one or two sample chapters with a book proposal, which basically goes into some of the specs of how you envision the book, what your platform is like, how you might potentially see the book marketed and promoted. If you can make a really good presentation (both with that and probably your initial query letter or submission letter) – eventually, it'll be the agent's pitch – you'll stand a very good chance of increasing your chances.

I would say, though, the biggest thing (and we talked about this the last time we spoke) is really that author platform. Obviously, it's very simple. Let's say you have a following in the millions. That's a no-brainer for publishers. They know they can publish that book and it'll be like printing money.

But let's say you don't have a following like that. An author would then have to sort of lend the perception or show a publisher that, through their outreach, they can really build a platform around themselves and they would have a community, basically, to really come together and support the book. Sometimes, in those cases, publishers are willing to take the bait and publish such a book for feeling that there could be a platform there.

Michael Krigsman: There's a selling effort and a packaging effort that the author needs to undertake to position the book (as you would position any other product before a consumer) to entice them. Is that a correct way to put it?

Mark Gottlieb: Basically, yeah. It's making the food look really good on the plate. It's that presentation. I would say that's a very, very big part of it.

I mentioned how inundated we are. We get many queries by way of email throughout the day. I can only imagine how many through the weeks, months, and years.

Publishers are having the same experience, and so you want to grab their attention right away. I would say, as much as possible, really be throwing numbers in the eyes of publishers. That's really what excites them.

What is an author’s “platform”?

Michael Krigsman: When you say throwing numbers, you mean things like numbers of followers and how many of these books can I sell?

Mark Gottlieb: Yes, like if you say to a publisher, for instance, "I do speaking engagements across the country throughout the year to hundreds if not thousands of attendees," a publisher who hears that will get so excited because what they're thinking then in their mind is, "Okay, this author has their book on a stand, on a table on stage next to them. They're talking about their book or, after their show, they're signing copies of their book." They see that right away as a built-in audience and a means to sell the book.

It wasn't always that way. Probably before my time in publishing, publishers were really the muscle behind getting books marketed and promoted. But again, over time, these publishers kept getting bigger and bigger (and they're still getting bigger and bigger).

Penguin Random House is in the process of acquiring Simon & Schuster. The government considers it a big antitrust issue and they're investigating it.

Publishers, now their attitudes are kind of fewer, bigger books. So, they're focusing on acquiring fewer books, but publishing them in a bigger way.

The midlist of books has bottomed out and these smaller books or even midlist books at publishing houses, debuts and newer books, it's very hard for them to get attention if they're not already a best-selling author. The publishers rely so much on authors who can basically be a sales engine for their own book.

Michael Krigsman: We have a very interesting question from LinkedIn. Karen Scott asks, "If you're a first-time author, what are some tips to entice attention from an agent?"

Mark Gottlieb: Two things: If you're a fiction author, like we said, quality writing. A really good query letter, too, will go a long way. I think a good query letter is upfront (one to two sentences) what the book is about, sort of that hook or that quick pitch.

Again, think of the experience of agents and editors. They're getting so many submissions. The email needs to grab them right away.

I think maybe part of that quick pitch, mentioning a couple of comparative titles, basically books the author feels in some way are similar to their book, published within the last five years, and were really successful books to really hold yourself in high esteem because people are thinking, "Where does this book go on my list? Where am I going to go in a bookstore? How well might it do?"

Then I think a couple of body paragraphs about the book, and the last paragraph of your letter about you as the author, your relevant writing experience, writing credentials. If you're a nonfiction author, really showcase your platform there. I think all of that makes for a wonderful presentation to agents.

Do publishers and agents follow submission guidelines?

Michael Krigsman: I'm assuming that you must get lots of pitches – and publishers – where, let's just say, things are embellished. How much do you scrutinize and how much do the publishers scrutinize those numbers and those sales assumptions?

Mark Gottlieb: Some publishers can, yes, sort of read between the lines on that. Other publishers say to themselves, "You know what? If these people really do come through and support the book (like the author says they have relationships with these people) then it could be a meaningful publication."

Some of it is a little bit like black magic. Obviously, the type of work I do is not an exact science. I work in the arts, and I can't even tell you how many times an author who had a massive platform who was easy to sell to a publisher sometimes doesn't pan out the way that a publisher predicted.

Then to think of it in opposite terms for a moment, how many times where perhaps an author had a smaller platform and advance from the publisher, but the book became a massive success almost out of thin air. It's really not an exact science and so much of it is just where that spark comes from or how the water cooler effect takes place.

Why is a literary agency important?

Michael Krigsman: It sounds like you and the publishers are almost like venture capitalists. You're placing bets on a number of different people that are coming to you in the hopes that a few of those will be really big and you accept that many of them will be dismal, but it may not be that bad.

Mark Gottlieb: Certainly, for new or debut authors, I think publishers are, yes, betting on authors like horses. They are probably, in most cases, overpaying. But they hope that one or two horses kind of breaks away from the pack, kind of crosses the finish line for them, and wins the day. Whereas, more established authors, or authors who are already best-selling authors, it's much easier for a publisher to run their profit and loss statements because they can kind of predict what the numbers will be the second time around based on how good they were the first time.

Where it becomes really odd to me is when they're trying to make a science of a bet where they take that same P&L sheet that they feel is similar to another author they're acquiring. Let's say they're acquiring an author and they think to themselves, "This author is a lot like a Malcolm Gladwell to me," or "This author is a lot like a Noah Yuval Harari to me," and so they want to make an offer in accordance with that because that's what their profit and loss statement numbers are telling them.

They're still making a blind bet. Any way you boil it down, any way you look at it, you just can't predict. So, that's the wildest thing to me about the work we do. It's like walking into a casino and spinning a roulette table.

Michael Krigsman: Well, let's take a couple of more questions from Twitter. We have a question. It sounds like the agent is key for new authors. What about experienced or established authors? Is an agent essential in that case?

Mark Gottlieb: Let's say there was an established author who was a best-seller, and they wanted to get certain things in their contract with the publisher. The author had their attorney go to a publishing house and ask for certain things in the contract. The publisher would say, "That's nice, but we're not going to do that," despite even sometimes how successful the author is because there's nothing really to behoove the publisher.

Whereas we publish so many books with that publisher over many, many years and our business goes to the bottom line of that publishing house. So, when we ask for something of a publisher or we refer a publisher back to our boilerplate contract with a publisher, they have to follow the preferred terms our clients get. Oftentimes, even authors working without an agent who somehow they've managed to get a deal with a publisher or they're hoping to get a good deal with a publisher, they're more often than not going to kind of get the standard vanilla boilerplate agreement the publisher gives to every author walking off the street.

Michael Krigsman: I have to assume that also, as an agent, you understand and have the contacts to know where the publisher has room and flexibility and you can push versus those points where you know the publisher will never ever give in.

Mark Gottlieb: Oh, that's a very big piece of it, and it's interesting that you mention that, too, because, for instance, even an attorney who is speaking to a publisher and asking for certain things in the contract, unless they're an intellectual property attorney and one as it relates to the quirks of book publishing because the contract terms and the things that are fair in market value in book publishing are not the same as what they are in film and TV or other industries.

It can be sometimes detrimental when someone who, if they didn't know what they were doing and they were asking a publisher for certain things in a contract, yes, that wouldn't be good. it's one of the reasons why publishers prefer to work with an agency.

Oftentimes, we'll reflect the deal terms back into the contract and then mirror the contract to, again, establish agreements with have with the publisher. Then we have, like many companies do, a business affairs department that looks at these contracts on a daily basis, and so it's very second nature to them. They go through these contracts with a fine-tooth comb and get the very best terms for our clients.

Michael Krigsman: We have another question from Twitter from Arsalan Khan. Arsalan is a regular listener. I have to say, Arsalan is really smart because he watches these CXOTalk shows and he asks questions. And so, each week, he's asking questions of top experts in the world around the shows that we have. Kudos to Arsalan. Thanks, Arsalan, for your great questions.

Arsalan is wondering, "Where does the publishing industry at this point stand regarding the creation of NFTs?" which is basically authenticity or ownership certificates, digital ownership for books in terms of sales and royalties, similar to digital art. Is that happening at all?

Mark Gottlieb: Compared to other forms of media and other companies, book publishing is kind of a dinosaur that's very reluctant to evolve, whereas there have been a lot of advances in the industry.

I mean if you look at audiobooks and they're way more intelligent now than they used to be. There were even books on vinyl at one point, but we basically have gone from books on tape to now there's a technology called Whispersync where you can be listening to your audiobook (let's say on your iPhone or your home stereo) and then the technology is smart enough that, if you leave your home, it follows you on your phone. You get into your car and then the audiobook starts playing in your car.

There are some, I would say, ambitious companies from the world of tech who are venturing into book publishing a bit to try subscription pricing and serializations in the digital space. To pay for those books actually using forms of bitcoin or digital currency that they create within their own realm.

One of the most exciting companies doing that right now is a company called Radish. It'd be a nice company to look at. I think they were actually recently acquired by this massive green Internet company called Naver. It's basically their version of Google in Korea.

There are some exciting things technology-wise, I think, happening on the fringes of book publishing, but the main formats pretty much continue to be the hardcover book, the trade paperback, the mass market, the e-book, and the audiobook (both in digital). For some reason, audio publishers are still making CDs. I don't know where they're being played other than in libraries or maybe audio files somewhere, but those tend to be the main formats.

Michael Krigsman: Beth Albright, on Twitter, says, "Hey, Mark. I'm a brand new client, and I'm thrilled to be with you and Trident!"

Mark Gottlieb: Thank you. [Laughter] That's very kind of her. Yes, we just started working together. We're getting her book sent out on submission. She's writing in the suspense space, so terrific to work with Beth. She's a USA Today best-selling author, too, which is great.

Can non-fiction authors become rich from selling a book?

Michael Krigsman: Here's another question for you. Again, for nonfiction, because that's our audience (for the most part). I have a book in me, and I know it'll be a good book. Are you going to make me rich? Am I going to get rich by publishing this book?

Mark Gottlieb: It could happen. Again, it's like the casino. It's like walking into a casino. Anything can happen.

Again, in the world of nonfiction, chances are (like we talked about) the advances, again even on the high-end for non-celebrity, nonfiction, we're talking maybe mid to low six figures. But sometimes these books are just sort of the runaway bestseller.

I hope I can say this on your show. This is actually the title of the book. It's called You Are a Badass, and it has this really bright yellow cover. It's sort of like a soft business book.

It had a very quiet publication. No one really expected this book to do much of anything. It was with maybe a midsized publisher.

Out of nowhere, it became a best-seller, I think, because the title was so raunchy. The cover was so bright. Then you started seeing it in every bookstore. That's probably a good example of the book where it had a modest advance, it had a quiet publication, but what it threw off in royalties was tremendous.

Then there are other books which just get publishers so excited, they go far and beyond what we could ever hope for in terms of a book advance. Although, that can also put a lot of pressure on an author to try and earn their advance back with the publisher.

Certainly, the first thing a publisher is saying when they walk into their salesforce meeting after they've acquired a book is, "We've paid X number of dollars for this book. How do we make our advance back?" If they don't, after the publication, it definitely makes doing book two much harder.

Michael Krigsman: The pressure for the author to pay the advance back or to earn it back is the second book since they're not obligated to return that advance if the book is not sold.

Mark Gottlieb: Yeah, in no way is the author obligated to return the book advance, except obviously if they are in serious breach of their contract. For instance, let's say an author didn't deliver their manuscript, really did not deliver it on time, or there was some other very serious breach of the contract. Then sometimes the publisher has to cancel the contract. The author has to return the book advance.

In the instance where the advance is all paid and the book has published, no matter what the author doesn't have to pay the money back. All I'm saying is because it's an advance against royalties, they will only see royalties if they sell enough copies of their book to effectively pay the advance back.

What makes a book popular?

Michael Krigsman: Another question relating to all this. I have this book in me and I want to position the book and have the book have characteristics that will make people want it, make it fly off the shelves. Can you describe those characteristics? What works?

Mark Gottlieb: The best thing an author who is trying to do that can do or think to themselves is they should look at the marketplace and really get a feel for what's working well in the marketplace. One of the easiest things they could do is look at the best-sellers list.

For instance, let's say they're writing a nonfiction business book. They should look at that category within the New York Times best-sellers list, the Wall Street Journal best-sellers list, even the Amazon top 100. See what's climbing onto those charts because, right away, they know what's working well and what publishers will be looking for.

Secondly, an author (or a hopeful writer looking to become a published author) can look at the publishing list of any publishing house. They could go look at McGraw Hill's publishing list or Portfolio Sentinel, or any of these nonfiction business book publishers at big five publishing houses. Look at their catalogs. See what they're publishing.

For instance, I would say what I'm getting (from what I'm seeing in the business book world) is the style of doing business has changed. I think there was a time when things were very much about how loud you could be (not maybe necessarily how obnoxious, although it did often come off that way).

A lot of it was driven by fear, power, prowess. Now, the company culture has changed, I think, like out West. There's a lot of work being done, for instance, in the diversity, equity, and inclusion space in the business book world. People want to have their thoughts and feelings heard. This whole work-from-home thing. All of that is changing the kinds of books which are being published.

Obviously, there are still some business books which are kind of, what I would call, hard business books, which probably look at the way of doing business, which is taught by business school. But then there are a lot of softer business books like Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In, which is for the more general lay reader, which sometimes are much more commercially viable than books being published by the Harvard Business Review.

Michael Krigsman: What about length? Can I write a short book? [Laughter] You can see where I'm going with all of this. I'm a really busy guy, but I know I have a book in me, and I want to get it out there with the least amount of work as possible and I want to make as much money as possible. Do you get authors coming to you very often with that mindset, or is this just a complete fantasy? You just X that out and don't even look at it this way.

Mark Gottlieb: I think, in the world of nonfiction, there's actually a lot more flexibility, which is the interesting thing when it comes to page count. I have a client now who we intended it to be a full-length book, but the publisher loved the idea of doing it as maybe a 20,000- or 40,000-word book, so it could kind of be like a handbook you could give to employees, and that they could easily digest it.

It gets tricky in other genres. Some of them are very, very strict. Obviously, the strictest probably being a children's picture book. Those tend to be 32 pages, 900 words (on average) because you're telling a child a bedtime story. You have a window of time before you or the child falls asleep. [Laughter] And, you know, the attention span of the kids and all that.

Typically, the normal book-length is 80,000 to 120,000 words. Now, you go outside of that by 5,000 or 10,000 words and you're fine. But what starts to happen, something strange starts to happen when you futz around with that in the world of fiction or nonfiction. The price of the book will change because publishers price books according to page count, their cost of shipping, warehousing, manufacturing), so a longer book will be more expensive. A cheaper book will be cheaper in terms of how it's priced.

What happens is, the margin for profit gets so small if you've written a 20,000- or 40,000-word book that it's harder for the publisher to make their numbers and then, in turn, the author to see much of an ROI in what they see in royalties. So, it's something to consider.

If you go very far beyond what's a normal book-length, going beyond 120,000 words, the book gets too expensive and you begin to lose customers. It sort of becomes the opposite problem but with the same result.

The sweet spot really for fiction and nonfiction, I think, is 80,000 to 90,000 words. That's what authors should really aim for unless the publisher asks for something else or the audience might go for something else.

How can new authors find a literary agent?

Michael Krigsman: We have another question from Twitter. What preparation should an inspiring author make to find and work with a literary agent? Or to ask another way, I want to approach you. What do I need to do to get my ducks in a row so that you're going to look at me (however I get in contact with you – maybe over the transom on your website) and you're going to say, "Hmm. I need to talk to this guy"?

Mark Gottlieb: I think a few things. One is you made sure you're speaking to the right person because let's say I were an agent doing only women's fiction and you were coming to me with – I don't know – a business book or a science fiction novel. Then I wouldn't be the right person. That kind of goes without saying.

Having written a great book. Having put together a great proposal and sample chapters, but also having polished that work as much as you can. I wouldn't just write something and then throw it off the desk and send it out the window. It's not just going to take flight immediately.

As much as you can, going back through the manuscript, editing the manuscript. Some people use freelance or outside editors before going into the publishing process to bring the manuscript as far as they can, or they might attend a writers workshop or a writers conference.

A workshop, I would say, is going to be a lot more focused on the finer details of fixing the manuscript itself or fixing the proposal and sample chapters itself. A conference will be a lot more about sort of like what we're speaking about, learning the way around the industry and making connections, getting a better understanding of the inner workings, and all that. Either way, I think those things are helpful.

Then making yourself appealing to an agent. Again, if you're a writer of fiction, all the bells and whistles. Attending prestigious writers workshops, getting endorsements for your work, publishing in literary magazines and journals, things like that.

In the nonfiction world, it's a little bit more like really beefing up the social media following or the newsletter subscribers or publishing work online. If you have a piece, for instance, with the Huffington Post that goes viral and publishers suddenly want to approach you and get that written as a book, that's fantastic.

In the world of nonfiction, it can sometimes be having to make sure that the cart isn't in front of the horse when it comes to the platform. A lot of authors of nonfiction, they write the chapters, they write the proposal, and then they think to themselves, "Oh, wait. I have to do this thing called constructing a platform? Let me get a book on that." Then they realize it takes time to do that.

Michael Krigsman: Is building the platform the harder part or is writing the book the harder part?

Mark Gottlieb: Well, it depends what kind of person they are and where they are at in their career. Obviously, if there really is truly no platform there, having to dream one out of thin air is very hard to do. If it happens magically or someone writes a tweet which suddenly it's all over social media and they have a huge following, that's great if it happens organically like that.

Other people, they toil over the writing of the manuscript and the proposal. Some authors, even more so, they struggle with the query letter because it's so concise and they're expansive in terms of the way they think. It really, I guess, depends in the person.

Michael Krigsman: Okay. Well, with that, we are pretty much out of time. I want to say a huge thank you to Mark Gottlieb. He's a literary agent with Trident Media Group. Mark, I'm so grateful that you took the time today to be with us. Thank you.

Mark Gottlieb: Michael, thank you. I enjoyed it so much.

Michael Krigsman: Everybody, thank you for watching, especially those folks who ask such insightful and excellent questions. Before you go, please subscribe to our newsletter and hit the subscribe button at the top of our website. Subscribe to our YouTube channel and check out because we really have amazing guests coming up. Thanks so much, everybody. I hope you have a great day, and we will see you next time. 

Published Date: Oct 08, 2021

Author: Michael Krigsman

Episode ID: 722