An Agent’s Advice: The Big Five No-nos to Querying a Literary Agent

Kathryn Lilley
@KathrynELilley

The Kill Zone is honored to have literary agent Mark Gottlieb as our guest today, from the Trident Media Group. Feel free to ask him those burning questions you may have about what he’s looking for, or how he sees publishing trends, or his insights into publishing and the role of literary agents. Welcome, Mark.

Mark Gottlieb attended Emerson College where he helped establish Wilde Press, from a publishing club of students. After graduating with a degree in writing, literature & publishing, he began his career with the VP of Berkley Books (Penguin). Mark’s first position at Publishers Marketplace’s #1-ranked literary agency, Trident Media Group, was in foreign rights. Mark was Exec Assistant 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. 

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As a literary agent in major trade publishing at the Trident Media Group literary agency, I receive hundreds of query letters a week. I find that there are so many things an author can do wrong in querying an agent with a submission letter, while there are very few things an author can do right in querying an agent with a submission letter, so it’s really hard to say every single thing an author should avoid in a query letter… Though if I could throw just five glaring problems I tend to see:

1) FINISH THAT MANUSCRIPT: Authors querying an agent before their fiction manuscript is finished/fully-written, or before their nonfiction book proposal is finished/fully-written, is certainly a pet peeve. It makes no sense querying an agent with unfinished work.

2) DON’T AVOID THE LETTER: I would advise against writing query letters that state that the author does not want to write a query letter but has instead opted to merely attach a manuscript or synopsis to let the work speak for itself. Right away the literary agent will know that the author is going to be difficult to work with. The query letter is also essential so it really can’t be skipped.

3) PERSONALIZE THE ADDRESS: It is very impersonal seeing a query letter email from an author addressed to dozens of agents at various literary agencies with a “Dear Agent” greeting. Smaller agencies on those lists might think to themselves that they might not be able to compete with the bigger agencies on that list, opting to bow out, while bigger agencies will think to themselves that they shouldn’t have to put up with that, also opting to bow out. So where would that really leave an author? It’s better to do one’s research and approach the very best agency.

4) READ THE INSTRUCTIONS: Reading and respecting a literary agency’s submission guidelines (usually listed on the agency’s website) is also a good way to get a foot in the door, whereas bucking the system will seldom get a good result. New authors call all the time, asking if they can query us over the phone, and I must always refer them back to our website since we prefer to receive query letters there as a matter of company policy.

5) THINK OF BENDING THE RULES BEFORE BREAKING THEM: Knowing the rules before breaking them is also important, as going outside of genre-specific conventions and norms can be difficult for an author trying to make their major debut. For instance, a book written for elementary schoolchildren should not contain explicit language and content only appropriate for an adult audience. Knowing the proper book-length for the type of book written is also important, since publishers consider their cost of printing/production as well as shipping and warehousing, alongside how to price a shorter versus a longer book.

Mark Gottlieb
Literary Agent
Trident Media Group, LLC
41 Madison Avenue, Floor 36
New York, NY 10010
(212) 333-1506

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FOR DISCUSSION:

Mark has consented to answering your questions. Feel free to ask away. Thank you for being our guest, Mark.

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25 thoughts on “An Agent’s Advice: The Big Five No-nos to Querying a Literary Agent

  1. All common sense, and you’d think people who are looking for “help” would be smart enough to do their homework. I hosts guests on my blog, and they can’t follow directions, either.

    Back in the day, before agents accepted queries via email, I’d have added, “Don’t fill your envelope with glitter or other mess-making contents to call attention to your letter.”

  2. I have to admit I was shocked by Mark’s advice. You would think that for such an important proposal, an author would be a bit more professional in a submission.

    To Mark: Thanks for being at TKZ today.

    1.) What trends are you seeing in books editors are seeking? Anything big on the horizon?

    2.) What submissions are you seeking as an agent?

    3.) What books or genres are your personal comfort reads?

    Thanks, Mark.

    • Hi Jordan,

      I’m guessing you’re shocked in a good way, like enlightened, rather than shocked or offended?

      Specific to mystery/crime/thrillers, editors are more so looking for upmarket fiction (commercial meets literary). More of the downmarket fiction has moved toward eBooks and smaller publishers. Domestic noir is still riding high and I see a lot of international suspense type thrillers. Otherwise, smaller publishers are picking up things like cozy mysteries.

      At the moment, I’m very open to all types of submissions. I’m very good about reading all of my query letters.

      Personally, I read many of the classics, the occasional modern novel from writers such as Tom Robbins and Jonathan Lethem, and graphic novels.

      All the best,

      Mark

      Mark Gottlieb
      Literary Agent
      Trident Media Group, LLC
      41 Madison Avenue, Floor 36
      New York, NY 10010
      (212) 333-1506
      tridentmediagroup.com

      • Ha! Yes, I meant shocked in a ‘good way.’ It’s like when you see warnings on a hair dryer that states “Do not use this product in the shower.” I cringe when I think of the first person who made that warning necessary.

        I found your reply interesting. I knew about the upmarket fiction trend and had become aware of the role of smaller publishers, but hadn’t thought how this might be seen from an agent’s perspective and how it might color an agent’s submission process.

        I also liked the distinction you made for Domestic Noir, still having ‘legs’ here in US (and internationally, I would suspect). Thanks, Mark.

  3. Thanks for appearing as our guest at the Zone today, Mark! I first studied the art of querying by reading the (now archived) blog by an agent writing under the pseudonym “Miss Snark”. She was hilariously vicious in her critiques (AKA flaming take-downs) of actual submissions and queries that came through the transom. I learned then that many writers put a tremendous amount of work and planning into their manuscript, only to blow their chances (if any) by committing egregious errors in the query stage. My favorite “query sin” she described (and apparently it was widespread) were authors who called her office at wee hours to leave a message. Turns out her contact number reached her personal line, and she’d get rousted out of bed to answer the call of an author who’d sound abashed that they’d disturbed her sleep. Bottom line: queries should be submitted in a scrupulously professional manner, or they will immediately be returned with the stamp “Not Right For Us”.

  4. Oh, and by the way, I got one contract despite violating Rule 1: I wasn’t finished with my manuscript but submitted a sample to not an agent but an editor of a major publisher, while attending a writers conference. She asked for the rest of the manuscript, launching me into major panic mode. I did finish it and ultimately she turned it down (as “too commercial “, which confused me), but at least the experience got me to finish the darned thing before I started querying agents.

    • I too admit to not following that advice. I hadn’t finished the book when I met my first agent at a conference and had to really hoof it to get it ready when she wanted to see the entire manuscript!

  5. I’m hogging the comments here but one question occurred to me: a while back I irked an agent during a writers retreat by asking her about the idea of publishers and agents changing the business model for making deals with writers, by forgoing advances and splitting revenues with the. She got quite perturbed, like I’d dropped a toad onto her breakfast plate. If you have time could you give us your thoughts about changes or pressure on the traditional business model used by publishers & agents for making deals? Here’s the link to that post https://killzoneblog.com/2014/09/an-innocent-question-prompts-passionate.html

    • Hi Kathryn,

      Tiny publishers that are not willing to pay book advances are usually willing to split revenues with authors. Some audio and eBook publishers have experimented with that, too. It’s seldom a good outcome, though, as it takes a village of people to make a book a success, rather than two to three people running a small press. The book advance is money that mitigates the risk for the author and makes it worth a literary agent’s time.

      All the best,

      Mark

      Mark Gottlieb
      Literary Agent
      Trident Media Group, LLC
      41 Madison Avenue, Floor 36
      New York, NY 10010
      (212) 333-1506
      tridentmediagroup.com

  6. Thank you, Mark. It’s always good to hear directly from an agent what they like and what they are looking for.

    Publishing changes so fast I always date my notes.

    • Hi Cynthia,

      Thanks, always glad to contribute to the literary community.

      All the best,

      Mark

      Mark Gottlieb
      Literary Agent
      Trident Media Group, LLC
      41 Madison Avenue, Floor 36
      New York, NY 10010
      (212) 333-1506
      tridentmediagroup.com

  7. Thanks for joining us at TKZ Mark! I had one question as a friend of mine has heard that advances are much smaller now for most mystery imprints (even at the bigger houses) so I was wondering what your experience has been recently. Are you finding that advances for traditional mysteries and cozies are getting much smaller?

    • Hi Clare,

      That’s true. The last six-figure+ advance I’ve seen reported in the mystery/crime category was May 31, 2017.

      All the best,

      Mark

      Mark Gottlieb
      Literary Agent
      Trident Media Group, LLC
      41 Madison Avenue, Floor 36
      New York, NY 10010
      (212) 333-1506
      tridentmediagroup.com

  8. Jordan – when I went through Air Force basic training the only book we were allowed to keep was the Bible. My husband gave me a bookmark with a picture of a bullfrog on it. It said “Eat a bullfrog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you for the rest of the day”. Every time I hit a rough spot I’d ask myself “Is this worse than eating a bullfrog?” Thankfully, it never was.

  9. That’s interesting to hear, Mark. My question about business models was made in the context of her talking about the economic challenges facing agents and publishers nowadays. Eroding advances, profits for publishers, and the demise of the “mid-list”, for example. There was some annoyance expressed toward midlist writers who were reclaiming their old titles and republishing them independently. I was puzzled why the industry didn’t retain those proven (if not yet megaselling) authors by striking a better deal with them. Instead, publishers seemed (at that time at least) to be gambling more money and giving bigger advances to “new” writers in the hope of launching The Next Big thing. I guess that strategy must be working well enough financially for agents and publishers since they’re sticking to the traditional model.

  10. Welcome to TKZ, Mark. I once addressed a query letter to “Ms.” The agent is male and a PhD. Thank goodness he had a great sense of humor!

    Some publishers, as you know, ask only for first rights, leaving the author with subsidiary rights to sell. How would an author go about finding an agent to sell those rights on their behalf? Would an agent even be interested?

  11. Hi Sue,

    Not many of the publishers I deal with do that. Are you describing a much smaller publisher that might only be interested in the print and/or eBook rights? Outside of those rights, it’s usually difficult to be in business with an author that merely wants a literary agent to merely sell their sub-rights for them.

    All the best,

    Mark

    Mark Gottlieb
    Literary Agent
    Trident Media Group, LLC
    41 Madison Avenue, Floor 36
    New York, NY 10010
    (212) 333-1506
    tridentmediagroup.com

  12. Janice Williams 6/34/17 10:50
    Good Evening:
    I am looking for an Agent to assist in mywriting, but first I just want to make a comment about you. You’re a rarity, not too often to I come in contact with such
    down to earth professional human beings. The folks that I’ve had contact were either trying to sell their idea to me and not hearing mind at all. You are a breathe of fresh air!
    Stay the same/don’t change!
    Writer/ former bookstore owner

  13. Hi Mark,
    I come from the music industry where by the very nature of my work I’ve been a gatekeeper for many years. Like publishing it takes a nation of people across creative and business disciplines to make a music act a major hit. Talent is found by trusted sources. I couldn’t name a single major hit act in the last 20 years that was just sent in, and not brought in by a trusted source to the label to make the deal happen.

    Many if not most of the debut major hits in the thriller business over the last 15 years were brought in to either the agent or publisher by a trusted source. The author was either a professional writer of some kind with direct contacts within the industry, or was well enough known to have someone known bring in the manuscript. This gets it read with attention and the caveat that this writer already has professional push and likely a team behind them tying into the previous fact that it takes a nation to make a creative hit happen. In other words what can this writer bring to the table in the business of this, to maximize the probability of success, given that the writing and story are where they need to be.

    From Gillian Flynn, Paula Hawkins, Suzanne Collins to Stieg Larsson as examples, their manuscripts didn’t come out of a slush pile.

    Do you have any opinion on the reality of this, and possibly what your personal experiences are regarding this? Of the very very small percentage of manuscripts that get signed out of the slush pile from the multitudes sent in, are you aware of any that have had breakout success over the last ten years?

    Thanks For Your Time,
    George Glennon

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