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

Kathryn Lilley

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 in Overall Deals and other categories. 


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

Mark Profile at Trident Media Group




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


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Write That Caption! New Yorker Cartoon Contest

Purchased from Shutterstock by KL

How did I manage to miss this elegant little contest/game–The New Yorker Cartoon Caption Contest–which offers a new way for writers to procrastinate and waste precious writing time? The New Yorker cartoons were a cherished element of my childhood reading experience (I confess I skipped reading the articles until I was well into high school years).

Check out the weekly New Yorker cartoon (by clicking this link) and tell us what caption you’d write for it. Here’s my entry for the caption:

“My doctor says it’s an off-label use for energy drink withdrawal.”



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A “Moveable Feast” That Never Grows Stale

    Photo purchased from Shutterstock by KL

I’m in the air today on the last leg of a long-delayed  return trip to Paris. The last time I was in the city was 1978 (yikes!). I was worried that since then Paris might have gone the way of so many urban cities, losing its charm and character in the endless pursuit of development and “progress. To my delight, I’ve discovered that Parisiennes value (and therefore preserve) their history and characteristic lifestyle. If anything, Paris is more beautiful than it was in the 70’s (that decade was not a cultural high point for most if any cities, as I dimly recall).

I won’t be able to check in again until the wee hours later today, but please share if any favorite location of your extreme youth has also survived the test of time. Have you ever been back after a long absence to a place that emanates  a rosy, nostalgic glow in your memory? Did you find it to be the same as you remember, worse, or better?



Eavesdroppers, Beware!

By Debbie Burke




We might as well confess. As writers, we’ve been known to eavesdrop on conversations.


We wonder, what is that couple at the next table squabbling about? Or we listen over the dressing room partition to young women anticipating their lovers’ reactions to lingerie they’re trying on. Or we’re stuck on a plane beside a gnarly guy with strange tattoos who’s swearing at the unfortunate soul on the other end of his cell phone.


Writers can’t help being incurably nosy, because we’re always on the lookout for the germ of a great story idea.


But what about when a normal person listens in on conversations among crime writers? Those can veer into potentially gruesome territory, especially when we’re doing research with professional experts, like medical first responders, law enforcement, military personnel, and others whose jobs bring them in contact with violence, its perpetrators and victims. Such experts always have colorful stories to share about bizarre cases and unsolved mysteries.


However, those chats can get graphic. If a civilian (non-writer) happened to listen in on such conversations, they might overhear scary stuff they’d rather not know. On top of that, the gory details could ruin someone’s lunch if they’re unlucky enough to sit too close to your table.


GROSS-OUT ALERT: If your stomach is delicate, skip the next two paragraphs.


While hanging out in the hotel bar at a writers conference, an FBI agent told me the story about an obese female who’d died under suspicious circumstances. Because he wasn’t looking forward to observing the autopsy on a body that had been dead for several days, he’d skipped breakfast to avoid the embarrassment of losing it, and stuffed his nose with Vicks to deal with the smell. But he wasn’t ready for the visual about to unfold before him.


Decomposition causes gases to build up inside a body, the reason why drowning victims eventually float to the surface. When the medical examiner made the Y-shaped cut in the woman’s torso, yards of gas-filled intestines billowed up through the incision. According to the FBI agent, they looked “just like balloon animals.” He has not been able to look at balloon animals since without thinking of that unforgettable image. Neither have I.


Okay, it’s safe to resume reading.


One morning, I met for coffee at a local haunt with two mystery writer pals, one of whom is an emergency physician. I often query her about strangulation, gunshot wounds, blood loss, drug overdoses, etc. She’s an indispensable encyclopedia of medical knowledge.


The subject came up about how to kill someone using an IV in a hospital. The learned doctor suggested several drugs that couldn’t be traced in an autopsy. The three of us debated the pros and cons of various drugs, looking for an option that would be easy for a killer to obtain, but wouldn’t show on a toxicological screen.


Suddenly, we noticed other customers had moved far away from our table and were shooting concerned looks in our direction. Thankfully, no one called 911 to report three seemingly harmless, but obviously evil, women plotting the perfect murder.


Then there’s the time my husband and I were on vacation in Florida. We’d become acquainted with an interesting gentleman who was a retired coroner. Since I got up early and my husband slept late, for several mornings, the coroner and I wound up on side-by-side chaise lounges, sunning ourselves by the pool. Naturally we’d get talking. He told me about unusual cases and I’d ask him about various plot devices. At the time, I was working on a short story about a murder committed in a nudist resort. But where do you hide the weapon?


The coroner came up with the ideal solution. Take a bottle of sunscreen lotion. Add a particular lethal drug. The toxin is absorbed through the skin and mimics the effects of a heart attack. Brilliant!


Then we noticed sunbathers on adjacent chaises, suspiciously watching us. I’m sure they thought the coroner and I were clandestine lovers, plotting the murder of my poor, unsuspecting husband.


Nevertheless, this tale had a happy ending: my short story was published and, thankfully, my husband survived unscathed.


Writers get carried away with imaginary characters and imaginary crimes. Maybe we should issue disclaimers to innocent folks at adjacent tables. “It’s okay, we’re not really going to rob a bank. We’re just writers. Pull up a chair and help us plan the perfect crime.”


Debbie Burke wrote a TKZ guest blog several weeks ago about Kindle Scout. She plans to take the plunge soon and enter her suspense thriller, Instrument of the Devil.


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What The Heck Is “Theme”, Anyway?

If a plot could be compared to the body of a race car, the theme would be the engine turning its wheels“.

A story’s theme is the fundamental and universal idea behind its plot. In King Lear, for example, one of its main themes is “authority versus chaos”.

Sometimes people confuse a story’s subject with its theme. The subject of a story would be a one-word descriptor of its main idea. “War”, for example, would be the subject of many stories. A theme would be an opinion related to that subject, such as “In War, everyone loses.” (See Joe Moore’s excellent post on the difference between subject and theme)
Some writers approach theme almost as an afterthought–or worse, they forget to factor in a theme at all, which can result in a story that seems aimless or shallow at its core. Having  a well-crafted theme adds dimension, depth, and cohesion to stories.

Writers often use minor characters to explore a story’s underlying theme. I call this method the “360-degree” approach to developing theme. In this approach, the secondary characters represent various aspects of the main theme, and they act as foils to the main character’s experiences. For example, the theme of one of my stories was “Mean Girls Suffer The Last Blow.”  That theme was explored through the story arcs of several characters. One woman had been victimized by bullies in her youth; another was herself a bully. Another character was a protector of abused women.  Each of these characters explored different facets of the subject of bullying and  emotional abuse.

How do you explore theme? What’s the theme of your WIP? How are you working that theme into your narrative?


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Reader Friday: Thoughts About Changes To Amazon’s “Buy” Button?

Photo purchased from Shutterstock

Amazon’s recent decision to allow third-party book re-sellers to “win” buy buttons on its book selling pages has stirred up a controversy within the publishing industry.  Some publishers, agents, and authors charge that the change will reduce the sale of new books, driving down sales and revenue.
(Until now, the buy button on book pages automatically linked customers to new copies of titles Amazon stocked from the publishers. After this change, the Buy button could direct customers to resellers offering previously owned books.

What do you think about the new Buy button policy? Does it pose a significant financial threat to authors or publishers?



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Do Women Authors Need To Be “Nice”?

Have to say, I’m a bit baffled by an article I just read, “…Women In Publishing Don’t Have The Luxury Of Being Unlikable“. This article has been making the rounds in publishing circles, evidently. Basically, the writer is arguing that women authors have to be “nice” in order to succeed in publishing, while men do not.

I’m surprised by the opinions expressed in this article for several reasons. First of all, every author I’ve ever met has been what I’d call “nice.” Whenever I go to writer’s conferences, I feel as though I’ve just passed through the gates into The Village of Extremely Nice, Middle Aged People. As Nicole Kidman’s character said in Big Little Lies, authors tend to pound people to death with “nice”, if only because everyone’s trying to sell their books. Have I been missing some Crabby Appletons lurking in the shadows?

I was also puzzled by the example the writer cited of a woman author who was apparently “not nice”. The description conveyed someone who might have felt  a tad reserved or shy in groups, perhaps, but nothing particularly “not nice”.

I’d be interested in knowing how other people react to the arguments being made in this article, because I may not be an objective judge. I’ve been accused by some who know me well of having an oversupply of self-confidence (this assessment is never delivered as a compliment, of course). So I may be insensitive to something that is going on in the general publishing environment. As I read the article, I thought it reflected more about the writer’s own issues with self confidence, rather than anything meaningful about the environment for women authors in today’s publishing community.

So if I’m wrong, set me straight. Do women authors have to be particularly “nice” to get ahead?


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