Author Brand Developer, Passionate Advocate & Innovator Trident Media Group Chairman Robert Gottlieb
I’m very proud to have literary agent and Chairman of the Trident Media Group literary agency Robert Gottlieb on my blog today. Yes, it’s no coincidence that we share the same last name…he happens to be my dad!
Robert Gottlieb is the Chairman of Trident Media Group, book publishing’s number one ranked literary agency for North American sales for well over a decade in consecutive years. In 2000, he founded Trident Media Group with the goal of bringing an innovative approach to book publishing. That approach includes a uniquely organized company that not only delivers the highest level author management in the industry but also provides unique marketing dynamics for an author’s career in a very competitive marketplace. Robert Gottlieb’s leading position in the literary agency business gives him access to all the decision makers in publishing at all levels including media firms around the world. He has worked with many New York Times bestselling authors and is skilled at launching authors’ careers. Robert Gottlieb focuses on maximizing and establishing his authors’ brands on a worldwide basis. When negotiating deals he seeks to retain as many rights as possible, including foreign rights, film/TV rights, and audio rights, to ensure the author’s benefits extend beyond their domestic publishing arrangements. Trident’s robust Foreign Rights departmentthen sells these titles at the London Book Fair and Frankfurt Book Fair and continues a year-round effort of constant contact with foreign publishers to ensure substantial foreign deals. Robert Gottlieb also places a high focus on marketing and works with Trident’s dedicated marketing team to ensure his authors reach the widest audience possible. He is devoted to his authors’ careers and can guarantee he will advocate for them at every stage of the publishing process.
How did you get your start in book publishing?
My career began in the mailroom of the William Morris Agency. It was the agent trainee program. Everyone began in pushing a mail cart, regardless of whether they had an ivy league education or not. Of course the agency did hire fully established agents and bought companies, but the mailroom was the place for those who came out of college and wanted a career at WMA as an agent. Pushing a mail cart around was an incredibly humbling experience and really taught me the value of hard work, along understanding what one had to put do in order to have a career as an agent. I made a decision that no matter how long it took, I would succeed at WMA. From there, I was promoted out of the mailroom to become a secretary. (In those days, one became a secretary, before they became an assistant). Reading David Mamet's "American Buffalo" for an agent who was the head of the Theater Department would also help advance my career into the agency. Following a five-year time frame, including a three-year stint of working for one of the leading literary agents in the industry, I was at a great jumping off point.
After discovering Tom Clancy, and working on Margaret Mitchell's estate via the sequel to Gone With the Wind, as well as Deepak Chopra among others, I later went on to run the agency's Book Department, alongside my mentor Owen Laster, before I became the youngest person ever elected to their Board of Directors at WMA. After my time there, in the year 2000, I formed the Trident Media Group literary agency with my good friend and business partner, Dan Strone.
Which authors or books were you reading at a young age that later influenced your taste in commercial fiction?
I enjoyed reading commercial fiction, such as James Clavell's Shōgun. You can imagine my delight when they made his beloved novel into a TV show, starring Richard Chamberlain, Toshirô Mifune, Yôko Shimada and Furankî Sakai. Clavell's novel really tied together my love of historical and adventure fiction. For the same reasons, I enjoyed reading Doctor Zhivago, a true classic. When the movie of the same name came out, I was sure to own the soundtrack on vinyl record. And while it's not a book, Rod Serling's TV show The Twilight Zone was a huge influence on me, because the show really emphasized many of the more nuanced elements of storytelling, such as plot twists, red herrings and unreliable narrators. Serling's daughter, Anne Serling, happened to attend Elmira College with me and upon graduation, Rod Serling delivered our commencement speech to let us graduating students know that we'd be entering another dimension known as adulthood.
(Trident Media Group Chairman Robert Gottlieb and literary agent Mark Gottlieb at the London Book Fair)
You’ve seen book publishing evolve over the decades, from a cottage industry of independent book publishers and larger trade publishers—into a smaller and select grouping of big five (formerly big six) publishers. Where do you see book publishing headed, now that there are all of these smaller publishing companies living as imprints under the larger umbrellas of mega publishers such as Penguin Random House?
The business model that Penguin Random House has built of acquiring smaller publishers and merging the two major trade publishers of Penguin Books and Penguin Random House—into PRH—is a tricky business model, as publishing historically is a small margin business and large enterprises are very costly to maintain. In response to both the real estate and workforce they have acquired under one umbrella, PRH has been forced to consolidate slowly over time, and in rarer cases, fold up book imprints. Office spaces have shrunk, for instance, and the mega publisher knows it doesn’t need two or three of everything, or everyone... As it stands, PRH has several book imprints devoted to science-fiction and fantasy, for instance. With PRH slowly, and as quietly as they can, consolidating redundancies.
This is obviously contrary to what Penguin Books and Random House claimed when they initially merged—that the publishers were merging to become a mega-publisher that could compete with difficult forces in the marketplace, such as Amazon. In reality, the merger was a cost-saving measure for both companies. This is where Amazon may have the advantage. Amazon is its own retail distribution system. Traditional publishers rely on primarily Barnes & Noble, mass merchandise retailers, along with independent booksellers. Barnes & Noble and the independent bookstores are struggling. This has a big impact. Publishers need to get books into the retail book distribution system. The changes in the retail marketplace have also had a severe impact on all publishers, presenting challenges for author and literary agents because of the troubles in retail, and what is taking place among the big five publishers.
“I endeavor to help authors cement their brands and further extend their brand's reach to audiences...”
Many have described you as an author brand developer. Are some authors really brand names in their own right and if so, how do they become and remain household names?
Working in the area of commercial fiction is quite a bit different from working in nonfiction, in that nonfiction is more so an idea-driven endeavor. In fiction, readers come to the author for their name and their writing, so readers can return often, developing a large fan base for the author. From there, authors build out their author platforms and eventually become well-known author brands. It is not to talk about authors as though they were products. First and foremost, they are writers. In fact, I endeavor to help authors cement their brands and further extend their brand's reach to audiences through career management in publishing, film/TV, international rights and audio. The choices that are made can either enlarge an author's brand or see it decline. It's also about having strong relationships with the people in power in publishing around the world and knowing people in other media.
Others have come to think of you as a passionate advocate for authors. Is there a good example of how you've advocated on behalf of authors across all of book publishing?
In the early days of eBooks entering the book publishing marketplace, I fought fiercely with book publishers to help authors retain eBook rights to many of their eBook titles. This, especially, where eBook rights hadn't truly been premeditated by book publishers. It was a battle with two fronts, since at the same time, I fought with book publishers to get them up to where they are now on eBook royalty rates, currently at 25%. I still think that book publishers could go much higher on eBook royalty rates, due to the fact that eBooks eliminate many of the costs associate with producing books, such as printing, shipping and warehousing costs.
“The spirit of reinvention and innovation has always been the driving force behind Trident Media Group and my career as a literary agent.”
It is stated in your company bio that you "founded Trident Media Group with the goal of bringing an innovative approach to book publishing." What is what of the ways in which you feel that your or Trident have innovated in the book publishing process?
The spirit of reinvention and innovation has always been the driving force behind Trident Media Group and my career as a literary agent. That is one of the reasons why when the eBook craze came about, we knew to watch how the eBook marketplace was taking shape, in order to play our cards right. Too many literary agencies and book publishers made mistakes along the way. At Trident Media Group, a different approach. We formed our Digital Media & Marketing department. For instance, whereas other agencies were becoming rights holders in the lives of their clients when dealing in the eBook space, we knew that to be a conflict of interest, and chose to remain as an agency taking a commission for our services in the digital sphere. Other agencies and publishers weren't just being rights holders in the eBook space for their clients—they were taking exorbitant commissions or shares of the eBook proceeds. At Trident, we held to our commission structure. In the end, it served our clients much better in the eBook space. Trident Media Group is not a publisher. We assist authors and facilitate their eBook publishing ambitions. We also do the same for some of the estates we represent, such as Dr. Spock, among others.
“...Trident Media Group has the ability to shake, or awaken, the foundations of a staid publishing industry.”
Why the trident as the name and symbol for Trident Media Group (TMG), and why the initials "MG" in TMG?
I've always intended for Trident Media Group to be far more than just a literary agency. So when I founded Trident, I wanted to take a three-pronged approach to books and media, in seeing books pushed into three other main avenues of media—namely film, TV and the internet. I also admire Poseidon, the Greek God of the sea. Poseidon had the power to cause earthquakes in the exact same way that I feel Trident Media group has the ability to shake, or awaken, the foundations of a staid publishing industry. In Roman mythology, Neptune's trident could also create new bodies of water, much in the same way that Trident Media looks to create new sources of revenue streams for authors. In the Hindu religion, Shiva used a trident to ward off negativity in the form of evil villains, in the same way that authors should come to view Trident as a form of protection from evil. I have a sculpture of both Poseidon and Shiva in my office. Other times, I like to smile and think to myself that some authors must look at the trident/fork symbol in our company ensign and simply think of it as the place where artist will never starve!
Okay, now for some fun... I know you are fascinated by British military history and collect Waterloo medals from the Napoleonic era. You have a rather substantial collection of Waterloo medals, in particular. What is it about those medals that you enjoy so much?
It's not just about the shiny medals and colorful ribbons. I am deeply drawn in by the stories and lives and valor of many of the men whose medals I have in my collection. I have exhibited my medals at shows in connection with the Spink auction house in London and maintain a website where I showcase some of my collection of war medals at historikorders.com
“Dream big and be positive, is what I believe in when it comes to author success.”
Getting back to book publishing, do you have any advice for hopeful writers looking to become published authors?
Do not be discouraged by rejection—instead try to self-reflect, learn and grow from it. Each experience has value that an author takes forward. Self-improvement begins with the individual, and doing otherwise, simple delays the process of creative growth for a writer. It's like an athlete that loses the match against an opponent on a certain day...the losing athlete can blame the coach; or say the game was rigged by the judges; or claim that the sport itself is inherently unfair to the type of person the athlete is... None of that negative thinking will make the athlete a better athlete. Dream big and be positive, is what I believe in when it comes to author success. If you are a negative force others around you will feel it and will be put off by it.
Might you also be able to offer any advice to those looking to become literary agents or get their start in book publishing?
First and foremost, follow your passion. Stick to it. At the end of the day, one must have an undying love of books and stories in order to work in book publishing