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   Short Story and Novel Workshops Phone: 703-262-0969
   For New and Established Writers
A View From The Top
     by Michael Neff

An Interview with Robert Gottlieb, Chairman of Trident Media Group

Robert Gottlieb was born and raised in New York City prior to attending Elmira College in upstate New York. After graduation he began his career in the mailroom of the William Morris Agency, as part of the company's Agent in Training Program. In 1977 Mr. Gottlieb moved into William Morris' Literary Department, taking a position as a departmental assistant. Shortly thereafter he began working with Owen Laster, Head of the Literary Department. In 1982 he became a literary agent. Seven years later, in 1989, he was promoted to Senior Vice President, becoming one of the youngest agents to ever head the William Morris Agency's Literary Department. He was elected to the WMA Board of Directors in January of 1992 and was also made an Executive Vice President of the company. In September of 2000, Mr. Gottlieb started Trident Media Group, LLC, an organization specializing in all areas of representation in regards to intellectual property, where he now serves as Chairman. Mr. Gottlieb discovered Tom Clancy and represented the sequel to "Gone With The Wind." Mr. Gottlieb also represents entities such as the Frank Herbert Estate and consults for the Vatican.

Trident Media Group is a new media business that represents clients and their intellectual property in all areas of entertainment, including publishing; motion picture; television; theatre; and new media.

Trident Media Group's impressive roster of author clients includes: Deepak Chopra, Stephen Coonts, Catherine Coulter, Janet Evanovich, Allan Folsom, Elizabeth George, DUNE and the Estate of Frank Herbert, Dean Koontz, and Jerry Oppenheimer. The agency has also represented some of the biggest and most prestigious book deals for celebrities, including Jerry Seinfeld, Sir Anthony Hopkins, Mel Brooks, Aretha Franklin, Drew Barrymore, Paul Reiser, Brian Wilson, Tony Curtis, Carl Reiner, Mariel Hemingway, and Tony Bennett.

The company has recently merged with the Ellen Levine literary agency, which brings award-winning literary clients to Trident such as Russell Banks, Michael Ondaatje, Garrison Keillor, Louis Sachar and Todd Gitlin.

NEFF: Robert, hello! Let's begin way-back to your days in William Morris as an "Agent in Training." Was this an invaluable experience?

RGOTTLIEB: Absolutely. It was graduate school for agenting and entertainment. I had the chance to learn all aspects of the business from the ground up, and also make friendships and connections that have lasted throughout my professional career.

NEFF: Tell me, what percentage of agents begin their careers in major publishing houses vs. starting right at the agency?

RGOTTLIEB: There are always a fair amount of agents who start in the publishing houses and then decide to be agents. Especially as the publishing companies have conglomeratized and editors have become more limited in what they can do, people have left that side of the business to come over to the selling side, where they can have a chance to be a little more independent and entrepreneurial. Despite that trend, I think most agents are still starting their careers working as assistants in agencies.

NEFF: Pardon the cliché, but your rise in William Morris was meteoric. How do you account for your success?

RGOTTLIEB: I had always loved books--history, literature, stories--and I knew this was what I wanted to do from a young age. I had a specific goal in mind and I worked towards it. I think people who have concrete goals in mind and have a conception of what they need to do to attain those goals are the most successful. I knew I wanted to join the training program at William Morris, I knew I wanted to be a book agent, I knew I wanted to work for Owen Laster, who was at the time the head of the Book Division. Once I was there, I gave myself 5 years to work under him before I became an agent in my own right, and I took it from there.

NEFF: What made you want to start your own agency?

RGOTTLIEB: As much as William Morris is a wonderful company, it is a large company with a complex structure. As well as I did there and as much as I enjoyed my time there, I was still somewhat limited in what I could do. Now I am truly independent and able to pursue all my ideas, work with any projects I want to.

NEFF: I'm curious. What is the general atmosphere in 2003 publishing circles towards first novelists as compared to the 1970's or '80's for example?

RGOTTLIEB: On one hand, first novelists have it better than ever. More books are being published than ever before, and publishers' number one concern is sales figures -- I'd much rather be a first novelist who they could take a chance on to be the next big thing, than be a second-time novelist whose first novel didn't sell well.

On the other hand, more books are being published than ever before, which gives your first published novel less of a chance of being supported by the publisher and actually getting read by anybody.

NEFF: What steps does Trident take to discover and/or nurture first novelists?

RGOTTLIEB: Personally, I go to a few writers conferences and book festivals a year. I also have a staff of agents here who are going to the writers conferences, reading literary magazines, searching for new talent. We do feel that an agent's role in publishing today is multi-dimensional. We manage a writer's career, working with him or her on everything from getting a first novel in good editorial shape for submission, to ushering the book through the publication process, to helping the author think in the long term about what they want to be writing and where their career is headed.

NEFF: Is Trident mostly concerned with genre literature or mainstream literary works as well?

RGOTTLIEB: Both. My forté has always been mainstream commercial fiction and nonfiction, but we have agents here who specialize in literary fiction, mystery, science fiction, narrative nonfiction, and others. We recently merged with the Ellen Levine literary agency, which has brought writers like Russell Banks and Michael Ondaatje onto our list.

NEFF: A list to be proud of. By the way, I often tell writers in our workshops it is imperative they thoroughly understand the genre market they are writing for, and especially pay attention to what types of first novels are being published in the genre. Is this good advice?

RGOTTLIEB: Yes, it's great advice. Whatever you're doing in this business, whether you're an agent, editor, or writer, it's crucially important to keep on top of what's happening in the industry. Agents and editors are much more likely to take writers seriously if they can name other writers in their genre whose work they admire, publishers who specialize in that genre, books that have done well, gaps in the market they think they can exploit, etc.

NEFF: Can you rank the top genre markets in terms of most lucrative to least?

RGOTTLIEB: I would hesitate to do that. The markets are very cyclical. Whenever I think the market for a particular genre is dying out, it comes back again. Plus, good work in any genre is always salable. Keep the pages turning, create engaging and believable characters, concentrate on the story.

NEFF: When Trident considers a new author's manuscript, does film potential play a role in the decision process?

RGOTTLIEB: Sure. We would never turn down a manuscript that would make a great book because we don't see much film potential, but it's a nice added plus if we do.

NEFF: Many blockbuster authors, the wealthy ones, appear to gravitate towards organization, the creation of commercial art by committee. In other words, they hire people to write their books for them. In your opinion, does quality suffer as a result?

RGOTTLIEB: No. When an author has created an entertainment brand name, it's a beneficial situation for everybody involved, including the reader, to exploit that brand to create further novels. First, the famous authors do not simple sell their names, they work closely with the co-writer to create a book they are proud to attach their names to. The whole endeavor allows the famous author to earn more, it allows the co-writer (usually a talented individual looking to break into the genre) a chance to publish widely and get their name out there (as well as earn much more than they normally would), and it gives the readers more great, entertaining novels.

NEFF: I recall a Forbes story from last year about "hyperbranding." I believe that's the term. Is this an inevitable evolutionary process given our culture? Or is it the personal choice of the author?

RGOTTLIEB: It's a little bit of both. It's what the market and culture demand, but it could not take place without the consent and involvement of authors.

NEFF: Might one refer to this as the concept of author-as-director or author-as-producer? They utilize a team to handle various aspects of the process much like a producer or director of a film? Or am I off-base here?

RGOTTLIEB: This is close, although it implies less authorial control over the material than the author actually has. Most of these situations are cases where the main author is a co-writer of the novel; even when they are not strictly speaking a co-writer, they work closely with the writer to create the novel and have close control over the work.

NEFF: As naive as this might sound, what does any author get out of turning the art into an equation of production? The author is already wealthy, famous. They've perhaps lost the will to write in a way that once satisfied them. Why do it at all?

RGOTTLIEB: I don't think it's a question of: one is 'art' and one is a 'product'. Keep in mind that the co-writers are not hacks-for-hire, but instead are usually very talented writers in the genre in question who have not had the success of the major author. We are also not talking about taking Michael Cunningham or Russell Banks and doing 'created by' books. It's not right for everybody. In my view, this type of publishing strategy is good for major genre writers whose skill is creating exciting, fast-paced, plot-driven, technically accurate thrillers. Also, they do not trade up working on their individual novels for co-writing. They continue working on their own books while collaborating on others.

NEFF: Can you tell us about your discovery of Tom Clancy?

RGOTTLIEB: Tom had published his first novel, HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER, with a small press. I was at a stage in my career where I was constantly reading magazines, small press books, looking for authors and ideas. I read that novel and was blown away -- I knew I was onto something big. I contacted Tom, and we worked together for twenty years.

NEFF: Who are some of the other big name writers represented by Trident?

RGOTTLIEB: Trident reps authors such as Dean Koontz, Janet Evanovich, Elizabeth George, Russell Banks, Garrison Keillor, Michael Ondaatje, Deepak Chopra, Neil Baldwin, and others. We also represent the book projects of celebrities like Anthony Hopkins, Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, the Osbornes, and others.

NEFF: Any notable up-and-comers in the Trident stable at this time? Anyone for us to watch out for?

RGOTTLIEB: Dan Vining, an exciting young poet and scriptwriter whose first novel, THE QUICK, is due out next year from Berkley, represented by Scott Miller. Marne Davis Kellogg, a wonderful mystery writer who new book BRILLIANT has just come out, represented by Kimberly Whalen.

Patricia Ward, a literary novelist whose just-published first novel THE BULLET COLLECTION has received several promising reviews, represented by Matt Bialer.

Justin Cronin, another literary novelist who won the PEN-Hemingway award for his first novel, MARY AND O'NEIL, and his second is coming out early next year, represented by Ellen Levine.

NEFF: What is your best advice to an aspiring author?

RGOTTLIEB: Write as much as possible, be persistent, don't give up.Concentrate on telling the story. Learn the business, learn how to be your own best advocate. The authors who make it are the ones that are the most intelligent about how the business works, and how to promote themselves.

About the Interviewer
Michael Neff is the Director of WDS and Algonkian Workshops. His email is


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