Transcript: Top Agent Calls Amazon ‘Innovative’

Listen to Podcast Download Transcript PDF

Interview with Robert Gottlieb, Chairman, Trident Media Group

For podcast release Monday, April 9, 2012

KENNEALLY: Publishing. It’s a business of words. Yet, definitions of many common words in publishing’s vocabulary are evolving and mutating. What we mean by authors, agents, and even publishers is no longer clear.

Hello. My name is Christopher Kenneally, and welcome to Copyright Clearance Center’s podcast series, Beyond the Book. Joining me today in his office in New York City is Robert Gottlieb, chairman of Trident Media Group. Robert, thanks so much for joining us.

GOTTLIEB: My pleasure.

KENNEALLY: We should tell people first of all that you began your career – it’s an exciting story – in the mailroom of the William Morris Agency as part of the company’s agent-in-training program. In the early 1980s, Robert Gottlieb discovered Tom Clancy, and in 1989 he was promoted to senior vice president at WMA, becoming one of the youngest agents ever to head that agency’s literary department. After 24 years there, Gottlieb started Trident Media Group in September 2000, where he now serves as chairman.

Robert Gottlieb built his stellar reputation by being the first and the most effective literary agent to brand authors. His successes over the years include international best-selling authors Deepak Chopra, Catherine Coulter, and Elizabeth George. He has also consulted with the Vatican and the Russian Cultural Ministry in connection with intellectual property rights.

So with all of that as a setup, Robert, I want to ask you about the way that Trident and your colleagues here think of the work that you do. You’ve always done very much more than simply connect authors and publishers. In 2012, what are Trident agents doing with their authors, for their authors?

GOTTLIEB: First and foremost, we are advocates for the authors. These are challenging times. Big media companies are in the business of publishing. It’s no longer a cottage industry. Agents need to not only know material, help their authors with their manuscripts, but they have to understand the dynamics of the business in a way that most likely has not happened in the past.

KENNEALLY: I’m interested in having you share your understanding of some of those dynamics and some of the things you’re doing at Trident demonstrating your adaptability, if you will. So for example, there have been some recent announcements about deals with the publishing wing of Amazon. What’s it like to be dealing with Amazon now as a publisher?

GOTTLIEB: I enjoy working with Amazon. They’re innovative. They are giving authors a very, very good deal on the e-book rights to their books as part of the overall publishing matrix that you arrange with them. That’s a very important factor because it’s not just a front list business, but it’s a back list business, and as the mass market business continues to decline, the back list business will be in the e-book business, and those publishers who are giving the most advantageous royalties in the e-book business are going to be the ones who are the best ones to be in business for authors, I believe.

KENNEALLY: Can you tell us about a couple of those deals and in general what the attraction is for Amazon? As I understand, it really does come down to that royalty split, and that’s an area that you’ve been rather vocal on.

GOTTLIEB: It’s the royalty split, which I feel is very important, again, because back listing of authors’ works is a major business. But I also believe that Amazon has demonstrated the capability across its platform to work on authors’ behalf in terms of marketing and promotion, which has not existed previously in our industry.

KENNEALLY: As I said in my introduction, the definitions of the roles in the publishing business are changing and evolving, and I wonder too whether the power is shifting. Do you feel that power is moving toward the author now more than it was in the past?

GOTTLIEB: Yes and no. I don’t think it’s all one way or the other. I will say that the footprint of Amazon gives it a unique position in the e-book field the way that Barnes and Noble has a unique position in the physical book field because of their footprint.

I think that the author having more options of course creates opportunity for authors that did not exist before, but the important thing is, you want to be in all streams of the business leading into the major river system of revenue as opposed to just focusing on one revenue stream.

KENNEALLY: Right. As an agent then, how does this change your role in the relationship with the authors? Are you more of a coach? You mentioned being a friend as well as their business representative. But it seems more like a kind of a coach, somebody directing the plays for them, if you will.

GOTTLIEB: It’s business management. It’s something that did not happen 20, 25 years ago when publishing was basically a cottage industry where you made a deal with a publisher and it was left between the author and the publisher to do everything for the book, and the agent moved on to the next book deal, kind of like a real estate agent. But today, you really have to know the business of publishing in order to help your author along in all these large publishing medias.

KENNEALLY: And Trident is even moving into some business of its own beyond simply representing authors. You’ve got an e-book division that you’ve announced. Tell us about that and what you’re going to try to accomplish with that.

GOTTLIEB: The e-book operations of Trident are designed for authors to have an option, for authors to be their own publishers if they wish to, for authors to have capabilities in that format beyond just putting a file up on a particular retailer site. We have special relationships with the retailers. We’re getting a lot of things for our authors with the retailers that no single author by themselves can get with them because of obviously, the large amount of work that we can deliver to the various retailers, large amount of business.

And also, there’s an international component to it because not every book gets sold internationally. So figuring out a strategy for an author internationally in the e-book area is part of what we do so that an author has as broad an audience in as many languages as possible.

KENNEALLY: And I believe you’ve noted that the growth in the business really has been on the international side beyond the U.S. borders. Any particular markets or any particular formats that are most exciting to you?

GOTTLIEB: Last year, in the midst of a recession, Trident grew our foreign rights business by 68 percent. I don’t know of a lot of American companies that can make that claim. And it is an area where there’s a lot of growth potential. We go to the Frankfurt Book Fair with a group of agents; we go to Bologna Children’s Book Fair; we go to the London Book Fair. So we are not only committed to those markets, but we also have a team of experts in that business selling direct in the major markets, which consist of Germany, the U.K., France, Western Europe, Northern Europe. These are major markets for American authors.

KENNEALLY: What about in developing countries? We hear a lot about the bricks, for example, in economic terms. I wonder whether beyond the traditional marketplaces in Asia, for example, perhaps even in South Africa or in Latin America, you’re seeing opportunity. And is it opportunity that’s in the digital space rather than the print space?

GOTTLIEB: I would say there’s opportunity in both. We just sold a book in the Afrikaans language in South Africa. What’s happening is that because of the e-book business, it’s allowing books to be published in a variety of countries and languages without the extreme expense – or the high expense, I should say – of creating the physical book, distributing it, warehousing it, etc. So you can get market penetration into places where historically it was very hard to do so.

Now, in terms of the Far East, China, India, there are challenges there, and in Russia, by the way, because piracy is rampant and it’s not being controlled by the governments of these countries at all, and it’s having a very negative impact on the growth of their publishing business and the future of their publishing business. But we’re concentrating our efforts in areas where we know that we can grow our authors.

KENNEALLY: As we’ve all heard, there have been some efforts within the United States, for example, to legislate against piracy – SOPA and PIPA – that failed this time around, is expected to return, and the U.S. government has certainly stepped up the game by shutting down Mega Upload. Do you think more should be done about piracy and what would you suggest should be a way of going about it?

GOTTLIEB: My view is that there are limits to what the federal government can do, limits in terms of resources, manpower, the money to enforce. It’s not a major priority in the world of crime. I think what publishers need to do is follow the Hachette model in the U.K. where they have not only aggressively gone after pirates, but they have gone after them in the courts and shut them down. The problem with American publishers at this particular juncture – it may not be a problem in the future – is they’re basically putting a strategy in place which is a take-down strategy versus a knockout strategy.

KENNEALLY: Interesting point. Define that. Why would it be better, one or the other?

GOTTLIEB: Because a take-down strategy allows these firms to put things back up, whereas a knockout strategy puts them out of business.

KENNEALLY: So you would prefer the latter, obviously.

GOTTLIEB: I prefer the latter.

KENNEALLY: And that’s because you’re representing authors. I think that, a lot of the time, the copyright debate sounds to a lot of people like it’s a pro-publisher debate, a pro-media business debate. But fundamentally for you – and I’ve seen you post on this on various places – being anti-piracy, pro-copyright is a matter of being pro-author.

GOTTLIEB: It’s a matter of being pro-business. After aerospace, the largest export segment of the U.S. market is intellectual property. If we allow intellectual property to fade as a business in this country, it’s going to affect the employment of millions of people, the economy of the country, cities and states throughout the United States. The fact that it’s become so expensive to do production for TV, film, and TV series in the United States, forcing it to places like Canada, has given jobs to – allowed countries overseas to develop industries and jobs because they are getting our business.

And so, in terms of copyright protection, it’s primary for the country as a whole, not just for individual authors, but for the country as a whole, to protect the creation, the unique American innovative creation that takes place in connection with intellectual property.

KENNEALLY: That’s an important point. You got into the business at the William Morris Agency as an agent in training because you loved books, and it must mean to you something more than simply a business, though. It’s a matter of the cultural value of what is done here at this agency and around the publishing business.

GOTTLIEB: Absolutely. You have to have a passion for what you do. I’m not the type of person who just wants to come to work and sit in front of a screen and manipulate a tenth of a cent here or a tenth of a pound there and hopefully make a million dollars that day for a Wall Street firm. That’s never been my interest or intent. I love to work with creative people and writers and the world of literature.

KENNEALLY: What about the blending of roles that’s happening as some agents become publishers, as some authors become publishers? What are your thoughts on that? Is that a good move or a bad move, or perhaps it’s not a black or white issue?

GOTTLIEB: It’s a little bit of both. I think that it’s not good for an agency to position themselves as a full-blown publisher. It’s one thing to allow an author to create their own works and arrange distribution deals with retailers for the author. We’ve done that in the past where authors have come to us – or I should say, when I was at William Morris, authors would come to us and say, look, I have a finished book here. I want to print X amount of books. Can you make a distribution deal for me?

The problem comes into play when an agency, in my opinion, wants to be a rights holder, or an agency wants to take a bigger percentage than their normal commission for providing those services.

KENNEALLY: And what about for authors becoming publishers? If you see that happening or you see an author stable who’s got a book perhaps not under contract with you and wants to try to publish it on their own, what’s your reaction to that?

GOTTLIEB: Our business recommendation is going to be based on the circumstances of that individual author. Not every author is going to be doing all these things together at once. I do think there’s an enormous value to being in business with a major publishing house. They have a lot of business experience. They have a lot of assets. They are capable of making an investment in the marketing and promotion of a book that an individual author can’t. So I think that there are a range of possibilities. My suggestion is the best way to go is have the right mix.

KENNEALLY: With regard to authors and discovering authors, you discovered Tom Clancy. I wonder if you could tell us briefly how that happened, and how is Trident Media Group discovering authors today? How has that changed?

GOTTLIEB: As a group at Trident, we love finding new authors and we have found a lot over the years. In 2011, I discovered a self-published author on Amazon named Chris Culver who wrote a book called The Abbey. I loved the book. I reached out to him. I asked him if he would let us represent him. He agreed to come on board. The book outsold Lee Child’s in the thriller section of Amazon. It went on to sell over 700,000 copies between Amazon and Barnes and Noble and was named in the top 10 overall bestselling books on Amazon in 2011.

Now we’ve made deals for him in the U.S., with Hachette and with Grand Central Publishing and with Little Brown in the U.K. So that’s a good example of our commitment to new authors. All my colleagues are thinking in the same exact way.

Another colleague found an author named Houck on Amazon. She wrote a book called The Tiger’s Curse, which we took on for representation. We sold it to Sterling Publishing, part of Barnes and Noble. They did a fantastic job at Sterling. All the books in the series have been in the New York Times bestseller YA section, and now she’s an international bestseller with over 40 countries publishing her in different languages.

KENNEALLY: It sounds like the slush pile – pardon the expression – for 2012 is Amazon.

GOTTLIEB: It very much is, because Amazon is allowing a lot of authors to self-publish, which could not happen before. It wasn’t so much the gatekeeper issue. It was really more a question of the expense involved and the range of publishers who were limited by the physical space in stores across the country. With Amazon, with, and with others, there is no limitation of space. The footprint is massive and by virtue of that fact, authors now have opportunities to self-publish that they never had before.

KENNEALLY: And I wonder too whether deciding to publish with Amazon is evidence of commitment. When you want to sign up an author, you want an author for a career, not just a single book, and someone going out there taking a chance on their own, seeing how the work is, exposing it to the public, demonstrates a kind of commitment on that author’s part.

GOTTLIEB: We like to represent authors who want to have a career in publishing, and when I say publishing, all formats. James Rawles, who’s America’s leading survivalist, wrote a book called Patriots. I saw it on Amazon. It was a top flight thriller in the top 100 for two years. We sold him to a publisher in New York for his second book in the series with the same character. He reminded me a lot of Tom Clancy, frankly. And his second book, Survivors, went to number three on the printed hardcover list of the New York Times bestseller list.

So, Amazon can be a very good launching pad, but you also, as an author, need the proper business management to take it to another level.

KENNEALLY: We’ve been chatting today with Robert Gottlieb. He’s the chairman of Trident Media Group, speaking to him in his office in New York City. Robert, thank you so much for joining us on Beyond the Book.

GOTTLIEB: It’s my pleasure to be asked to participate in such a prestigious show.

KENNEALLY: Thank you indeed.

Beyond the Book is produced by Copyright Clearance Center, a global rights broker for the world’s most sought-after materials including millions of books and e-books, journals, newspapers, magazines, and blogs, as well as now images, movies, and television shows. You can follow Beyond the Book on Twitter, like Beyond the Book on Facebook, and subscribe to the free podcast series on iTunes or on our website,

My name is Christopher Kenneally. For all of us at Copyright Clearance Center, thanks for listening to Beyond the Book.