Robert Gottlieb never backs down from a fight—at least not the fights that make front-page news in the publishing biz. An outspoken agent with more than 30 years' experience, Gottlieb has long considered himself a defender of copyright or, as he puts it, “the essence of how creative people make a living from their work.” Protecting that essence has landed Gottlieb's name in many a publishing story. Now, as the industry is confronting a bleak economy, and the Authors Guild and publishers are squaring off against Google and Amazon over digital rights that heretofore never existed, Gottlieb has some firm ideas on where things are headed.
Gottlieb started in the mail room at William Morris, fresh out of college in 1976. Though he had designs on joining the agency's motion picture division—as did most of the other newbies—Owen Laster convinced him otherwise. Laster, then head of Morris's literary department, asked Gottlieb to be his assistant. Laster, who became Gottlieb's mentor, convinced him he could have a future working with books. Gottlieb recalls, “He told me the great thing about books is that they're used in a lot of media, from movies to TV, and that was appealing to me.”
Gottlieb quickly worked his way up the ladder—in his early 30s he became the youngest member of the company's board of directors—accruing a list of big-name authors, among them Tom Clancy, Dean Koontz and Janet Evanovich.
In the mid 1990s, as publishers were just beginning to see the earnings potential of digital media, Gottlieb became one of the most vocal agents advocating for authors to retain digital and multimedia rights. At that time, with CD-ROMs making headway into the market, no one really knew how books would be read in the future. Gottlieb, as head of one of the most powerful New York agencies, used his leverage to make it clear that authors (and, by extension, their agents) weren't going to miss the boat.
Today, although some of the specifics have changed, the battle hasn't. Publishers and agents are still trying to parse who owns which rights, and, of course, Gottlieb's attitude hasn't changed. When asked about the recent scuffle authors waged against Amazon regarding the text-to-speech option on the new Kindle 2, Gottlieb takes a familiar stance: “Companies can't eviscerate copyright.... They can't incorporate rights they don't have; if those things are allowed to happen, it only serves to deteriorate the industry as a whole.”
Gottlieb also believes, as many agents do, that renegotiation on e-book royalties is inevitable. Because it's cheaper for publishers to produce e-books—with the physical production and distribution removed from transactions—the “cost of doing business,” as Gottlieb puts it, is lower for publishers. This means “authors should share in that additional profit.”
And, as it happens, Gottlieb is doing pretty well in difficult times. His agency—he split off from Morris in 2000 to found Trident Media with fellow agent Dan Strone—is prospering, and he's bullish about business. According to Gottlieb, Trident, which has 17 agents and reps some 700 authors, is on track to match last year's performance.
Gottlieb is also focused, as imprints are dying off and publishers are slashing budgets, on ensuring that Trident clients get marketing dollars up front in this era of shrinking media campaigns. “We want it in writing, or at least in the form of a personal guarantee, explaining what they'll do for a book before we sell it to them,” he says.
So what does Gottlieb think of the notion that publishing is dying? He dismisses it. The challenges ahead excite him—“I don't see [any of] this as the end; I see it as an ever-evolving adventure.”