Have you ever wondered what happens behind the scenes in a literary agency? There’s not a lot of transparency in the business. Most agents erect high walls to protect themselves from constant interruption and to preserve their ability to actually do the work they’re hired to do. Many of the busiest agencies don’t even have websites. Clients have open channels of communication with their agents, but aspiring authors in search of an agent will never even get to speak to one until and unless an agent decides to offer representation. If none does, the writer may never even get a response to his query; and if he does, it’s usually a form rejection letter, very brief, with no real explanation.
What are literary agents looking for? Are they even reading the reams of submissions they receive? What makes them sit up and take notice, and what makes them stop reading? Today, in the second half of my interview with Gail Hochman, the veteran literary agent answers these questions and more. Gail speaks for herself alone, of course, and every agent is different. But she is one of the savviest agents I know, and one of the frankest. Gail is the president of Brandt & Hochman Literary Agency and longtime president of the Association of Authors Representatives (AAR.) Her clients include Scott Turow, Michael Cunningham, Julia Glass, Bob Shacochis, Ursula Hegi…and me. You can read the first half of the interview here.
Barbara: What does a query letter have to do and be, to convince you to ask for pages?
Gail: Good credits, maybe a connection to a contact or client or writer we respect; a good, succinct pitch of a novel that seems to have a “hook;” not an annoying personality or pushiness. A letter that is interesting to read means the writer might have something interesting in his ms.
How important is it for a fiction writer to have a platform?
To me not at all, unless it is a nonfiction project that demands this kind of platform.
What credits do you consider worth mentioning in a query letter, apart from publishing credits? For example: membership in RWA or like organizations, writing groups, contests won, previous self-published work, college degree?
I think publishing credits, educational achievements, any awards, any interesting other career the writer may have or passionate hobby that is relevant and interesting. If the person sounds interesting and reasonable and the story sounds good, I might well ask to read.
If a writer has self-published previous work that has not sold well, does that hurt the writer’s prospects? What sort of sales figures would get your attention?
I really don’t care about other numbers or self-published books. But I don’t want to be asked to read and represent a self-published book for the commercial marketplace. To me—and this could be short-sighted, but I only have a 24-hour clock—if a book has been self-published, it has been “published.” I want to see new work.
Given the writers already on your list, what makes a first novel stand out enough for you to offer representation?
Incredible voice, fresh idea, something that tugs at my heartstrings. If it is well written and makes me cry, that is the perfect formula!
What makes you stop reading?
If a book drags or gets redundant; if the pacing is so slow that nothing new happens chapter after chapter; if I lose sight of what I am reading to find out—then I have to stop. An editor friend said once that he reads till he feels secure he is not going to buy this ms. My husband put it clearly, some years ago when he saw my incredible piles of reading. “What is that book about? Do you love it? Are you going to make the writer any money? Is it going to make you any money? Can you help the writer? Can the writer help you? No??? Then get it off the desk!”
Apart from the quality of the work itself, what other factors do you weigh in deciding whether to offer representation?
If I have met the writer and he seems helpful and mature; if my clients rave about the writer. If I sense a difficult personality, I may think long and hard before offering representation. But usually the book wins out, if I like it enough and have some good ideas for trying to sell it.
If an agent offers representation, what should writers ask before signing on?
The writer has to make sure that he understands and agrees with what the agent intends to do with the ms. He also needs to know how the agent will communicate, and that the agent won’t dump the ms. on an assistant. The author may have to sign an agency agreement, and for me (we don’t have agreements) this is an important moment. He should read and study the agreement and know just what he is getting into. I think the writer needs to know how he can get out of the agreement in a certain amount of time if things don’t go well. Some contracts say that the agent is the agent of record and will take a commission on this book forever, in any form, in any deal, etc. The author may think hard before signing with that particular agent, might try to change some of the wording if he feels it is necessary. (Some excellent agents may require this; but some under-performing agents could also demand this, and in the latter case the author would not be well served.) The client must understand what the commission situation is for all sorts of sales, and what other charges may be sent to him for payment.
What do most writers not understand about agents that you wish they did?
We are only people, mere mortals. The more we are in demand, the more we have to read, the more contracts we have to work on. We represent other people as well, and we have scores of people who are not yet clients sending us mss. We want to read your work fast, but there is only so much time in the day.
At times, agent and author disagree. I don’t know that the agent is always right, but there should be a calm way to discuss the situation. An unsold book is a distress to both parties, but there may be a moment when the agent thinks he has sent it out enough, and author may disagree. Instead of playing the guilt card, both parties should try to find a way to talk through this.
The most important thing that I wish authors knew is that our day-to-day work lives have become incredibly more intense in this current difficult market. We work long hours, we try to make connections. I feel very close to most of my mss but realize that the author feels even closer, more protective, more pro-active.
What happens when a book doesn’t sell?
There is a point, alas, when an unsold ms. is taking up much more of an agent’s time than it should be, and perhaps at this point the author should take over any submissions to small places. When the author keeps pushing new small houses to send it to, the agent is in effect being asked to spend more and more time on an unsaleable ms. that will never pay the agent back for any of this time. It is interesting also to know that sometimes a tiny press contract is more difficult to negotiate than a corporate contract, because the buyer is that much more stubborn, unknowing, maybe naïve. They may not do things in the standard way. Since the house is an unknown, we don’t want to let author sign a contract with clauses we’re uncomfortable with, because we don’t know how it would play out if we had a disagreement. And there may be a lawyer behind it all, or a university press board of some sort, so we actually work many more hours on a tiny deal from a tiny place, spending much more time than this contract is worth, because we don’t want the author to sign anything that could hurt him. And remember, all we can offer in the first place is our time and expertise. When that time and expertise are taken up with work that really does not help anyone very much, it is frustrating . Some agents don’t want to spend the time to work through a self-publishing contract, though that may be something we all have to start doing. We don’t want to complain to the client, whose work we really do support! It is the invisible use of our time that gets so frustrating—no one has yet invented the 28-hour clock, but that is the Xmas gift I hope to receive someday.
Having been in this industry for a couple of decades, what would you say are the most significant changes you’ve seen as they affect agents and their clients?
Just briefly—the technological revolution has changed everything. The internet as a place to promote and sell books, the digitization which allows for print on demand and self-publishing has opened up a huge new area. Anyone who wants to publish can now publish, can now promote, has a chance to find his own audience. The big question people seem to ask is do we still need publishers, and I think resoundingly we do. But there are more options, and the conventional houses are harder to crack, and it seems everyone is writing and making multiple submissions, so we are all working longer hours than we ever bargained for, just to keep in place. Then, with all these properties out there in the marketplace, it may seem more difficult to distinguish your own amazing work to the buying public. I think this is a difficult time for an “Emily Dickinson” type of writer, who may be really talented but really retiring.
No doubt; but the upside, as Gail points out, is that writers now have opportunities and tools they never had before.
Thank you, Gail!
A personal note: I have been blessed with several excellent agents in my career. Gail Hochman took over my representation several years ago and since then has not only sold my new book to Viking/Penguin, but also negotiated the reissuing of my backlist in ebook and paperback. SUSPICION and HINDSIGHT are now available in ebook and paperback; ROWING IN EDEN will be coming out on July 17, 2012. I’m quite proud of those books, and I hope you’ll give them a read. Click here for links to your bookseller of choice: Amazon; B&N; and Indiebound.