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Gail Hochman

:: spotlight on the craft::
:: An exclusive interview::
By Julie Farin
WordSmitten Correspondent

Gail Hochman, a literary agent best known for the all-star roster of award-winning authors, represents Scott Turow, Michael Cunningham, Julia Glass, Bob Shacochis, and Nancy Zafris, among many others.

She graduated from Oberlin College in Ohio with a degree in Psychobiology and attended summer camps where she worked with autistic children. She also studied Italian in Venice and Perugia. Her original plan was to go to medical school to become a doctor, but she hated all the lab classes she was required to take as an undergraduate.

Would it then make any sense at all to take a smart right turn into the world of publishing? Accidents, happy and serendipitous ones, happen.

At Brandt & Hochman Literary Agents, Inc., and do note the partner designation, Hochman’s unorthodox background is living proof that one doesn’t have to follow the traditional route in college -- major in English, Literature or Creative Writing–-to be successful as a publishing executive.

One should be “a dilettante,” but must also have “a lot of interests, be curious, be a generalist, and love to read,” she rattles off in rapid-fire succession during a recent phone interview from her office in midtown Manhattan.

“I know I talk very fast,” she says apologetically.

Hochman first landed an entry-level position in publishing at G.P. Putnam’s Sons in 1975, when it was still a privately held company. As a young editorial assistant, she worked in the magazines department working closely with well-known authors to sell their short stories and book excerpts to The New Yorker and The Atlantic Monthly.

When Putnam was acquired by a large public media conglomerate the corporate culture changed. It was inevitable that new managers would be hired and would recruit industry cronies. Hochman, just two years on the job, was concerned that “the kids,” like her, within the company would be “passed over for promotions.” It was time, she decided, to move on.

Hochman contacted executives at Paul R. Reynolds, Inc., the oldest literary agency in the United States. The Reynolds agency, founded in 1896, is now known as John Hawkins & Associates, Inc. and her call to seek some career advice met with a positive response. They were impressed with her unique talent in dealing with authors and magazines. Unexpectedly, she was offered an opportunity to replace an agent whom “they had just lost,” she says.

During her six years at Reynolds, Hochman traveled to search for and sign new writers from top venues such as the University of Iowa’s MFA program. It was on one of these trips to the Midwest that she met a short story writer named Bob Shacochis.

“I signed up to meet all the agents and editors who come to Iowa on shopping trips,” Shacochis told Publisher’s Weekly. However, he was discouraged to find that most of them didn’t think his short stories had much commercial potential. “Come back after you’ve written a novel,” they advised him. Except Gail Hochman. She took him on as a client and initially sold one of his short stories to Playboy magazine.

Meanwhile, Hochman was introduced to Carl Brandt, whose small, family-run literary agency, Brandt & Brandt, was founded in 1914. She describes the firm where she’s worked since 1983 as a “quiet, solid, serious – not flashy – agency” known for literary fiction and memoir. At Brandt & Brandt, Hochman went on to sell two collections of Bob Shacochis’ short stories to Crown -- “Easy in the Islands,” which won the American Book Award for First Fiction in 1985, and “The Next New World”, which won the Prix de Rome in 1989. His editor at Crown, Barbara Grossman, planned on bringing him with her to Scribner. That move incited a bidding war between Crown, Scribner, and Knopf. Hochman capitalized on the demand for her client by boosting the advance for his novel, “Swimming in the Volcano.” Shacochis proclaimed to Publisher’s Weekly, “I want Gail canonized.”

Around that time, a former creative writing teacher at Stanford University, who was also an assistant U.S. Attorney in Chicago, contacted her. He had begun writing a non-fiction book about his experiences as a first-year law student at Harvard called “One L.” She found him “nice and extremely intelligent,” she says. His name was Scott Turow.

To her surprise, he told her to stop reading “One L.” Instead, he suggested she start reading a novel he was writing involving “a courtroom, sex, and the police,” she says. While reading the manuscript, Hochman told Turow that she was taking copious notes to keep track of the numerous characters. He told her to be patient and to “keep reading.”

She took his advice and continued reading at home. The protagonist, who is also the book’s narrator, is implicated in a murder. As the story continued to heat up, she said she “literally started to scream.” So much so that “my husband thought we were being robbed,” she adds. The manuscript contained the kind of high-quality storytelling using multiple plot twists making it a page-turner that she couldn’t put down. She knew she had a winner. It was called “Presumed Innocent” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux/1987).

When entertainment companies came knocking to option the film rights to the bestseller, Hochman continued to represent Turow. Although she says she likes Alan J. Pakula’s 1990 film version of “Presumed Innocent” very much (starring Harrison Ford, Raul Julia, Brian Dennehy, Greta Scacchi, and Bonnie Bedelia), she comments that nothing compares to the printed word.

Turow’s novels “The Burden of Proof” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux/1990) and “Reversible Errors” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux/2002) also aired as made-for-television movies.

Hochman represented another longtime client, Michael Cunningham, when his Pulitzer Prize and PEN/Faulkner award-winning novel “The Hours” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux/1998) made the leap to the big screen (starring Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep, and Julianne Moore). She felt it was a book that wouldn’t translate easily to film, but was ultimately amazed at the results (the film garnered Academy Awards in 2002 for Best Director, Stephen Daldry, and Best Actress, Nicole Kidman).

Cunningham also wrote the screenplay for his novel “At Home at the End of the World,” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux/1990) for the forthcoming film starring Colin Farrell.

When Hochman sees the credits roll in a movie theater that read, “based on the novel by” any one of her clients, she “bursts into tears,” she says. It’s a very emotional experience, she explains, “like having my baby up there” on screen.

By the early 1990s, she was promoted to partner at Brandt & Brandt, but modestly left the official name of the firm unchanged until years later for fear it would “increase the number of query letters I receive by 300 percent,” she says.

In addition to being a top literary agent, Hochman served a second role as President of the Association of Authors’ Representatives (AAR), one she takes very seriously. It’s not “glamorous or exciting,” she explains, but its mission is important.

The AAR’s committees discuss a variety of topics important to agents and writers – business issues, educational issues (i.e., choosing the appropriate panels/seminars to participate in at BookExpo America), emerging legal issues (i.e., electronic rights), authors’ guild issues, trends in editing, contracts, and royalties, and ethical complaints. The AAR’s members are agents who follow a strict canon of ethics. Hochman advises new writers to be aware of the following “red flags” when seeking representation:

1. What are the agent’s charges? Besides the commission, are there additional charges for phone calls, mailings, reading fees, or other itemized expenses? Always question the charges up front if they seem unusual.

2. Did the agent send your check? Once an agent makes a deal with a publisher on behalf of the client, the standard procedure is for the publisher to send the check directly to the agent. The agent, in turn, is to take his/her commission and immediately forward the balance to the author. (The AAR specifies a deadline). If the agent is holding back the money because he/she needs to pay the rent or electric bill, something is wrong.

3. Is the agent straightforward about deal-making? Does the agent withhold information or lie about potential deals or meetings with smaller publishers?

If the agent is an AAR member and violates any of the above rules, contact the AAR to file a grievance, Hochman suggests. If the agent is not an AAR member, contact the Authors’ Guild instead. Unfortunately, literary agents “are not licensed like doctors or lawyers,” she says. Organizations that advocate on behalf of authors’ rights are critical. Nevertheless, she is optimistic that “most agents are ethical,” and believes it is the few who taint the reputation of the industry.

The agent’s role is to land the best possible deal for the client while keeping the author’s larger, long-term goals in mind, she reiterates. Publishing houses are concerned with turning a profit and keeping its shareholders happy. As a respected literary agent, Hochman outlines four main priorities for her clients:

1. Profits – Getting the best possible book advance for the client is pivotal, but there are other concerns besides money that the agent should keep in mind. (See below.)

2. Publicity Potential – Does the publishing house have a well-staffed in-house publicity department that is going to support the author full-force?

3. Attention – Will the publishing house give the author the attention he/she deserves? For example, if the client is a mystery writer, should the agent accept a deal with a larger publisher (for more money) if it already has a stable of established mystery writers where the client might get lost in the shuffle? Or should the agent focus his/her strategy on a smaller publisher (for less money) that is beginning a mystery division and is in need of new mystery writers to promote?

4. Short-Term vs. Long-Term Strategies -- Will the publishing house take the time to nurture the career of a floundering writer? Or will they drop the client if one or two books don’t meet its sales expectations?

In a career spanning more than 30 years, Gail Hochman has come a long way since editing her classmates’ college papers and becoming an “accidental” agent. Brandt & Hochman Literary Agents continues its legacy of representing authors of quality literary fiction (non-genre), memoirs, children’s books, and mysteries.


To send a professional one-page query letter to GAIL HOCHMAN, contact her at:

Brandt & Hochman Literary Agents, Inc.
1501 Broadway, New York, NY 10036


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