The Oberlin Stories Project

On exploring the radically shifting publishing world

Mack Gelber ’10

“This is the chief thrill of interning at a literary agency. You never know if the next manuscript in the stack is going to be a dud or the potential classic of our time.”

Mack walks along a city street.

Oberlin students have a kind of running joke about the Winter Term program, which goes something like this:

A: So, what’re you gonna do this January?
B: I don’t know, I was thinking about putting my nap endurance to the test. Waffle making? Watching all six seasons of Lost? Maybe growing a beard. Is that good for one credit or two?
A: Depends on the beard. Man, isn’t college GREAT?

Like a lot of things at Oberlin, Winter Term is what you make it. It can be a sham or a shining opportunity. And although I’d already fulfilled Oberlin’s standard three-project requirement, this past January I took an internship at Brandt & Hochman, a literary agency based in Manhattan.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I initially accepted the gig out of cold self-preservation (Q: “Will you give me a job this summer?") — the kind of rat-racing cynicism I suspect a lot of college seniors get used to. But by the end of my first day I understood that regardless of whether or not my new superiors dangled the golden carrot (A: “No."), this busy, blustery month had the potential to be the most “Oberlin” of learning experiences: the kind that exists for its own sake.

One of those superiors was Gail Hochman, an Oberlin alumna and dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker whose clients describe her as a modern day saint. Among those clients? Michael Cunningham, Julia Glass, Norton Juster, Scott Turow. Gail is the real thing, an Ari Gold of the literary world, with all the tenacity and fast-forward gregariousness that title implies. She’s every writer on the make’s dream, and (this is where the Entourage comparison falters) a pretty good boss, too.

Over fist-sized deli sandwiches, she drew me and my intrepid fellow interns a picture of the radically shifting publishing world and her distinct role within it. An agent’s job is to represent authors, yes, to sell manuscripts and nurture the best possible deal. But there are bigwigs to be contacted, egos to be stroked, relationships to be maintained. And this is a job about relationships. In an industry where the vast majority of publishing houses are owned by a handful of larger conglomerates, and digital accessibility threatens to make printed media go the way of the eight-track, it has to be.

But mostly, there’s reading. And reading. And reading. Each week, hundreds of query letters lap up against the agency’s doorstep like so much kelp, each one trumpeting its author and respective manuscript in similar heart-palpitating terms. The writers are high-ranking businessmen, MFA recipients, cab drivers, prison inmates. Everyone’s got a novel in their back pocket. And although each proposal will be considered in fairness, only a handful will garner responses. When the manuscripts arrive a week later, they will be added to a slush pile that, in actual slush terms, is waist deep. If nothing else, it’s a wakeup call for the idealistic and starry-eyed among us: being a writer is hard. Even if you go on to earn an MFA — practically a requirement in this world — be prepared for high school prom levels of rejection.

It becomes oddly empowering, chucking one manuscript after another onto the teetering “No” pile. A coming-of-age thriller set in the Alaskan wilderness? Nope! A postmodern novel about an obscure Japanese entomologist? Not for me! A true account of one “life-changing” year in India? Keep your day job!

The weekly shuffle to sort queries and critique manuscripts comprised the bulk of my labor, sometimes punctuated by contract assessment or filing (March, 1961: “I’m having a hard time adapting this Shirley Jackson story. Think she’ll mind if I change the third act?"). Although the spare corner office I shared was cramped and overheated, as a window into the larger publishing industry, my view was considerable. A folder full of rejection letters, contracts, and reviews was a virtual epistolary narrative of one author’s big break, charting his ascent from obscurity to rising star to consultant for an acclaimed TV series. And a glance through the major publishing catalogues offered insight into what sells and who’s buying. While B&H is known for signing authors who excite them rather than ones they sense will be big sellers, the market for Marxist prose poetry is only so large.

Of course, there are times when the work feels a little bit like a death march, a struggle to reach the bottom of a reading list that never gets any smaller. Sometimes the manuscripts are laughably poor; more often they are simply pedestrian. But all it takes is one gem to make the job fulfilling. I uncovered one at the eleventh hour, during the last part of my last day at Brandt & Hochman. It came out of nowhere. The novel, the author’s first, was funny but dark, page-turning but deeply strange. It was a voice I’d never heard before, one that seemed to fill a void I hadn’t realized existed. This is the chief thrill of interning at a literary agency. You never know if the next manuscript in the stack is going to be a dud or a potential classic of our time.

In all likelihood, the latter is doubtful. But this is one lesson of the publishing world that, for the creative writing major seeking to go pro, may be at least somewhat encouraging. The truth is that most of the writing out there — whisper, now — most of the writing out there isn’t very good. There’s no shortage of snappy titles or flashy premises, but honest-to-god, knockout writing is in short supply. I have never been more impressed with the talent fostered by Oberlin’s creative writing program than I was after a month on the professional slush pile, and half of the authors held MFAs. Next Winter Term, put down the waffle iron and try getting some of your material out there. Lost will have reruns. This world needs you.