Interview with Roman Hocke
by Ramona Roth-Berghofer
Roman Hocke, on your website you mention that your agency cares for the needs of authors as well as catering to those of publishers. You also mention that you offer the full range of author services. What does that mean in practice?
Publishing has reached the point where all that matters is marketing, and no one bothers about content. Simply being a marketing agency for manuscripts doesnít interest us; we want to be there for our authors, helping them to develop their scripts from the initial idea to the finished book and bringing out the best in their work, to ensure that it has a genuine chance of being read. Of course that means that weíre only able to work with a relatively small number of authors. We need to be sure that we have the time to work with them intensivelyóand of course we need the chemistry to be right.
Literary agencies have long been a part of the media landscape in the US. Are they set to play a similarly important role in Germany and Europe?
The literary marketplace is becoming ever more complex, and publishing companies are turning into publicity machines. No one has time to engage with authors and their ideas, so the role of the agent is becoming increasingly important. Authors with agents have someone to turn to when they want to discuss their work or need help and advice. The publishing industry is undergoing a radical change.
What kind of expertise does a literary agency need in order to be successful in todayís publishing and media industry?
A literary agent should have worked his or her way up through the publishing industry and have first-hand experience of all aspects of the trade. Only then can an agent do his or her job properly and mediate effectively between authors and publishers. I worked for seventeen years at the heart of a publishing company before leaving to become an independent literary agent in 1997. My associate, Reinhold G. Stecher, Director of AVA, has been in publishing for forty years and has worked for more than two decades as a literary agent.
At present things are looking bleak for the publishing industry. Publishing houses are going bankrupt or downsizing, some are closing particular lists and so on. How does that affect you as an agent? What kind of problems are you encountering? How are you responding to the changing circumstances? And how should authors be responding?
The current crisis in the publishing industry has resulted in a huge cut in the number of titles being published. Fewer and fewer manuscripts are being accepted for publication, which means fewer and fewer authors are getting into print. In my view, there is only one way of dealing with the situation, and thatís by focusing on quality. Books need to tell powerful stories; stories that are entertaining but at the same time profound. Stories that have a truth to them and that have the power to move the reader. A story should entertain its reader, but also show them something - the two things are equally important.
Does AVA International focus on specific areas? Do you represent foreign publishing houses as well, for instance?
We work exclusively with authors, and our relationship with our authors is very personal and direct; so no, we donít represent foreign publishing companies. Weíre very happy though to represent authors from abroad. Whether a book is based in fact or fiction, the idea and the story at the heart of it develops from the relationships between people.
How many manuscripts do you receive each month, and how many do you actually accept? And how many of those scripts are you then able to place?
Iím not sure itís possible to answer a question like that with statistics - I personally donít believe it is. Every month we receive a large number of manuscripts - far too many in fact. And weíre only able to accept a tiny proportion of them. Most of them simply arenít good enough - theyíre well-intentioned, rather than being well-written. All the same, I still take the time to take a look at the submissions myself. Every now and then you discover a wonderful book or a wonderful author - but it happens very rarely and itís a laborious process.
What are the most common reasons for rejecting a manuscript?
People have a tendency to start writing stories that have already been written. Sometimes the stories arenít earnest enough; they arenít written in earnest. On other occasions theyíre not sufficiently well-developed. Coming up with a new story and making it easy to read sounds very simple, but thereís nothing more difficult.
How do you go about presenting your authorsí books to publishers? What approach do you take?
Conviction and passion - which can only arise from genuine pleasure in reading the books.
What are your conditions for authors? How much notice has to come from either party for the contract to be terminated? How much commission do you charge? Do you have a set fee? Do you charge for editorial input as well?
Our contracts feature the standard rates of commission, which only apply in the event that the book is published. We donít charge our authors for editorial input. The arrangements for terminating a contract are straightforward: if people are no longer happy to work together, then they shouldnít be forced to do so - at least not when itís a question of creativity.
Do authors have to pay commission, even if their script canít be placed?
No. An authorís services shouldnít be secured by financial incentives but by the persuasive power of each story.
Who retains the copyright to the work? The author or the agency?
The copyright remains the property of the author. Agencies arenít able to acquire rights, not even the right of publication. The agency only has the right to market the script. The law is very clear on that.
Do manuscripts have a better chance of being published if theyíre submitted by an agency rather than being sent in unsolicited?
Absolutely. The very fact that the script has already gone through a selection process at the agency means that it is more likely to attract the attention of a publisher. A book that comes with the recommendation of a good agent has the seal of approval of a master story-reader.
What advice would you give to prospective authors? What things do you need to bear in mind if you want to be published?
Being praised by your family and friends might tell you something about your interpersonal skills, but it rarely tells you anything about your qualities as a writer. These are the product of passion and skill. I like reading manuscripts that convey a writerly passion, that struggle to answer a question, that defy common sense, or that play with reality. I donít want to be overwhelmed with opinions or answers; Iím much more interested in reading a well-posed question. And remember: quality always wins through. But you only get one chance. So make sure that you start by writing the best book of your life - donít wait and leave it until your old age.
Roman Hocke, thank you.
Originally published in: The Tempest, No. 5-9 (September 2003), Part I, http://www.autorenforum.de, Ramona Roth-Berghofer