Books The traditional publisher's lunch is under threat as the bite from the economic crisis affects the industry, but it's not about the food or the books, but the importance of building relationships.
Fully booked for lunch
Last year was not kind to the publishing industry's bottom line. In the industry-wide struggle to cut costs, accountants and executives have questioned the necessity of the publisher's lunch, that hoary institution where editors and agents expound on topics ranging from 19th-century history to elephants over the entrees, and occasionally seal deals over the coffee. Despite talks of pruning, many in the New York publishing business feel that lunches are integral to helping agents and editors build relationships. Relationships which are important because, as editors love to point out, selling books is not like selling widgets.
"The idea of the lunch is that you're looking for the place where your passions overlap," said the literary agent Larry Weissman. Unpublished authors rarely have contact with publishing houses, rather, authors will work with agents who believe that they can sell the author's product. It's the job of the agent to match the product with a suitable editor. "It's not like we're dealing in vacuum cleaners. Agents really need to know their customers when they sell or pitch to them," said Laura Heimert, vice president and editorial director of Basic Books. While most editors and agents want to work on potential bestsellers, they also want to work on projects that interest them. "I've done very small deals about the subject of debt, because I'm fascinated by debt," said Mel Flashman, a literary agent at Trident Media Group. How does someone like Flashman find an editor who's interested in debt? Familiarising oneself with the editor's catalogue helps, but this can only provide a limited amount of information, especially for young editors with less experience. "It doesn't happen much over the phone, and we certainly don't go over to an editor's office and shoot the breeze," said Weissman.
Lunches function as a relaxing, social way for editors and agents to learn enough about each other to potentially do business in the future. "Yesterday I had a first lunch with a relatively young editor at Viking. We talked about mutual friends and Sonic Youth. We rarely talked about books but I now have a sense of the books that I would send him," said Flashman. Because both parties attempt to figure out their companion's likes and dislikes, and because the editors always pay, Flashman likens the lunches to dates. "Publishing is really a matter of taste, and taste is subjective. If someone debated in high school they might be more susceptive to a policy book as opposed to a meandering narrative."
Drinks and even breakfast also feature in the publishing business's socialising landscape. "Young people tend to go out for drinks more because we don't have kids," Flashman said. Breakfast sometimes fills in as added space in a tight meeting schedule. Heimert, whose lunches are usually booked a month in advance, will often schedule a breakfast meeting if someone is in town on a short notice. "Of course, lunches are prime real estate," she said.
Editors, in courting agents, compete not only with editors from different publishing houses but also with their own colleagues. "Editors want to guarantee that the hot new products go to them as opposed to their colleague down the hall, and lunching with agents is a good way to do that," said Flashman. There is less competition in smaller publishing houses, where one editor will supervise, say, historical fiction, where in larger publishing houses more people work on the same subject.
Occasionally, editors will take authors out to lunch as well. "Sometimes, after I sell a book, the author, editor and myself will meet for lunch to talk about the book's structure," said Weissman. Editors want to get to know authors in part because "if you're going to take on an author, and pay an advance, you're going to want to know that he or she is reliable and worth the money you spend", said David Nudo, former vice president and publisher of the industry magazine Publisher's Weekly.
Publishers, in part because they pay for the meal, tend to select the restaurant. "There seems to be a cult of sushi-eating among New York publishers," said Ben Wallace, a client of Weissman's. Ben's editors took him to two sushi restaurants, both of which happened to be "conveniently located within a few blocks of their office". With the recession showing no signs of abating, there does seem to be a decrease in the number of lunches in places like the Four Seasons. "Frankly in this climate it would be tacky to take people out to a really nice lunch," said Heimert. Flashman, who's lunched recently both at "fancy restaurants and glorified diners", remembers a luxurious lunch in Manhattan at the height of the financial crisis. "It was a deck chairs on the Titanic kind of moment. Even the butter cost $20."
However, publishers have now reined in lunch expenses. "Before I got my book deal I expected a legendary publisher's gathering," said Wallace. "But I only had lunch once with each of my editors, and the lunches were pretty straightforward," he said. Still, there is an art to the meeting. "There's an idea that no business is done till coffee, especially among editors and agents," said Nudo. Skilled lunchers make the lunches seem natural. "People used to say that you get to go to these great restaurants for lunch, but we are working here," said Nudo.
"People will spend most of the time just talking about other things. I generally don't talk about business for 95 per cent of the lunch. I let business arise organically, but maybe that's just the Mel Flashman way of doing things," said Flashman. Editors use the phrase "he does a good lunch" to refer to people who are pleasant to talk to, can transition smoothly from subject to subject and can insert business tactfully into the conversation.
Just like good lunchers can enchant a room, bad lunchers have the grace of a train wreck. One editor at a major publishing house, who chose to remain anonymous, complained about lunching with lecherous agents "who spend all of their time staring where they shouldn't, and who are so oily that you feel like you have to take a shower afterwards. "Another agent, a notorious bore, will spend the entire time speaking about his new diet, like how he only eats grapefruits. Needless to say, the food we eat together is terrible."
Authors, however, are usually worse lunchers than agents. "Agents work in the business world, so they have to be at least borderline acceptable. Authors are often freaks. Often, they mistake my interest in their manuscript for my interest in them as a person, so they hit on me or provide too much information about things like failed marriages, extramarital affairs, or childhood trauma. These types of lunches, luckily enough, are exceptions."
With publishing houses constantly announcing new layoffs, and with at least one major house still not acquiring new books, many in the business feel that saving $100 by cutting down on lunching is not going to solve the problems facing the industry. "It would be penny wise, pound foolish," said Heimert. "You can't put a price on the books and the ideas that emerge from the lunch, either at that moment or in the future."
Publishers also bemoan the state of the advance, where houses pay millions of dollars to an author with the expectation that they will make the money back by sales, which they often don't. "I mean, we're talking about overpaying by a million dollars, and a million dollars buys a lot of lunches," said Heimert. It pays to appear generous to authors though. "After I sold my book to Crown they held a party at their office," said Wallace. "It was purely celebratory and definitely bought the publisher some goodwill."
Wallace's first agent never took him to lunch. "Maybe that was a warning sign. On the other hand, as an aspiring author the power balance is pretty stark, so I didn't hold it against them, I just wanted them to take me on," he mused. "Part of dining is showing an author that you're a solvent house," said Heimert. "Especially because there is this mystique surrounding lunch you don't want to disappoint by taking them to some diner. You don't want to be cheap."
The publishing industry is in large part undecided about whether it wants to be an intellectual exercise or whether it wants to be a business. "For the first time, an editor asked me to split lunch. We agreed to just meet for coffee," Weissman sighed.