Category Archives: editor/agent lunches

Literary Socializing

As a newcomer, I’ve recently become more aware of the paradox of how social the publishing industry is and how solitary the act of reading itself is. I’m told that some of the industry’s seasoned professionals express disappointment that the days of gala book parties or hanging out at George Plimpton’s home are long gone. While I can’t imagine how exhilarating that must have been, I’m delighted that the industry is still so social and full of life.

There are few greater feelings in the world than when you connect with someone over a mutual book.

I’m convinced that bibliophiles living in the city are among the luckiest in the world. Not only is the heart of publishing in NYC, but the amount of events you can attend with fellow nerds grows by the second: launches, book clubs, readings, signings, discussions, mixers, benefits. This weekend, the KGB Bar Fiction Reading Series continues not far from our office.

Aside from the beloved book festivals and book weeks, which are a personal favorite, what are your favorite events to attend—either as a writer or as a reader?

10

Writing and drinking…or writing about drinking

Those of you who know me know I love a good cocktail–mixology (though I hate the word) is a bit of a hobby. I make a killer martini, have perfected my favorite version of an Old Fashioned (Makers 46, The Bitter Truth’s Jerry Thomas’ Own Decanter Bitters, orange peel, bar sugar, and a splash of soda), and even have some Creme de Violette, in case a guest requests an Aviation. That said, I’m a total lightweight who can’t ever have more than two drinks, so I’m always in awe when people speak of three martini lunches. I know the drinks and glasses were smaller years ago, but it’s still impressive!

More to the point, I was really taken with this Daily Beast piece with the 10 Best Writings on Booze.  With excerpts from heavyweights (and heavy drinkers) like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker, and Edna St. Vincent Millay, it’s worth it just as a reminder of how good these ten writers are. Two of the pieces stood out.  Kingsley Amis’s description of a hangover from Lucky Jim is beyond brilliant. Who knew a hangover could be so poetic (and downright funny) in its pain?  And to sum it up with “He felt bad,”  is nothing less than perfection.  The other excerpt that stood out to me was from Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, in part because it’s so good, but also because I still clearly remember reading the book sophomore year of high school, sprawled out on my tomato-soup-red carpet (it was there before we moved in!), totally absorbed. It’s one of those magical reading moments that’s forever etched in my brain. Maybe all that foreign drinking inspired my love of travel and cocktails? Considering the content of the book, I doubt it!

Anyone got any great booze-related books or book-related cocktail recipes to share?

4

Background Fails

Today I want to talk about my current editorial fixation: Background. I had lunch yesterday with one of the top thriller/mystery editors in the biz, and at one point we compared notes on what works in his market and what I found worked in YA. In both genres, the answer was pretty simple: Plot rules, background fails.

Over dessert (I know, we were naughty), we both lamented the submission we see and reject over and over: the one that opens with a big, slam-bang action scene followed by about 50 pages of background before anything equally exciting happens again. Generally, that background takes three overlapping forms: backstory about the characters, description of the setting, and sharing of research. And usually, you can tell from the tone that the writer feels this background is very, very important to your understanding of the opening scene.

But really, 50 pages? There’s a reason why it’s called a thriller—it’s supposed to thrill you with an exciting plot. Why do we need to know a character’s personal history if that character isn’t really doing anything? Why paint a beautiful atmospheric picture of the Florida everglades if nothing actually happens there? Why describe in detail how a jet fighter works if it doesn’t get off the ground? Where’s the thrill in that?

Some say you start with a bang then slow the tempo so you have room to build—I say, why not keep up the tempo and build higher? After that big opening murder, I’d much rather watch the killer run and the detective chase than learn about the killer’s sad childhood and how the detective’s wife left him. In other words, let me know the characters by being shown (hint, hint) what they do than being told (get it yet?) who they are.

Here’s a little exercise I learned at a writer’s conference: take a look at your first 50 pages and cut any and all background material you find there. Then, either connect what’s left to the rest of the plot, or fill out the story with action scenes. I have a sneaking suspicion that not only will your manuscript be more gripping and fast-paced—thrilling, even—but that when you go back to fill in the background, you’ll find you it barely even miss it.

25

Agent eat agent

by Jim

Holy animosity, Batman! In one of the more unexpected blog posts I’ve read lately, agent Betsy Lerner took aim at people she hates: namely, literary agents. Including (it seems) herself!

Betsy equates the publishing tradition of agent/editor lunches to having someone shit on her face. Now, I’ve had some bad lunches, but… She then goes on to describe agenting as “being a professional sleaze bag.”

I’m not gonna lie. When I first read this, my hackles raised, and I muttered something like, “What a load of [string of expletives].” But that was defensive me talking. (Defensive me has a really dirty mouth). I quickly settled down, but I still don’t really agree with Betsy’s take.

I’m sure there are editors who hate agents and agents who hate editors, and I know there are terrible people in every business. But for the most part, I enjoy my colleagues on both sides of the divide. More importantly, I love being an agent. Which is why I do it!

My take is that if you feel like you’re being a sleazebag, maybe you’re doing something wrong. Or maybe you’re just approaching things in the wrong way. The interests of client and publisher are often very similar: let’s get the best book out there and make the most money. There are differences of agreement, rights to battle over, and money to beg for (the best part!), but in the end, there aren’t two oppositional sides in this business. At least, there certainly shouldn’t be.

Which is all to say, I think it’s possible to agent with dignity and respect. Yes, agents are often the bad guyswe send out the most rejections, we’re pushy on behalf of our authors, and some of us can be aggressive as hell, but it’s being done for the good of authors and in support of books. I can’t find fault with that.

As delightful agent Ginger Clark passionately stated in the comments, Cobb salads are delicious. Still, I wouldn’t be overly concerned if someone was tired of eating them. In terms of an agent cracking a joke that they can figure out what 15% of any number is…okay, I’ve totally used the same joke a ton of times. I thought it was funny! But apparently I was shitting on people’s faces. Oops!

So what do you say? You hate us when we reject you, but sometimes you secretly love us, right? Some of us are super nice and totally respectful. Pinkie swear.

1

The publishing lunch

by Jane

One of the “legends” of book publishing is the publishing lunch. In fact, this has traditionally been a time for publishers and agents, or editors and agents, or editors and editors, or agents and their clients (or potential clients) get together and talk about ideas and industry gossip. It can be very productive and it can be fun. It can also be educational.

This week, I decided to go down memory lane and describe some of my more interesting publishing lunches (unfortunately for my readers, those with whom I broke bread will not be identified by name, to protect the innocent—and me).

Years ago, there were those editors who as part of their employment contracts had “accounts” at The Four Seasons restaurant, one of the most exclusive in New York. I remember being invited there a number of times by various editors who had such arrangements. Unfortunately because the “Grill Room” where we sat was so filled with celebrities, I was so busy gaping that I could rarely concentrate on business talk.

Then there was the lunch I had with one of the icons of the publishing industry. This happened many years ago and I was delighted that he had invited me after I had sold a novel to one of his editors for quite a large advance. But, I was so tongue tied and he was so unforthcoming that I wound up spending most of the lunch telling him how I had stopped smoking. (It didn’t help—despite numerous health problems, he still smokes to this day.)

There was a lunch I had early in my publishing career with the head of an imprint at a large publishing house where my host proceeded to have seven drinks. I was astounded, especially when he easily managed to exit the restaurant without passing out.

There was the bestselling restaurateur and cookbook author who begged me over lunch to introduce her to one of our hugely successful celebrity clients so the cookbook author could learn the secrets of the celebrity’s success (they had actually met several years earlier before the celebrity client was a celebrity but the restaurateur had not thought to pay attention to her at the time).

A week after my lunch with one of the top editors at a major publishing house, she called me to make a lunch date having completely forgotten that we had just had one. Nice!

There was the lunch I had with a good friend and wonderful editor at a major publishing house who told me ruefully that he could no longer take me (or anyone) to lunch as his t&e budget had been all but eliminated. (How silly, I thought, the lunch expenses have to be the least of a publisher’s worries.)

And then this past week when I lunched with one of the top executives of a major publishing firm who predicted the end of bookstores and publishing as we know it by this time next year (nice and cheery).

But hey, there are also hundreds of wonderful lunches where solid ideas are cooked up and good business is done It all goes into the mix of making our business so much fun.

4

Cutting expenses effectively

by Jane

Recently I learned that a major publisher was severely limiting the amount each of their editors could spend taking agents to lunch. And then there was another major publisher who eliminated editor/agent lunches for a month at a time and cut all T & E expenses in a significant way. Finally, there are those publishers who have totally eliminated the editor/agent lunch.

I have to ask why, in a business that is really a “people” business they chose to do this? For decades the editor/agent, editor/author lunch was where real work got done. Ideas were exchanged and concepts were developed. Indeed, I know that many great books resulted from these relatively inexpensive forays.

At the same time as these lunches have been cut out (or cut way back), publishers still continue to:

  • Send significant contingents to enormously expensive international book fairs, some traveling first class.
  • Use town cars to travel to and from appointments.
  • Insist upon delivering signature contracts in the mail or even by messenger rather than electronically.
  • Send covers by hand rather than as jpegs.
  • Fed-ex documents and books hundreds of times weekly (a publisher I spoke to recently told me this).
  • Keep their lights on overnight.
  • Use messenger services to return proposals and manuscripts which have originally been e-mailed to them.
  • And, of course, cut very good personnel from their staffs.

My question is why? Why not change all of these things immediately so that exciting new book ideas and important relationships can develop again? Yes, over lunch. 
 
Can you think of any other ways publishers can cut current expenses to enable them to operate more efficiently and less expensively without costing them the creative exchange of ideas our business depends on?