Lunch in the Digital Age

6 March, 2013

Once upon a time, when I was an editor at Ballantine Books, Random House, I arrived at my favorite “neighbojsuitrhood” restaurant to meet with a literary agent for lunch.  I coveted the corner booth, which was quieter, more comfortable and afforded some privacy.  The maitre d’ became very agitated.  “Oh,” he said, “I’m afraid I can’t seat you there today, Ms. Delbourgo.  You see, Sonny Mehta is coming today and he thinks it’s his table.”  Needless to say, I demurred and was seated elsewhere.  After all, Sonny Mehta was the head of Random House’s jewel-in-the-crown, Knopf, and a presence in publishing.  Absolutely no contest in the game of musical chairs.

Even then (some fifteen years ago), lunch had become a tame affair.  No more two-martini, three hour lunches.  No, publishing was already becoming a “business.” And yet, editors, agents and authors continue to get together almost daily for lunch.   Not only is it immensely enjoyable (people in this industry are so smart and dedicated, so it is a pleasure to meet with them), but it is also tremendously productive. Even with all of the myriad ways that we connect 24/7, there is a camaraderie and a sharing of information that goes well beyond what can be gleaned from an email or an editor’s job description.

Case in point, my lunch last week with Marcia Markland at Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press.  Although we have both been in the business for more than three decades, our paths have never actually crossed in person.  I knew that Marcia is one of the top editors for mysteries, and recently I’d sent her a mystery for consideration which she promptly turned down.  At the same time, she suggested we get together.  She arrived at lunch with a huge bag of books, many of her favorite ones that she’d edited.  As she went through them, I learned so much about her and what she loved.  I didn’t know, for example, that she publishes Scandinavian mysteries and has sources there who help her to identify the best ones, even though she doesn’t read a word of any Scandinavian language. Or that she loves cats and just happened to be reading a novel I’d sent the house that was narrated by a cat; I’d sent it to another editor who had passed it on to Marcia, who was clearly a perfect reader for it.  I found out that she was Julia Cameron’s fiction editor (who knew?) and that she was passionate about women’s issues.

Through the course of lunch, not only did we sample a delicious variety of Indian delights, but so, too, we got to know one another in a way that simply cannot happen just on the phone or through emails and submissions.  Not only do I now feel that I’ll be better able to target future submissions to Marcia, but I also felt that I’d met a kindred spirit and friend.   It is precisely those kinds of relationships that make this business so unique but also allows me to do a great job for my clients.

Today, I’m lunching with a favorite editor, Sara Carder of Tarcher/Penguin. Sara and I have published nine books together, including Nancy Dreyfus’ brilliantTalk to Me Like I’m Someone You Love and Victoria Moran’s inspiring Main Street Vegan. There’s a level of shared interest and trust.  I can’t wait to meet her at Le Singe Vert, a French bistro in Chelsea, not only because they serve excellent pommes frites, but because I know that we’ll be scheming about how to make an upcoming book I’ve sold her, The New Soft War on Women, succeed, refining the ideas we have for two other authors we share for what their next projects should be, and just generally catching up on what’s happening on the personal fronts of our lives.  I’ll also press her on what’s happening within the house:  What about the upcoming Penguin Random House merger?  What new marketing strategies are working? How is the publisher adapting to the decline of print sales?  It’s answers to questions like these that help me to provide clients with a true “inside” perspective on what’s happening in the industry, minute by minute.

It will be too early to raise a glass of wine to toast ventures old and new, but that will be the spirit in which we’ll drink our delicious New York City water, two colleagues and friends meeting new challenges, still in love with what they do.

–Joelle Delbourgo