In republishing some of my older articles I've been struck by how little has changed in the decade or two since they first saw the light of day. In some cases I've scarcely had to change a word. However, I'm afraid that the following piece will not stand the test of time. When you come to the end you'll see why the sacred ritual known as the publishing lunch date may be doomed.
By Richard Curtis
When the time comes for me to lay down my sword and armor and cross into the Great Beyond after a lifetime of combat with venal publishers, crooked movie producers, treacherous lawyers, and kvetchy authors, it is my fondest hope that the gods will reward me with perpetual publishing luncheons. What fardels would I not bear knowing that such a treat awaited me on the other side! Some agents and editors feel lunches are tedious obligations at best and duck out of them whenever they can. I find them incredibly exciting, frequently dramatic, and always enlightening: I have never come away from one without having learned something useful. And, if everything comes together perfectly, the occasion can be a transcendental experience both culinarily and literarily, a sublime blend of art, commerce, and hedonism.
Most outsiders (such as authors) have a dim or distorted idea of what is involved in publishing lunches. To them, these affairs are as mysterious as royalty statements and discount schedules. So come perch on the right lobe of my brain, which in agents is the segment devoted to luncheon dates, and observe the process from the ringing of the phone (which automatically makes me salivate) to the final, discreet burp.
First, you should know that it is usually the editor who extends the invitation, selects the restaurant, and pays the check. Exactly why that is, I’m not sure, for it is clear that both parties stand to benefit equally from the occasion. (Mind you, I’m not complaining!)
Because it’s the editor who proposes and disposes, any agent who reverses roles and offers to take an editor to lunch is apt to earn many bonus points on the editor’s scorecard. When I worked for my first boss, literary agent Scott Meredith, he never permitted his staff to allow editors to treat them to lunch, I think because it implied a dependency that tarnished the agency’s image. I thought that was great, and I still do, but few agents can afford a steady diet (pardon the pun) of paying for editors, and if letting an editor pick up the tab suggests that the agent is dependent on him – well, in truth he is.
Editorial calendars tend to be filled for weeks and even months ahead with other lunches, editorial meetings, business trips, vacations, conferences, and conventions. So it is by no means unusual for lunch dates to be made far in advance, with the parties exploring dates for fifteen minutes before finding an open one. This practice makes one keenly and often disconcertingly aware of the rapid passage of time. A flip of your calendar, as you and your would-be luncheon partner seek an agreeable date, and you realize that another season has passed, another year. Here it is August, blazingly hot and swelteringly humid, and you are contemplating warm, heavy food, sweaters and furs, and talk of ski trips and Christmas books; in February, as bitter winds whistle past your windowpanes, you set a lunch date for a day when cherry and magnolia blossoms will strew the selfsame streets now carpeted with yard-high snowdrifts. It’s a strange feeling. Red-letter days in the publishing calendar signal another year fled from our lives: “I can’t make it in October, that’s the Frankfurt Book Fair”; “November’s no good, we have sales conference”; “Forget the last week in May – I have to get ready for the BEA convention.” The seasons cycle inexorably and you wax philosophical about the rolling years. Have I achieved anything important? Have I fulfilled my youthful goals? God grant me just one DaVinci Code before He takes me away!
Although your luncheon may be on some absurdly far-off day, the restaurant and precise hour are seldom selected until that very morning. Then, sometime around ten-thirty or eleven, your host or hostess calls you with the traditional phrase, “Are we on for today?” The time and place are then agreed upon. But not always easily. To wit:
“How does Italian sound to you?”
“Had it last night. Mexican?”
“I’m on a diet. There’s a great fish place around the corner from my office.”
“But that’s all the way on the other side of town from me. Well, okay, but can we make it twelve-thirty? I have an author coming up to my office at two.”
“That’s bad for me. I’ll be in a meeting all morning.”
And so it goes.
Sometimes there is more to these negotiations than two busy people trying to find common ground. Nothing serious, just a subtle game of chicken, like waiting till twelve-fifteen before phoning to confirm the lunch date, or jockeying for who is going to come to whose side of town: I am more powerful than you because I made you come to my side of town at an inconvenient hour and eat a cuisine that gives you heartburn.
Occasionally lunch dates are canceled, and canceled at the last minute. The reasons range from “I forgot to mark it in my calendar” to “I have pneumonia.” One morning, after waiting till noon, I phoned an editor to see if we were still on for lunch. “I’m afraid not,” she said. “I was just fired.” I told her I thought that was a very poor excuse for canceling a date and I took her to lunch myself.
As the cancelee of today may be the canceler of tomorrow, we all accept cancellations with a certain degree of equanimity. They can, however, prove frustrating. I can all but guarantee that on the day I don my best suit and most expensive silk tie in anticipation of a Lucullan orgy at a four-star restaurant with an editorial kingpin I’ve been wooing for months, the date will be canceled and I’ll end up glomming a ham and Swiss on rye at my desk – and getting mustard on my tie to boot. Conversely, the days one wears jeans and tee-shirt to the office are inevitably the days one gets an impromptu invitation to Grenouille or Le Cirque.
Your luncheon companions range from the most eminent and powerful editor to the callow rookie who has just been given a title and expense account and told to go meet agents. Some agents, particularly the more prominent ones, disdain invitations from freshman editors. Why waste time with subalterns without clout when you can pick up the phone anytime and get the head of the company? I personally find that attitude shortsighted. New editors are often the most enthusiastic, ambitious, and industrious, best attuned to trends to which the older guard may be oblivious – new music, hot electronic games, rising young film stars, embryonic fads, and so forth. There’s another reason for cultivating young editors: In this turbulent age of musical chairs and sudden upward mobility, the green kid I dine with in March may be a department head in April.
Where you eat is a function of many factors: the age, seniority, and expense account of the editor; location; the amount of time available; dietary considerations; the importance of the host; the importance of the guest; the importance of the business at hand. Obviously, for example, young editors must entertain more modestly than senior ones. Yet many senior editors, having seen the inside of every restaurant in New York City after decades on the luncheon circuit, are just as happy to grab a burger at a coffee shop or munch a sandwich in the park. One of the most memorable lunches I ever had was with Robert Gottlieb, then editor in chief of the distinguished house of Alfred Knopf. It consisted of vanilla yogurt, nuts and raisins, and an orange, eaten in his office – eaten, indeed, on the floor of his office, for every horizontal surface including the couch was covered with manuscripts. Gottlieb had courageously taken himself out of the luncheon game, professing it to be too time-consuming, expensive, and fattening. All of which is true, agents and editors remind each other as they study their menus and debate trading off the appetizer for dessert.
When a senior editor is courting an agent in the hopes of capturing a big-name author, you can expect a Drop Dead, Pull Out All the Stops, No Prisoners Taken luncheon, the kind most authors think occurs every day but which in fact happens quite rarely. Such affairs reverberate in memory till the end of time. I remember one laid on for a major client and myself at the Four Seasons. Every course from the quail egg appetizer to the ethereal flan dessert had been prearranged by our publisher-host. Captains and waiters, obviously tipped off to the preeminence of the guests, attended us with obsequies usually reserved for caliphs and maharajahs. Our host had but to nod and the staff was galvanized into action. And, as the presentation of a check would have been a base intrusion of crass mercantilism into so elevated an occasion, it was never brought out. I assume it was simply forwarded to the publisher’s accounting department for review at some later date.
While sumptuous repasts are certainly incomparably exciting, and the author unaccustomed to “the treatment” may well feed off the memories till he’s old and gray, I am far from convinced that they make much difference in influencing authors and agents. Such feasts seem much more appropriate for celebrating the closing of a major deal than for softening up reluctant objects of a publisher’s affections. Which is not to say they should stop trying.
Authors have a misconception that lunches are the time when deals are made. In my experience most deals are made on the phone; the lunches are devoted more to getting acquainted with editors and their companies. Although I used to feel that some kind of business should be accomplished during lunch or a short time afterward, I’ve come to realize that friendships struck at lunch may not pay off for years. Nevertheless, there is something theatrical about presenting an editor with a manuscript at the luncheon table. I remember one occasion when I brought a bulky manila envelope with me to a restaurant. Throughout lunch, the editor cast intrigued glances at it, and at last, toward dessert, she ran a covetous hand over it. “Is this something for me?”
“Oh Lord, no,” I said with a gulp, realizing I had inadvertently led her on. “These are shirts going back to Bloomingdale’s!”
Another common belief is that publishing lunches are rather boozy affairs. In truth, the dominant beverages for the last ten years or so have been wine, juice and sparkling soda water, and even the hallowed Marys are as apt to be Virgin as Bloody. On occasion, hard liquor is ordered, but sipped in moderation. As for the fabled two-martini lunch, I can truthfully say that in the last decade I can recall only one luncheon companion who ordered martinis, but since he was a confirmed alcoholic, the more he drank the more coherent he became. Because drunkenness is, among other things, a breach of manners (and manners are largely what publishing lunches are all about), editors and agents are extremely careful not to drink too much. I have seldom seen an editor become so much as tipsy at lunch. I wish I could say as much about authors, though in mitigation it must be said that they are usually a little nervous, unaccustomed to banquets on so lavish a scale.
Just what is ordered depends on the circumstances. Almost every editor in town has a diet book on his or her list and is experimenting with its advice. So there has been a distinct trend toward simple, highly nutritious cuisine, even in the elegant watering places where high-rolling publishing potentates hang out – all those places beginning with La and Le and Il. Exotic cuisines are usually avoided unless the editor and agent are old lunching companions and are willing to drop their guards a bit. With them I hit the Mexican, Brazilian, Thai, and Indian joints, drink beer (straight from the bottle) instead of wine, relax protocol and manners, and exchange confidences seldom heard at high table.
Although the agent-guest is encouraged to order anything he wants, if the editor is decidedly junior it is an act of cruelty to order the most expensive items on the menu, but I do know some agents who, if they are mad at a publisher, will take their petty revenge by hitting the company up for a five-course extravaganza with champagne, brandy, and cigars elaborate desserts.
Not all foods are suitable for business luncheons. Though I adore sloppy items like lobster and ribs, it is usually inappropriate to order them, for there is no way one can be cool and nonchalant while sucking the liquid out of a lobster claw or picking a spare rib clean with fingernails and incisors.
Like those in other industries, publishing luncheons have a rhythm and flow that follow Aristotelian dramaturgical principles, from the quiet exposition through the developmental passages and on to the stirring climax. While the talk at the outset is small – the weather, the latest Big Apple catastrophe, your life story, “How I Got into Publishing” – it is seldom unrevealing to one alert for clues to one’s companion’s literary interests, status in the company, industry clout, negotiating skill, and other traits that may prove useful in future intercourse. Above all, there is gossip.
New York trade publishing is a very small town. Although Literary Market Place, the industry’s directory, contains thousands of names, my own short list of key contacts contain no more than three hundred names or so, and anything that happens to one of them is bound to affect my clients’ interests. Promotions, firings, resignations, romances, divorces – all are grist for the agent’s information mill in the perpetual process of assessing who’s got the power, who’s spending money, which way the market’s going, what the next hot trend is.
Thus, in due time talk drifts toward serious business. What good authors and projects is the agent handling? What’s the editor looking for? There is scarcely anything you can say that doesn’t serve as a springboard. The birth of my son inspired luncheon discussions leading to at least three books my agency subsequently developed; let that be a lesson to anyone asking me to produce wallet photos of my family.
Here, then, is what I love best of all about luncheons, for within seconds the conversation can shift from idle chatter to immense profundities, only moments later to shift again to money talk as the parties try to place a dollar value on the ideas under discussion.
Agent: Whew! Have you ever seen weather like this?
Editor: This is the third mild winter in a row. Do you think the climate is permanently moderating or something?
Agent: Possibly. This meteorologist I’ve been corresponding with thinks the pollutants in the air are seriously affecting world climate. The planet is overheating. The ice caps are melting.
Editor: Really? This meteorologist – um, is he writing a book perchance?
Agent: Funny you should ask. He’s halfway through one. He’s got great credentials and he’s promotable as hell. Looks a little like Brad Pitt.
Editor: I’d be interested in a book like that.
Agent: Would you be interested one hundred thousand worth?
Editor: Fifty thousand worth, maybe.
Agent: Fifty! The guy’s been on Oprah twice, for crying out loud!
Lunch is over. The editor pantomimes a scribble toward the captain, the time-honored gesture of summoning the check. There is no quarreling. The inviter pays, the invitee says thank you, and that’s usually that.
Goodness, it’s five minutes before three! Got to get back to the office. Loved every minute of it. Let’s do business. Let’s stay in touch. Let’s have lunch again soon!
- Richard Curtis
PS: For a bitter post script to the above article, read Publishing Bigshots Told to Open Canned Tuna, Eat at Desk by Leon Neyfakh
Let's Have Lunch! was originally written for Locus, The Newspaper of the Science Fiction Field. It's reprinted in How to be Your Own Literary Agent, published by Houghton Mifflin, Copyright © 1983, 1984, 1996, 2003 by Richard Curtis. All Rights Reserved.