One of the little jokes that the publishing industry likes to tell about itself is that we all love to lunch – that we spend most of every day at lunch. “I really feel we should have a lunch, don’t you?” and “Surely it’s time for lunch!” we proclaim to one another on the phone, or when we bump into each other at parties. This has nothing at all to do with food, or the need to eat (although we love food, and love to eat – how else can we account for the obscene number of unprofitable cookery books which explode onto the market every year?) so what is it about?
There is something about laying eyes on someone – looking in their face and watching their reactions – that is so essential to understanding them, and from understanding stems good business. When I started writing this blog, what I proposed was that the publishing industry was based on ‘connection and conversation’. It is so easy to forget, as we switch on our voicemail and bang out fifty emails, how much more productive that conversation can be, when it is had face-to-face.
Next week you’ll find me at the publishing industry’s biggest annual face-off – The Frankfurt Book Fair. I’ve written about the thrill and the importance and the slog and the cheap wine of the big bookfairs before. Some of us like to eyeroll about the Bookfairs – about the hard work, about the proportion of the meetings and late night drinking sessions which are inevitably unproductive bullshit – but I’m not one of them. (I never did sit at the back of the class kicking the chairs, I always had my hand in the air.)
So yes, the first year I went to Frankfurt I loved it. Everyday life in publishing in the UK can be brutally commercial – usually has to be – and at that time I was experiencing it as cumulatively dispiriting. And everyday life as an agent is sometimes dominated by straightforward administrative tasks – even if they are tasks which all add up to something grander and cleverer; the protection of authors’ careers and income. At Frankfurt, the European publishers I met were excited about the books they were publishing and reading. Publishers from different countries with books in common enthused together about their shared passion and success. Hearing about the books business around the world inspired me to regard our own with more affection, also to be more creative in my thinking about it. And it sent me back to my manuscript pile with renewed hope and ambition.
The same infectious and positive dynamics can be found wherever book lovers gather together – at literary festivals, industry conferences, at parties (how we love parties), at bookshop readings, on writing retreats. And also at our smaller gatherings – at breakfast, at lunch, at drinks. What could be better, than meeting someone who loves what you love, and talking about your shared passion for an hour or two?
Just as the invention of the ebook has indirectly made physical books more beautiful and desirable – as publishers work on making them covetable and irresistible – so perhaps has the dominance of email correspondence made meetings more notably productive than ever. These days, I often drop in to see a publisher in their office even if only to discuss something relatively minor. Because convening short meetings about smallish intractable things is a relatively unusual habit, it tends to kickstart conversation. And face-to-face, it is so much easier to appreciate the concerns of the other party and to reach agreement.
There are a few editors in London who make a habit of visiting their authors regularly in their homes, wherever those authors live. They intuitively realise that knowing an author well is necessary to editing an author well; and that the best way to know someone is to see them in person, preferably in the place they love, where they are their best and fullest selves.
Similarly, some hugely successful authors still thrive on meeting their readers, even though they no longer need to tour in order to sell books. As a result, they know who is reading their books, and why, and how their books make those readers feel. Often, readers queue for a long time for the chance to shake the author’s hand, to thank them in person for writing their book, to look them in the eye and thus to make real the intimate connection that was forged during the reading experience. The personal dedication scrawled in the front of their copy represents the whole encounter: it’s personal, now.
When I meet a publisher for lunch, I don’t expect to sell a book over the avocado salad (thirty percent of publishing lunches and 80% of publishing breakfasts involve avocado, it’s a rule). What we do is to catch up – on what I’m working on, on what editors are looking for, who they want to hire, changes to their lists, recent bestsellers and why they worked, recent flops and why they didn’t. As we run through the latest opportunities and challenges presented to publishers, authors and agents we complain, explain, laugh and gossip – all four activities much more satisfying when indulged in person – and through our conversation we find new ways to do good business together.
And at lunch we also get personal. The small courtesies essential to a lunch date – consideration of the other party’s food preferences and interest in their taste experiences, the custom of one party paying for the other’s meal, chat about recent good food we have enjoyed – naturally extends conversation into the subjects of family, feelings and home. And in that way do we, through our shared meals, become so much more to one another than An Agent, An Editor, A Publisher. Personalities attach themselves to names; emotions to stories; real knowledge of our colleagues is forged.
One on one in person, we are less guarded than we are in writing or in a group. When we listen to one another carefully, when we watch one another, when we read a menu together, when we touch through a handshake or by kissing cheeks, we reveal our humanity to one another in multiple conscious and unconscious ways. This is publishing for humans, after all. And that is why we like to do lunch; it is also why I’m going to Frankfurt next week.
I look forward to seeing you soon.