There is an interesting article in the New York Times today (June 25, 2020) in which some agents and editors and publishing people complained about not being able to go to business lunches. Ok, that’s an oversimplification of what is ultimately said by these people, but the traditional thinking—which has not simply vanished in light of the pandemic and necessity of (and ease of) working from home—is an important element in why publishing is so white and straight and ableist and exclusive. If we are to make real change in publishing we have to stop lamenting the death of the agent-editor business lunch, and what’s more, we have to start actively seeking creative ways to connect across regions and communities.
Jordan Pavlin, editorial director at Knopf, said editors can’t create a bond with an agent “without going for drinks and spending the time and saying the indiscreet things, all the stuff you need to do early on in your career to build lasting relationships.”
Just the paragraph before this quote, the reporter editorializes: “There is a certain intimacy to the book business. For many authors, turning in a manuscript is like handing over a chunk of their soul, and delicate conversations about revisions are generally best when you can look someone in the eye. Editors and agents build relationships over the course of years, learning each other’s tastes in writers, themes and ideas. The meandering conversations that lead there just don’t work as well on Zoom.”
Anyone who has ever made a friend at sleepaway camp or online or at college knows neither of those statements is true. Yes, long-distance relationships require attention. As does every relationship. To meet for lunch you still had to think of the person, decide you wanted to meet them, make time on your calendar, contact them and convince them to make time on their calendar, choose a mutually acceptable location, and then physically get yourself there. And once there it cost money (but it cost your company money, so no biggieand btw that’s a huge problem with the blind acceptance of this kind of relationship-building—it excludes people who don’t have a company card nor the ability to buy lunch for themselves and a business buddy three times a week while working their way up the corporate ladder).
I’ll tell you what, though. I have solid, personal, trusting, intimate relationships with my editorial clients and not one of them lives close enough to meet for lunch while we dig into the revisions I’m asking them to make to their work. Yes, it takes work, time, careful thought and consideration. It doesn’t require phone or Zoom contact, although I often encourage this. Not because seeing someone’s face or hearing their voice is necessarily the only way to engender trust, but because it can be a more efficient way to highlight confusion or disagreement and then address and resolve it. Even so, I sometimes handle confusion and disagreement via email and so far, I’ve not exploded any of these relationships.
Insisting on in-person connections isn’t the sole reason for publishing’s inability to be more inclusive. But publishing, like many other industries, is a nepotistic, exclusive industry. It’s hard to get a foot in the door if you don’t know someone. I got my first in-house job because I met the hiring manager while attending one of the six-week summer courses—a very expensive program that few are privileged enough to afford in their early 20s.
Of course lots of people get their first job through a more traditional interview process—and those processes have been proven over and over again to be inherently biased. And that bias isn’t absent from the agent-editor lunch, either. Our opinion of someone else and whether they share our tastes and sensibilities is affected by what we see sitting in front of us, what we hear when they speak. We are more likely to feel like we’re connecting, and therefore want to connect again in the future, with people who look like and sound like us.
But if we allow and invite more connections through email, phone, and video chatting, maybe we will find ourselves connecting with people we hadn’t previously even considered getting to know. (The latter two options still do allow for bias, obviously, but they also potentially eliminate the cost of living issues of NYC and the cost of paying for lunch multiple times per week.) And imagine the conversation topics we open up when we’re communicating with someone in rural Nevada, a place perhaps NY editors have never visited but where there is striking landscape and unusual (to a non-Nevadan) activities and people who have never hailed a cab but started riding horses before they could run. These conversations, while not inviting in-jokes or “indiscreet things” (which, if we’re being honest, is almost always exclusionary and we want to do away with it anyway), will still create an atmosphere of mutual respect and interest and intimacy. And, more to the point, offer a far greater likelihood of finding diverse stories and creators and employees.
So let’s stop pretending that the reason for the lunches and happy hours is because it’s the only way to develop solid business relationships. It’s not. We do these things because they are fun AND they allow us to maintain our exclusive, comfortable networks. They aren’t what keep the publishing machine running and in fact, they play a very big part in creating barriers to access to that machine.
I don’t want you to walk away from this post with the idea that the agents and editors quoted in this article only complained or that they failed to recognize the opportunity presented by our reactions to this current emergency state. The article ends with Pavlin stating that she misses her in-person interactions, but admitting that: “…in retrospect that schedule seems unnecessarily overstuffed.”
I don’t want those lunches and happy hours to go away completely, either. I like seeing my friends in person. But I hope that moving forward the agents and editors and publishers out there with the influence, power, and money to make change have noticed and already started to implement use of the many creative not-in-person ways there are to connect widely and inclusively with creators, editors, agents, and other publishing employees and book industry folk.
And BTW, I actually enjoy a good email, so if you are one of my far-away friends and I’ve emailed you in the last three months and you haven’t responded…help me prove my point and write me back! ;-)