No Free Lunch From HarperCollins

When editors go out to lunch with an author or a literary agent, they’re expected to pick up the check. What to do, then, when your employer has told you that you’re not allowed to? That’s what’s happening this month over at the flagship imprint of HarperCollins, where Jonathan Burnham has instructed his staff to “halt all [travel and expenses spending, known as T&E] for the entire month of March.”

In a memo sent to the imprint’s editors a little over a month ago and obtained by The Observer, Mr. Burnham indicated that he had to implement the measure because the house’s T&E budget for fiscal year 2008 was “already dangerously overspent.”

“I’ve talked to most of you about ways to cut back: breakfasts and drinks rather than lunches; pulling back on European travel since the dollar is so weak; etc.,” Mr. Burnham wrote in the memo. “Obviously there may be exceptions—an author in town, or crucial travel for a meeting—but please bring this as a request to me only if it is strictly necessary, and I will have to approve it first. I hope this is enough notice for you. If you have a date already in place, perhaps you could move it or cancel it.”

Asked why the moratorium on T&E was enacted, Mr. Burnham said, “We’ve noticed that a couple of agents—no names, or course—have put on a few pounds in the new year and we are just trying to do out part in helping them to fit into their old skinny jeans.”

So, does this mean Harper editors won’t be able to go out to lunch with anyone all month, thus giving their rival houses a freebie power play on the noon-to-2:30 time slot? Those are important hours in publishing! As one literary agent said, “Lunch is how much business gets done.”

An informal survey of agents about town suggests the Harper gang has little to worry about: Almost everyone who was asked said they’d be willing to foot the bill. “If there’s a temporary moratorium, I would think we wouldn’t cancel lunch just because they were not paying for it that day. But it would be a first in my many years in the business,” said Sterling Lord Literistic agent Jim Rutman, who recently hit it big with Charles Bock’s severely hyped Beautiful Children. Phew!

A high-level editor who works at another imprint of HarperCollins, meanwhile—one not subject to Mr. Burnham’s March blockade—said the timing could be worse: “It’s nice out! It’s almost, what, 60 today? Nothing wrong with picnics.”

No Free Lunch From HarperCollins