Publishing Bigshots Told to Open Canned Tuna, Eat at Desk

pubcrawl 12 Publishing Bigshots Told to Open Canned Tuna, Eat at DeskThough prayers this week should undoubtedly be with the editors of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, who were told a few days ago by their CEO that they can no longer afford to acquire new books, it should not go unremarked that editors at other houses are being forced to give up something almost as essential: lunch!

Though many agents say they’re still being wined and dined several times a week, a number of the publishers who are paying for it agree that it should no longer be part of an editor’s job description to regularly eat in fancy restaurants on the company tab. Forget those two martinis, we’re talking about food—as in, no more of it.

“All over town, people are saying, ‘Cut back,’ and that’s certainly what we’re saying,” said HarperCollins publisher Jonathan Burnham, who stunned agents last spring when he asked his staff in a memo to eliminate their lunch expenses for the entire month of March. “I think it’s mutual—I think agents expect to be taken out less. It’s not like they’re calling and no one’s returning their calls. It’s just that the idea of sitting down for a lunch that costs $130 for two, or even $80 for two, seems beside the point.”

At Collins, Harper’s sister division at 10 East 53rd Street, editors have been asked to scale back on their expenses, and at Random House, several sources confirmed, some supervisors were recently given guidelines indicating how much employees should tip and which restaurants near the company’s midtown headquarters are thrifty enough to do business in. While the guidelines were advisory, the message was clear.

“I think some lunching might still be going on, but I think one does that at one’s own peril,” said a senior editor who works at one of Random House’s varsity league imprints. “I think it’s generally understood that it is not the smartest way to show your individuality.”

Stuart Applebaum, Random House’s corporate spokesman, denied that there had been any top-down mandate to cut back on expenses, but acknowledged that the atmosphere in the building was one of frugality.

“We’re all very cost- and expenses-conscious these days throughout book publishing, and probably throughout most cultural businesses in the city, if not nationwide,” Mr. Applebaum said. “Prudent leadership should be suggesting that if your expensed lunch isn’t absolutely mandatory now, why not postpone it, or eat in the cafeteria?”

By “cafeteria,” Mr. Applebaum meant the company-subsidized mess hall on the second floor of Random’s headquarters at 1745 Broadway. “The cafeteria works for me,” he said. “I always like the turkey sandwiches I get down there.” Then again, he noted: “You’re talking to a guy who most every day eats lunch at his desk.”

Others are used to something a little, well, nicer.

Ann Rittenberg, an independent literary agent based downtown, said she is taken to lunch several times a week at restaurants like Bar Americain and Molyvos. She said in an interview that the money publishers spend on her and her fellow agents is well worth it.

“It’s one of the best marketing tools that the editorial department of a publishing house has,” Ms. Rittenberg said. “Because really, I do find out at lunches what I need to know in order to match an editor with a book.”

Marjorie Braman, the new editor in chief of Holt, said lunch is an opportunity for her to get to know agents on a more personal basis than is possible over the phone or on e-mail.

“What happens at lunch for agents that’s important is sometimes they find out things about an editor that they wouldn’t otherwise know,” said Ms. Braman, “and then when a particular project comes along, they say, oh, it’s perfect for so and so—she’s adopted, this is a memoir about being adopted, or, you know, this is a medical book about a condition that it turns out the agent found out at lunch the editor’s mother had.”

For 82-year-old Al Silverman, who presided over the Book of the Month Club throughout the 1970s and ’80s and later served as publisher of Viking Books, the notion that lunch as a ritual is fading signals a sorry chapter in the history of his industry.

“I’ve been out of book publishing for quite a few years, but last night I was just talking with one of my colleagues, who said to me, ‘You know, you go to lunch at these places now and there’s nobody there.’” said Mr. Silverman, whose recent book The Time of Their Lives, a rigorously researched chronicle of publishing’s golden years, mentions lunch more than 70 times. “Everybody’s clamping down on spending these days.”

In other words, sorry, kids! What was perhaps the last quaint ritual left over from the old days is going the way of the foreign-rights fair. Which is to say, it has been rendered impractical and so prohibitively inefficient that no amount of romantic attachment can protect its place in the budget.

Still, some say that lunch remains a necessary part of the business—particularly for young editors and agents who have not yet established themselves. As Norton editor Bob Weil put it, “The young people have to let themselves be known.”

“I’m not a lunch person, I have to be honest with you,” Mr. Weil said. “There are certain people—their whole being revolves around lunch. But I’ve been in the business for 30 years and people know me already, so they kind of know what will be an appropriate book.”

Still, he said, meals regularly yield projects that end up being important to him, such as the collection of short stories by previously unknown physician Terrence Holt that he bought from Nicole Aragi six months ago after hearing about it over dinner. Also: “Someone at The New Yorker recently gave me a tip on someone who’s a boxer and a philosopher—that came from a lunch!”

Mr. Burnham said that when he was a young editor in London, he felt like he was falling behind if he wasn’t out five days a week.

“I remember going out to lunch every single day for a period of my working life, and if I didn’t have lunch, I’d feel like I was out of the loop,” said Mr. Burnham, whose first boss, back in London, yelled at him once for not filing enough expenses. “That’s the feeling I had 10 years ago. I think that’s changed. The generation that lunched each other has sort of seceded to the generation that has drinks. I can’t see my young editors, my 20-somethings, having lunches together. They’re much more likely to meet up after work.”

Ms. Braman, whose editorial staff at Holt is made up almost entirely of 30-somethings, agreed that younger people are more likely to meet over breakfast, coffee or drinks.

“I think the youngsters came up in publishing when it wasn’t flush, because it hasn’t been flush for a while,” Ms. Braman said. “I think they might be more used to it, if not more willing to economize. What’s more important, really: having a fancy lunch or buying good books and having the money to publish them?”

ICM co-head Esther Newberg suggested that maybe agents and editors could start splitting the bill instead of saddling the publishers with the whole thing as per tradition.

“We’re all part of this economic crisis,” Ms. Newberg said. “I think that we can alternate. I think that would certainly be fair.”

The literary agent Ira Silverberg did just that recently, when an editor from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt with whom he was planning on having lunch last Monday called to cancel because the company’s travel and entertainment budget had just been slashed.   

“I just laughed and said it’d be my treat,” Mr. Silverberg said. “We all have to eat! We can get together and have a shawarma and sit in the park and talk about writers. The social time is really important, but what is not important is how expensive the food is.”

All that said, some agents report no change in their lunching schedules. “Still lunching five days a week,” said Janklow & Nesbit agent Eric Simonoff. Asked if the tradition was on its way out, he replied, “Would  that it were. I just booked a lunch for December 22nd for chrissakes.”

lneyfakh@observer.com