It was week four of coronavirus shelter-in-place. Going on 2 p.m.; I’m at my desk at home, answering emails, filtering submissions, contemplating a forthcoming edit. But wait, what’s that sound? Oh, right, it’s my stomach growling. I’m hungry. Must be time for a can of that chicken noodle soup I’ve been hoarding.
What a difference a couple of weeks makes. Before the lockdown orders came down in New York City, no self-respecting publishing person could forget about lunch. We all knew the drill. At 12:30 or 1 p.m.—occasionally as early as 12:15 or as late as 1:15—the office exodus would begin. We’d gather our coats and bags and wits and head out to meet with agents and authors at restaurants where reservations had been scheduled two, three, six, or eight weeks in advance. The mission: start or continue relationships that might lead to new submissions from said agents and authors, which in turn would lead to new acquisitions to be announced at future in-house editorial meetings.
While we might have shared sushi at Nobu, everybody knew lunch wasn’t really about food. No, it was about gossip, shop talk, and bringing brand new projects to fruition. Lunch, in other words, literally meant business.
So it should come as no surprise that among the questions, and there were many, that a lot of us asked when this whole work-from-home thing started was what would happen to the publishing lunch. Or, more specifically, how would we do business now that we were not meeting over tapas in the Flatiron? Can there be deals without meals?
We have now had 10 weeks of sheltering in place, and I am happy to report that while I haven’t met anyone in a restaurant for what feels like forever, I, and most of my colleagues, are still making and publishing books and signing up titles for forthcoming seasons. I’m on the phone constantly, checking in with agents and authors about how they’re doing with kids at home and a bunch of new worries—but also about the projects they’re shepherding. I’ve been in a couple of major auctions and have won and lost several books, both fiction and non.
Will those books “work”? Who knows? Determining what the future reading world will embrace... well, that’s been a problem endemic to our industry forever; we’ve asked the question before (most recently during the 2008 recession, and before that after 9/11) and we’ve always survived. Sorry to paraphrase the over-paraphrased Mark Twain, but despite bookstore consolidation, the rise of e-books and audiobooks, and the explosion of interest in streaming TV, publishing’s death has been greatly exaggerated—many times. So what if now we’re talking books over Zoom, or WhatsApp, or maybe just in a plain old-fashioned phone call instead of across a two-top? We’re still publishing.
Truth be told, there was some devaluation of the lunch meeting before Covid-19. Maybe it was because houses and agencies were moving all over town, just as iconic N.Y.C. restaurant hot spots were getting cooler. Cognac closed a couple of years ago, Union Square Café moved, and Michael’s—the old stalwart—had gone Business with a capital B and seemed largely absent of publishing folk. (The last time I was there, I recognized hardly anybody.) Also, recent months have seen famed master deal makers pass on: RIP Sonny Mehta, Alice Mayhew, Susan Kamil, and, just the other week, Carolyn Reidy. And while I’ve had various jobs in and around the publishing business for 20-plus years, in the old days I almost never saw a senior executive eating a Dig Inn plate at her desk. But by last year, it was fairly likely you’d be lining up with that executive—or her assistant—in your corporate lobby to collect your takeout.
So I say: get over your WTF about WFH. This is—as they keep telling us—our new reality. Who knows how long it will be before the restaurants reopen. And it’ll be even longer still before we’re comfortable going to them. Sure, I miss sushi or a really great Cobb, but as long as people keep scheduling Zoom lunches and dinners and cocktails—or phone calls at any old time of the day—and they keep bringing the gossip, shop talk, and new projects, I think we’re all going to be fine. After all, those are the things that we’ve always been hungry for.
Sara Nelson is v-p, executive editor of HarperCollins and the former editor-in-chief of PW.