By Rachel Beck
I think it’s safe to say that networking is a word that evokes fear and panic in a good number of people, coupled with the immediate desire to run away fast. This is potentially because networking is something that can be falsely associated with schmoozing, acting smarmy or showing fake interest in people. We all know those types, the charmers at any party who work the room like a pro—and watching it happen, something about it feels…inauthentic.
But I’m not talking about those people, who use events to make connections and home in on people they can use in some way. Or the people who buff up their resume and kill an interview with confidence, even though they’re not quite qualified for the role. I’m talking about networking in a purer, simpler form. In fact, networking is meant to be, and often is, a completely organic way of making connections, be they social ones or professional ones. You probably network at least a few times per month without even really being aware you’re doing it. And in publishing, networking is key to success, as great books most often come to life starting with a connection between an agent and editor.
Even though Holloway Literary is an agency where all the agents work in a remote capacity, I’m fortunate enough to be based in New York City, where the majority of publishers are located. Since I don’t want to stay in NYC forever, I’m trying to take full advantage of the time I am here, in this publishing hub, to go out to lunches and drinks with editors.
So what exactly goes down at these mysterious publishing industry insider lunches? Here I’ll do a little FAQ with a rundown of how they usually go, do’s and don’ts, etc., to demystify the experience a little for anyone who’s curious!
Q: Who reaches out? The agent or editor?
A: Either can! Agents need editors to buy their clients’ awesome manuscripts, and editors need agents to send them said awesome manuscripts for their inventory quotas. So it’s fair game for either an agent or an editor to reach out to the other with a networking invite.
Q: Can you reach out cold to an editor you’ve never met and simply invite them to lunch?
A: Yes! An email introduction is perfectly sufficient. I would explain why you’re especially interested in meeting with them, specifically, face-to-face out of all the other industry professionals. Usually when I’ve been approached for a networking lunch or drinks, the editor will say how they came across my interests online or a recent sale, and they feel our tastes overlap nicely and they think we could probably have a match at some point down the line.
Q: Are these long, leisurely lunches with martinis, or mid-day wine involved?
A: I’m afraid that’s a publishing stereotype! Or rather, it’s one of the past. I’m pretty sure it used to happen that way, but these days, every publishing professional is busy wearing so many different hats that they can’t afford to take more than an hour or so during the day. Not to mention that budgets are tighter than ever in publishing, so no drinks with lunch, unfortunately! As the agent, I usually follow the editors’ cues when ordering for things like appetizers, dessert, etc., as they’re the ones who pay (see below).
Q: Can an agent pitch a book to an editor during a face-to-face meeting?
A: Yes…with a few caveats. I would definitely be gentle about it. You shouldn’t give an elevator pitch that sounds rehearsed, as this can be off-putting over pasta or enchiladas where you’re getting to know each other as real people who do exist beyond their teeny tiny picture in the corner of an email chain—and if it sounds too rehearsed, the editor will think you only wanted to have lunch with them to ply them with the manuscripts you’ve been unable to sell. Make sure that any pitching is organic; only go there if the conversation naturally does. If they ask if you have any projects you’re excited about, that’s definitely an opening (so long as it’s in the genre they work on). Or if you’re talking about how much you both loved X published author’s book, and you’re trying to sell something that’s similar or you think he/she would like based on that, go for it. The worst that will happen is that you’ll email them the pitch letter when you’re back to your desk, and they’ll respond saying it doesn’t actually sound like something up their alley after all—and they’ll likely direct you to a colleague who’d be a better fit!
Q: Speaking of, meeting up face-to-face probably means you’ll get a better response rate from that editor down the line, yes?
A: Not necessarily, unfortunately. At least, not without some continued cultivation of the relationship. People are just generally so busy and are meeting new people all the time, and retention can be hard, especially if months or even years go by before you have something to pitch them. If the meeting was memorable and you remind them when pitching how you had lunch X # of months ago, it’s more likely they’ll be responsive to at least looking at the manuscript. But it’s still hard to grab an editor’s attention in this busy day and age of publishing, even if you’ve met in person! The best thing is that if you meet up with an editor you’d really, really like to work with someday but just don’t have that perfect project for them yet, send them notes from time to time—but nothing lengthy or creepy (I’m not condoning stalking anyone! J) It can be as simple as sending them a one-line email congratulating them on a deal when you see their name in Publisher’s Marketplace.
Q: Can you talk about non-publishing related things? How much small talk is appropriate at first before diving in to book talk?
A: Of course! This is a human connection. It’s the genuine, non-sleazy side of networking—getting to know someone else as a real person, including their interests outside of reading and editing. In general, I would say don’t overthink this side of things. Just go with the flow of the conversation, and whatever feels natural. Lately I’ve been talking about my upcoming wedding with editors for part of my networking meetings, because other women are interested in that and excited for me. I also like to ask editors where in the city they live, then swap stories about NYC neighborhoods/apartments/moving stories, etc. I also like to ask where they’re from originally and how they knew their calling was moving to the big city for publishing. Anything that helps the connection become a stronger one is fair game!
Q: Who pays?
A: Generally the editor pays, since they are the ones who will ultimately pay the agent for their clients’ work—so they’re already on that side of the transaction situation.
I hope this has been a helpful glimpse into what goes on during an editor/agent meeting, and if you’ve been trying to get up the gumption to get your face-to-face time on, now that you know what to expect, go forth and network! Just don’t be that arrogant person in the corner of the room asking if they have rooftop access or an in to the hottest restaurant in town 😉