What We Talk About When We Talk About Publishing Parties

I was terrified at first. The prospect of walking alone into a room of strangers--let alone publishing strangers, whose opinion of you can determine a part of your future as an agent--is, shall we say, not the sort of thing to inspire calm, contented dreams of sugarplums. (Maybe dreams of plum wine, but sugarplums--no.)

I was very young at the first party--invited by a friend of a girl I'd met once--and didn't know when she'd arrive. As I made my way up the rickety elevator of a three-story, tall and skinny, probably 200-year-old pub, I started to panic. I wasn't on the list! Would they let me in? Would they take one look at my short twenties self and dismiss me in favor of "real" agents? Would they ask questions like, "So, what have you sold for a million dollars lately"? Would I make horrible grammatical errors in my speech--confuse the "was" and "were" subjunctive, say--and then the room would grind to a horrified silence, and drink and I would be escorted out (perhaps picked up by the seat of my business casual non-fancy pants, and thrown through the windows--before or after opening them)?

I've always been bad at walking in heels, particularly tall ones, particularly tall ones when I'm scared. I wobbled to the obligatory sign-in desk--every party has one, where sticky name tags are distributed. (I'm still not sure how one applies these things to shiny fabrics gracefully, or removes them without tearing off half the shirt, in fuzz, in the process.)

The women at the desk were my age--good! It was dark; I couldn't see much, but I was pretty sure they weren't wearing designer clothing. They added me to the mailing list, smiled, welcomed, handed me a blank name tag, marker, and a drink coupon.

And then I had my first experience of what would be my calming, saving grace throughout my years of publishing parties: an editor came up, introduced herself, and the proverbial overhead compact florescent went on: We are here to get along, feel each other out, get a sense of what the other would like to read. There's a high enough likelihood of our working together in the future that they have to be nice. And if their bosses get wind of their having alienated an agent, it would not be good.

Within minutes, we discovered our commonalities: we both live in Brooklyn, love the local Superhero Supply Shop, and think the best solution to NYC dating would be a modern Lysistrata.

"Let me introduce you to some people," she said. She took me to a group of young women--all, like me, short brunettes with glasses, geeky humor, and a fondness for YA. Success! I felt, immediately, like I had new friends.

Then: "You said you have adult nonfiction? Here, let me introduce you..."

And so I was plunked in line to speak with the one young, adult nonfiction editor in attendance. After a few moments we realized that we have a friend (by then in Colorado) in common, live in the same Brooklyn neighborhood (and have strong feelings about the R train), and have a similarly dark sense of humor.

It just so happened that we had a humor book that was about to go out. I told him the title--it's one of those brilliant titles you bring into an ed board meeting and could quite possibly get cheers--okay, grins, at least--and he said, "I'd love to read it. Send it on over."

A few weeks later, he bought it.

And thus the purpose of publishing parties. Houses will (less so now, but before this economic slump, quite often) throw parties and tell their editors to invite the agents they know. This way, should the stars align and the agents have something they're about to send out that's a good fit for someone in the building, that editor--having forged a personal connection--has a better chance of getting the book, if they want it. Because it's not just about money. It's about our finding the editor who really gets your work.

Kind of like how you want an agent who gets your work, and can take your vision and run with it.

Anyway, it's not always so dreamy, though my stress with regard to these parties has decreased significantly.

And after each one, my boss always asks for two reports: a general "who you met" report, and a cheese report.

Because, really, who can throw a good party without cheese? (Admittedly, this started when my boss asked me about a book party, and the first thing I said was, The cheese was FANTASTIC!)

Last week, I was worried about a party at a house I hadn't visited before--a smaller house that focuses on visual (coffee table, etc.) books. Sure that this meant they had gorgeous, designer-clad editors and that, therefore, I had to look, well, awesome, I stressed for an hour that morning about what to wear. I promptly spilled hair product on the dry-clean-only shirt I'd finally settled on. (At that point, I texted my boss, Fashion emergency! Be there soon!)

We (my boss, intern/assistant and I) arrive, and everyone, though certainly pleasant-looking, is also friendly-looking, warm, and kind.

There's also an excellent selection of soft ripened cheeses.

Soon I fall into chatting with an editor who tells me that she just did a book on beer, and that her boyfriend brews his own in their apartment--and even grows hops for this purpose. Wow!

It's not always like this. I went to a party once, where every editor in the room had good reason to be unhappy. It was just after the recession really hit, but it was clear the food had been ordered before--tons of shrimp, and similarly expensive edibles. (And, yes, cheese.)

There were also--not sure who came up with this; it's not like offices made of that gray, push-pin-able cube material will look romantic in such light--probably about thirty candles with large, exposed flames. All of the women were tall, model-esque, and chilly. They wore diamonds, designer clothing, and--I'm pretty sure--had all attended Ivys and Seven Sisters--and could out-Math and out-SAT anyone at the other parties I'd attended. (The truly book-minded, I've discovered, are often lacking in the fill-in-the-bubble skills. I like to think our worldview is too nuanced, too multifaceted, for multiple choice.)

In other words, these were the sort of people who make me fall into conversations like:

Them: Where are you from?
Me: (Knowing they're from Connecticut, Cape Cod, Boston, Newton, or somewhere expensive in New England)
Me: (Knowing the more accurate answer of, "From a small town in California with sheep across from my high school" is not especially glamorous)
Me: (Not lying, but): I'm from Sonoma County--wine country.

I got pulled into a circle of people discussing authors. "Uggh, if I have to hear from one more author today...!" one threatened. "KNEW I should have gone to law school."

Yes, I thought. Please go to law school and open up your job for one of the thousands of people who'd love it.

(I should note that this is rare. The VAST majority of people in publishing love their jobs.)

And then the absurdities started.

I guess it makes sense when you have a lot of literary (even if unhappily so) people crammed into a small space with a lot of fire.

A lit candle fell on an editor's head and dripped wax down his shirt. A girl's napkin caught fire. A girl somehow "accidentally" got wine in another girl's eyes. A huge wine glass shattered. A girl's hair caught fire. And an editor made the same exact speech three times--down to the "um"s and "ah"s--all while pretending she was making it up on the spot.

Needless to say, I did not sell any books that night.

I've more or less come to the conclusion that those I get along with--those with whom I have an instant rapport--are those most likely to get the books I get, appreciate them, and want them.

In any case. I'm writing this from a coffeeshop in downtown Bar Harbor, one that looks remarkably like M. Rohr's on the Upper East Side--with the addition of old-wood rocking chairs and granny square blankets. And I'm freezing.

Until next time!


MeganRebekah said...

Oh my gosh I laughed throughout this post for so many reasons! Mostly, because I completely understand those nerves of attending new places/parties and stressing about the outcome!

~Jamie said...

HAH! Someone's hair caught fire?!

Why do I always laugh at stories where that happens, honestly I would fall over and DIE if that ever happened to me, but still--it's always awesome!

Karen Amanda Hooper said...

Thanks for the giggles, and for the entertaining look at what goes on behind the scenes of the publishing world.

I'm jealous of the cozy coffee shop. I miss Pikes Perk in Colorado Springs (my fav). *sigh*

The Rejection Room said...

In terms of flaming hair, it was more like flame!--sizzle--sizzle--smoke--out. Certainly smelled, though.

Gwen Hayes said...

You are compiling all your stories for the day when chicklit comes back,right? Because twentysomething smalltown transplant in NYC trying to make it in the publishing world with small fires and cheese is awesome stuff.

Heather Davis said...

Laughing very hard here in P-town. My chickens think I am crazy. From the "Redwood Empire"