#71: Behind the Slice Literary Writers’ Conference: An Interview with Editor Emily Griffin, by Amy Halperin Zimmerman

If you follow the publishing industry, you may have heard about the legend of editor/agent lunches. We’ve been told that decades ago they were martini-soaked escapades that ended with nobody going back to their desk in the afternoon. Perhaps today’s lunches are not quite as daring (who knows!), but they’re just as much a part of publishing life. We spoke with Grand Central Publishing senior editor Emily Griffin about the impact that editor/agent lunches have on the book acquisitions process. Emily will unveil more on this topic, along with her editor and agent peers, on our “Out to Lunch” panel at the Slice Literary Writers’ Conference in Brooklyn on September 12. You can find the full panel schedule here.

How important is it to hear about an author/project in person, over lunch with the agent, as opposed to just receiving the submission in your inbox?

This is a business built on long-term relationships, and of course, meeting agents in person—over lunch, coffee, drinks, or office meetings—is fundamental to building those connections. I might tell an agent about how I lived in France for two years, and she might then think of me for a novel set there that she hadn’t previously planned on sending me. Or we might bond over a shared love of Veronica Mars or Elena Ferrante or another touchstone that’s not directly related to our books, but that helps to build a sense of tastes, interests, and mutual understanding. I’m not pitched directly at every lunch—sometimes there’s nothing immediately in the agent’s pipeline for me—but having met him or her is really great for when he or she does call you or email you with a project to sell.

But I’d like to note that I see terrific projects from agents who aren’t based in New York, or who are young and I haven’t met yet, and I feel strongly that everyone’s submissions deserve equal and serious consideration.

Have you ever been sold on a project in person that you were previously planning on passing up?

There are agents who are widely respected, who pitch beautifully, and whose enthusiasm for a book feels contagious, but ultimately, what’s on the page is most important. No matter how much I adore a given agent, I won’t acquire a project they’re selling unless I love the book and it makes sense for the Grand Central list.

With online communication all the rage, do you think agent/editor lunches will someday become a thing of the past?

I hope not! I’m a firm believer in taking a break in the middle of the day, and eating an actual sit-down meal, and there’s no better way to get to know someone. (Though I also like breakfast.) I do think that lunches have decreased in frequency as so many other forms of communication have arisen, though. It’s not the only way to meet great agents and learn about new writers.

Can you tell us about one of your most memorable agent lunch experiences?

There are plenty, but I always think back to my very first agent lunch, with the now-superstar (then rising-star) agent Katherine Fausset. I was very green, but she had a deserved reputation for being incredibly nice to young editors, and though I can’t remember where or what we ate, it was wonderful to realize that a business lunch is not a job interview, that agents are not adversaries, and that you may discover points of overlap (I think we spent half the lunch discussing her hometown and my favorite city to visit, New Orleans). A decade later, Katherine has now sold me two books each from two wonderful novelists.

Given your experience, do you have any tips for what qualities a writer should look for in an agent?

The brilliant novelist Jami Attenberg has a short and terrific Tumblr post up on this topic—I recommend looking it up. My favorite piece of advice she gives is “You deserve to have an agent who loves your work,” and I don’t know that I can improve on that! Ultimately, that passion is critical for an agent, and I believe that authors should also look for someone who is responsive, pays attention to details, is able to explain everything from a royalty statement to a marketing plan to their clients, and because you’re going to spend a lot of time together, and ideally your agent will be with you for your whole career, is just good company.

Emily Griffin is a Senior Editor at Grand Central Publishing, where she has worked for over a decade. She has edited books by novelists and non-fiction writers including Anna Holmes, Elise Juska, Shelly King, Larry Levin, Kristyn Kusek Lewis, Kelsey Miller, Amelia Morris, Amanda Palmer, Kenny Porpora, and Amy Sedaris, among others. Prior to working in trade publishing, she researched, wrote, and edited travel guides for Let’s Go Publications and taught high school English at the American School of Paris in St-Cloud, France.

Amy Zimmerman is a rising senior at Columbia University in the Creative Writing department, an itinerant intern, and an entertainment correspondent for The Daily Beast.