I’m not often given to whimsy, but an odd little thought has been perambulating around my head this morning.
What is it about agents, small publishers and... stairs?
I suppose it was triggered by Josh’s post yesterday about Mimi and Rodolfo and his new Upper West side garret, but wherever it started, it won’t go away. So this is an attempt at exorcism. Or maybe I mean excisement. Something like that, anyway.
It’s not just Josh. In a ftymumble-year career as a writer, editor and publisher, I’ve had cause to visit the office of an agent or seven, and quite a few publishers too.
Maybe I’m suffering from selective memory syndrome, but I can name a few agents whose offices were, and probably still are, up at least two flights; the prevailing image in my mind of those visits is of a long climb followed by a few minutes to let the sweat dry and my breathing settle before going about whatever business took me there.
I’ve sometimes wondered if that location is part of the test authors have to pass before being taken on by an agent. Authors need physical stamina; one of my favourite quotes from a deliciously witty writer called Keith Waterhouse who died a couple of years ago describes the process of writing a novel as akin to digging a small quarry with a teaspoon. So if you can’t make it up those stairs without needing oxygen at the top, forget it.
I don’t have huge experience of large publishers’ premises, at least not book publishers. Actually only one, and just half a dozen steps up to a large foyer. For the Big Six publishers it’s serried ranks of desks in open-plan offices, only discernible from insurance companies or the head offices of large conglomerates by the cover proofs and piles of newly-delivered review copies. And lifts (sorry, elevators) to the upper floors.
Small indies, though – that’s a different matter. The cover proofs and printers’ boxes are still much in evidence, but we’re talking old houses with converted attics; a pair of rooms above laundromats or newsagents; in one case a maze of narrow passageways and cubby-holes just large enough for a desk and chair. And magazines, before they were all rationalized into one tall glass building, seemed to inhabit the dusty space above an old-fashioned arcade of little shops selling watches, bric-a-brac and antiquarian books.
Sounds like a different world, doesn’t it? A 1950s time-warp, rather than the streamlined production line operation which at least for the time being continues to turn manuscripts into delicious-smelling hardbacks, and will soon only turn computer files into different computer files with no smell at all except that faint ozone aroma that hangs around electricity.
For now, though, until all the big publishers merge into one computerized operation and subsume or bankrupt most of the little ones, that little world does still exist, and I hope will continue to do so, if only as a part of an agent’s selection process.
Preserving little bits of the past as the future rolls inexorably towards us... I said it was whimsy. I must be getting old.