On the different species of publishing wildlife

It is almost always a mistake to agree to speak to a group of young students at one of the publishing courses which have recently become all the rage. The would-be publishers will already have been addressed by senior executives, editors, rights managers, agents and sales supremos. A visit from an author, their tutor has decided, would be an amusing and piquant way to end the course.

The problem will be that their minds will already have been poisoned. Over the previous weeks, they will have been taught that authors are innocents, floundering helplessly in the grown-up world of business. Any attempt to suggest that an author can be professional and is frequently more competent than a publisher will merely confirm another of the students’ certainties. You are an example of something they have been warned about: the difficult author.

Aware of the growing gulf of misunderstanding between authors and publishers, the Society has set up a confidential Sympathy and Reconciliation Sub-Committee whose brief it has been to work for harmony and happiness on the troubled area of author-publisher relations.

One of the committee happens to be a zoologist and it was she who pointed out that many of the problems of behaviour between authors and publishers were simply human versions of those in the animal kingdom: territorialism, the need for a strict pecking order, pack mentality, showy dominance rituals and occasionally inappropriate mating displays. The committee thought that, if authors adopted some of the simple techniques used by those who deal with animals, then many of the misunderstandings and problems which bedevil the industry could be avoided. There have been horse-whisperers and dog-whisperers. The moment for publisher-whispering had arrived.

The essence of communication between species, the zoologist has argued, lies in accepting differences – a dog is a dog, not a human with four legs and a wet nose. So it should be across the book industry divide. A publisher is a publisher, not an author with a BlackBerry and an MBA.

So, to take an extreme example, the behaviour of those who work in a large publishing conglomerate is as far from the writing life as it is possible to be. Senior executives have been in the management jungle for so long that they have essentially gone feral – years of power breakfasts, marketing seminars and conference-call meetings have rendered them deaf to any kind of whispering technique. Dealing with those pack-leaders, an author should simply convey the fact that he or she is not a threat or a rival. Adopting a submissive posture or moving into a mock-play routine can confuse them while trying to bond, with talk of leverage, synergy and market mixes, can make them feel threatened. Be neutral; avoid lengthy eye contact; do not use humour, which might be mistaken for mockery.

An author who understands the technique of publisher-whispering will quickly develop an instinct for the different type of editor. There is the young Turkey-Cock, who is interested in books but has just begun to realise that this enthusiasm might count against her (confusingly, Turkey-Cocks are often female). The whisperer will allow mild socialisation behaviour to take place but will keep a slight distance from the Turkey-Conk, never questioning its dominance and adopting defence mechanisms when other pack-members are around.

The Turkey-Cock will at some point develop, maturing either into a Teddy Bear or a Stag. Teddy Bears are wonderful company – they are the only member of the publishing pack still in touch with the ancient mock-mating ritual of lunch – and are spiritually close to the author pack. Unfortunately, that is also their great weakness. Having spent many years being buffeted and mobbed by rowdier pack members in meetings, their position in the hierarchy will tend to be rather low.

The Stag has elected not to go feral by becoming a senior executive, preferring to stay in control of its own herd, or imprint. If selected by a leading Stag to join a herd, an author should go into submissive mode and, in a professional, literary and perhaps even personal way, do whatever is required to keep the Stag happy.

Perhaps surprisingly, the publisher-whisperer’s most fruitful relationship can be with a Peacock from the publicity department. Although Peacocks are thought to be over-impressed by the surface of things, they are obliged in their everyday lives to deal with rival groups – notably the journalist pack and TV herd – and as result, their social skills are well-developed. Many authors are happy to engage in normal preening, playing and self-rewarding activities with a Peacock.

The Sympathy and Reconciliation Sub-Committee has one general rule when it comes to publisher-whispering. No author should ever attempt to join a publishing pack by sniffing around its different departments and becoming over-familiar with members of the herd. They may initially be welcomed but soon their possession in the pecking order will be disastrously low.

However successful your whispering may be, it is important to remember that authors and publishers belong to different packs. Pretending otherwise will lead to bared teeth, displays of aggression and – the professional author’s nightmare – exclusion from the herd.

Summer 2007