On understanding book trade slang

Old-fashioned types – the sort of author you and I would have nothing to do with – have taken to complaining that publishers describe their darling, bleeding little volumes as ‘units’. It is as if, these sad individuals will say, their work was nothing more than a can of baked beans.

We are almost always too polite, aren’t we, to tell these dear old things the truth in language they will understand – that things have changed., that not only are books units in the modern publishing world but so, if they are lucky, are authors. There’s a whole new industry vocabulary developing and is up to us, the writing units, to keep up to date. Here are just a few of the latest phrases that you are likely to hear in any decent agent’s or publisher’s office.

Back-flap babe. The modern literary agent, aware that media visibility is the sine qua non of 21st century publishing, will often send a photograph of a new author to editors, asking them whether it is worth following up with some sort of a proposal. These authors, signed up for the attractiveness of their person rather than their prose, are known in the trade as ‘back-flap babes’.

Breakdown book. The psychologists now employed by publishers to maximise output from writing units have identified a syndrome among middle-aged authors which they describe as ‘the breakdown book’. Not on any account to be confused with the ‘the breakout book’, with which now and then a dweeb (qv) can write a bestseller and become a crown jewel (qv), the breakdown book is simply the moment in an author’s career when he or she discovers the futility of putting down words on a page day after day in the pathetic, absurd hope that someone somewhere will think them to be interest.

Browning the bookseller. For some time now, publishing editors have existed mainly to interpret the wishes and desires of a few large and powerful bookselling chains. This process requires an attitude of cowering, bobbing obeisance known, for reasons that remain unclear, as ‘browning the bookseller’.

Crown jewels. Every large publisher has a small number of authors, usually TV presenters, chefs or footballers, who make them so much money that they are treated like the most treasured of possessions. Crown jewels are kept separate from dweeb (qv) authors for fear that ordinariness may be catching.

Droption clause. A type of option designed specifically to facilitate the final and definitive dumping of an author, a droption clause is usually included in contracts for authors who, for outmoded reasons of loyalty, have difficulty in understanding how modern publishing works.

Droit d’editeur. In spite of the moans and groans of the uninitiated, a few publishing traditions live on. It remains an established convention, for example, that an editor who brings a new author to the list (see back-flap babes), is allowed the first right to try to seduce him or her. Only after the droit d’editeur has been claimed, are other managers allowed to develop a ‘working relationship’ with the author.

Dweeb. Any author who is not a crown jewel (qv).

Nose for a bestseller. It was in the 1980s when publishers discovered that some of the most potentially commercial books offered to them could be assessed in various ways that did not involve reading them at all. During acquisition meetings, manuscripts would be weighed in the hand, flicked through and sometimes even smelt by those around the table. Publishers who acquire a reputation for being able to predict success by the right feel and scent of unread pages are sometimes described as having ‘a nose for a bestseller’.

Plonker Perkins. For reasons of image or corporate inefficiency, a few editors who like reading and are even prepared to work on manuscripts with dweebs (qv), are still occasionally to be found in publishing. The professional life of these people, though, is harsh. In meetings, a buzz of conversation starts up if one of them tries to speak. Unpleasant limericks about their personal lives appear on notice-boards. Some are de-bagged at Christmas parties. The generic nickname for these reader-editors is ‘Plonker Perkins’, a term of abuse derived, it is believed, from the name of Maxwell Perkins, the American editor of Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Wolfe, revered for his sympathy and attention to detail.

Schtumming. Extraordinarily sensitive to the way they are publicly perceived, agents are loathe to fire an author from their list. Instead, like men in relationships, they behave in a way designed to get them dumped. The favoured technique is the simplest: known as ‘schtumming’, it involves allowing their client to languish, bewildered and ignored, through long periods of silence. Only the thickest-skinned authors fail to get the message.

Shut-eyed reading. Publishing code for taking a day off for sleep or to conduct an affair (see droit d’editeur), shut-eyed reading involves taking a manuscript home for a reading day and leaving it in the briefcase.

Stamp-licker. In a desperate attempt to be loved and appreciated, some authors try to ingratiate themselves with the staff of a publishing house. They ask after the receptionist’s children, discuss relationships with the managing director’s PA and visit the post-room to ‘say hello to the guys’. Invariably this behaviour by so-called ‘stamp-lickers’ invites nothing but derision from publishers and ensures a droption clause (qv) in their next contract.

Winter 2006