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Thursday, March 22, 2007


Too sexy for this publisher

There is a thought I've expressed elsewhere in these pages, namely that publishers sometimes dismiss a pitch because the person sending it clearly has low social skills and poor judgement -and that's not unreasonable, because low empathy leads to bad writing. You need empathy to write characters, or at least a sense of how people behave.

Does this mean that all writers are sweet, empathic people?

Well, obviously not. Most of the ones I know are very nice; I suspect some writers act badly because they are, by their nature, emotional people who can overreact; but some, possibly, are just ratty, unpleasant gits.

However, you may notice, if you peruse discussion websites for aspiring writers, that some people take this as evidence that there's no need to observe the usual etiquettes when trying to find yourself an agent or publisher. 'Why should I have to go out of my way? Lots of successful writers don't.'

This is a position I would counsel against. For one thing, when approaching publishers, if you really want your book published then you ought to do whatever maximises its chances of being considered, and it's simply more in your interests. It can do no possible harm to observe the etiquette, and it may do you harm if you don't - in which case, the biggest loss will be yours. But for another, the behaviour of other writers is no guide to your own.

The analogy that occurs to me comes from a documentary I saw about speed dating. (Comparing publishing to dating is, as you know if you've been hanging out here for a while, something I do from time to time, mostly because it seems to work.) Three of the men taking part in this filmed speed date were, secretly, members of some club that taught an Aggressive Flirting Technique. Its principle was to make the woman want your approval by acting like you were out of her reach and putting her on the back foot with negative remarks - I'm sure the method will be familiar to many of you. The technique was supposed to be infallible, a bulletproof limousine ride to lots and lots of sex with compliant, beautiful, submissive women.

To my gleeful amusement, these men had the absolute worst approval rating of all the men taking part in the experiment. Most men there got between two and six matches, based on acting naturally and trying to be likeable. Not so our Infallible Technique friends, though. One of them got one match, way below average. The other two guys got no matches at all; not a single woman wanted to see them ever again. One woman, having written either 'yes' or 'no' on her scorecard for most of the men, filled in an Infallible's box with, instead, a note reading 'arse'. They were not popular.

But chatting to friends, I've heard people say, 'I've seen that technique work'. And quite possibly it has. The making-a-woman-want-your-approval method is, I suspect, copied from watching a certain kind of sexually successful man, generally of the kind that leads gentler men to mutter 'Why do girls always go for bastards?' into their pints. Such a man has sufficient looks, status and confidence to get away with flirting-through-negation. It works, he does it and lots of pretty women sleep with him. Sounds nice, no?

But it's a Pen Fatale technique. He can make it fly because he learned it through a combination of trial and error, instinct, and feeling out what suited his personality. Social confidence and social skill enable him to navigate a tricky technique without crashing and burning. I have the strong suspicion, however, that a man who tries that method because he's read in a book that it works is not going to have the skill to pull it off. If he could make it work, he'd have worked it out for himself. It's a high-risk strategy, that only some people can do successfully. In that little experiment, women who the Flirting School men tried it on thought the guys were arrogant and rude, not cool and desirable. It backfired, because the guys were doing it mechanistically, following an instruction manual, rather than out of a sense of what worked for them. (If they'd had better judgement to begin with, for one thing, they might have realised that might work over several hours in a bar, surrounded by mutual acquaintances who aren't openly on the pull themselves, does not transfer smoothly into a speed dating environment, where you have only three minutes apiece to spend with twenty different women, flirting while surrounded by strangers, all of whom are flirting as well. But that's what I mean. A sexually successful, socially skilled man would have had the wit to adapt his technique to the environment; they didn't, because they were going on imitation rather than intelligence. Silly boys.)

And here's the thing: the people who can do it successfully already know who they are. They've tried it, and it's paid off, and they're pretty sure what they're doing - sure as in 'this has worked before and I know I can manage it', not as in 'this theory sounds so good I'm sure it ought to work'. If you're not sure you can make it work, then you can't. And if that's the case, you're better off trying to be nice. Some people can get away with acting too-sexy-for-this-conversation, but most of us can't. Niceness, however, works pretty much whoever tries it. It is a far safer strategy.

The same thing applies to writing. Possibly a genius can act out and still be published, but are you a genius? Are you sure? Not absolutely certain? In which case, be nice. And don't forget, being nice won't do a genius any harm either. Discourteous behaviour is something that people get away with, occasionally, not something that brings success, whereas courtesy and professionalism are predictably useful whoever tries them. They won't get a truly unpublishable book published, but they will get manuscripts read with a more favourable eye and make professionals more willing to work with the aspiring writer. It works in every area. Some writers don't need any feedback, for instance, but they're statistically very rare. The odds are very heavy that you aren't one of them. (Neither am I, for the record. Feedback is good. Nor, incidentally, am I suave or brilliant enough to get away with being rude to publishers, hence I try to remember to say 'please' and 'thank you' like everyone else.) Some people can boss publishers around, or get special treatment, or have exceptions made for them, or bypass parts of the usual process - but all that means is that they can do it. It doesn't prove anything about anybody else. The exceptions are exceptional.

So next time you hear a story about a writer throwing their weight around and getting away with it, imagine the story in a book form - and remember, you're reading a biography, not a self-help guide.

What about the further "dating" analogy aside from social skills..physical attractiveness? With your experience in publishing, Kit, I'm sure you've at least heard those debates over whether an author is pretty or handsome enough to earn one of those full cover photos, or if they've got the personality and full-watt smile to rev up a tour. You're right. It's funny how many of those relationship standards parallel so well into the publishing world.
Kit wrote:

Possibly a genius can act out and still be published, but are you a genius? Are you sure?

The trouble is, plenty of people who demonstrably aren't geniuses are nonetheless quite convinced of their genius.

These people will read your advice and think 'Hm, good point - but since I am a genius, I don't need to worry about it. I shall therefore continue to act like a giant cock.'

Your advice is sound - but the people who ought to heed it will, I fear, not.
On the dating analogy - the comparison would be between good looks and good writing. You can't go out with someone you don't find attractive - or at least, you shouldn't, and nothing they say is going to change the basic fact that you don't want them, however much they want you to change your mind. Similarly, a publisher can't buy a book they don't like. In neither case is it really a kind act to set aside your lack of attraction: you have to believe in a relationship if it's going to work. Unrequited love gets too depressing after a while, and publishers can't really convince people to buy books they wouldn't buy themselves. In dating terms, a rejection that says 'I don't think this is the right book for me' translates as 'Sorry, you're just not my type.' Not necessarily a blanket condemnation in either case; just a question of chemistry.

As to good-looking writers ... well, it's not an issue I've had particularly detailed experience with. But I don't think an ugly author will fail to sell a beautiful book. The general impression I get is that good looks in an author are useful if they're there - but it's part of a wider principle. The publicity department needs to get the book sold, and they'll use any advantage they can: an eye-catching photograph, a famous name, journalistic connections, witty conversation, talent for public speaking... It's a competitive market, and as such, anything that might help is deployed.

But good looks are basically a gimmick. I've heard PR people mention that it's useful that this author or that one has a handsome face, but it's not an end in itself; it's useful because it'll help in interviews, in promoting the author as a personality, and so on. But I've never heard anyone say, 'It's a shame she's so plain, that'll make it harder to campaign.' You just play any advantages you can find as hard as you can.

If I were going to summarise it, I'd say the two most useful things for an author to have are charisma and connections - and the latter's probably more helpful than the former.

And, of course, without a good book, the best-looking author in the world doesn't have much of a career ahead of them. Look at what happens when a beautiful model decides to write a novel - to make it work at all, you have to hire a more normal-looking person with some actual talent to ghost-write it. You can't look at an author photo and a page at the same time...
Hi anon...

Maybe we should try this?

If you are a genius, then acting cooperative and friendly will make everyone love you for being both brilliant and unassuming ... and you won't need to throw your weight around, because the magnitude of your work will do it for you.
Damn it I have neither charisma or connections. I might as well give up now!!

Also I am not a genius but I find it hard to always keep me cool/not piss people off. I pretty much never mean to, but I guess I am just lacking as a human being.

However I do agree with the general argument of this blog, it makes sense to try and do everything you can to please the publishers if you want to get published.

Unfortunately the way I fear it often goes, to keep with your analogy, is that the author pretends to be as nice as possible in order to get the publisher into bed, but they don't respect them in the morning.

I think that that is a terrible way to approach the world of love and romance, and would never treat a woman in such a way. But in terms of commerce and art I see no problem with being the flower and yet being the serpent underneath it.

But as you say there are lots of nice people in the publishing world and so maybe I'll be lucky and have a love at first site, long term happiness type jobby, if I ever get anywhere.

Certainly in real terms I don't view the publisher as the woman in the relationship anyway, but more the patriarchal macho type who judges women on their looks and assumes there to be an objective standard of aesthetics and behavior.

But I am sure that somewhere out there there is a new man type publisher for me. Someone who is sensitive to my feelings and who is interested in non-male ways of seeing the world.

(this is analogy, I am not saying publishing is patriarchal - tho in some ways it is, as the rest of the world is, I am saying it has a dominant ideology that it imposes on writers, just as patriarchy imposes its ideology on women.)
Don't give up! I'm sure you're delightful, but in any case, the main thing is always the writing. Anything else is a frill.

From a female perspective, I think you can just as easily say that the publisher is a woman - after all, most of them are. :-) This is a girl secret, but actually women judge men on their looks too. For pretty much the same reason: why sleep with someone if you don't want to? It's stupid and mean to think someone is a worthless person because you find them unattractive, but considering someone an undesirable sexual partner because you find them unattractive is just human nature, in either sex. Sex and dating are just no fun with someone you don't fancy. There has to be an appeal.

Similarly, I've worked slush piles and rejected manuscripts, and I never concluded that someone whose work I was sending back was a worthless human being. I just didn't think their work was appealing enough. I generally felt quite sad knowing that I was sending letters that would upset them. (Though if their approach had been rude, I felt less sympathy than I otherwise would have.) You don't judge the person, but if their work doesn't do it for you, then publishing it wouldn't work.

You have to like the person's face or their work; that's just a given. I don't think it's an ideology. It's just a question of preference; you don't commit to something you don't want.

But in establishing an early relationship, manners do help. A fight that would destroy a budding romance if it happened on the second date can be weathered comfortably by a long-married couple who have a history and know each others' good points. Similarly, going all-out to be nice on the first approach to a publisher is a good investment. You'll have to continue being polite once the contract is signed, but the less well someone knows you, the more likely they are to misinterpret questionable behaviour, so the more care you should invest in being unquestionably reasonable.

In any case, yay for feminism and men who support it.
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