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BW Businessworld

The Personal Touch

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Last week, I attended a fabulous book launch. It was a glittering party: five-star hotel, a heritage property, faerie lights scattered all over the place, delicious snacks, and the bonus — good conversation. The reception was extremely well attended. It was packed to the gills with the who's who of academics, writers, journalists, film makers, photographers, editors and publishers. Wherever you turned, there were familiar faces, not necessarily because they are friends and colleagues, but since every single person there was a prominent personality in his/her domain. These were achievers; it is every publisher's dream to have these individuals on their lists — from fiction to non-fiction. Surrounded by this crowd, I had an illuminating conversation with an author and academic. Let's call him Mr. X. He was of the opinion that the time had come for authors to not be associated with publishers and publishing houses any longer. Mr. X narrated an anecdote about a friend, who was mighty fed up with the impersonal and callous attitude of publishers that he had opted to self-publish his books. It seems that opting for this route enabled him to earn mega-bucks; something that is may not have been possible if he had been published in the traditional manner. Mr. X was of the considered opinion that this non-traditional route of publishing was the way of the future, since the author-publisher relationship is crumbling. In his experience, he found publishing houses, cold and only concerned with the bottom line. Also, the interaction with them was restricted only to the period during which the book was being edited, produced and maybe for a short while, after it was published. But the last stage was merely a baby of the marketing and sales departments. The warmth, the personal touch, the hand-holding was absent. What hurt the author the most were the pathetic royalty statements issued by the publishers; they were unforgiveable considering the energy that had been spent in producing t book.

This illuminating conversation could have led me towards discussing various aspects of publishing. But this time I would prefer to dwell upon the importance of author management. Whether the debates are about royalty, copyright, anti-piracy, editing, the production process or the importance of the bottom line for the publisher, the only constant in all these issues is the author. It is the author whose work is being converted by professionals into a book/product, for larger dissemination, to be made public. The publishers are the middlemen. They invest in the process in order to ensure healthy sales, ultimately for the benefit of the author.

A Symbiotic Relationship
The buzz words today are business management and digital rights management. But has anyone spared a thought for 'author management'. Traditionally, it has been the editor's responsibility to be available for the author 24x7, a role that has involved far more than being an editor — it usually also entails being an agony aunt. The editor can earn good brownie points within the extended writing community if they manage the authors well. It is a tricky situation since an editor, at any given time, is managing multiple authors, which can get emotionally and mentally taxing. After all, apart from editing the manuscript, an editor is also responsible for co-ordinating other technical details involved in publishing a book, all of which require mental energy and time. 

The author is a crucial cog in the publishing process. If s/he is happy with the editor/publishers, he/she will recommend other writers to be a part of the same stable. It is a highly infectious process that in the long run benefits both publishers and authors. If the author feels welcomed, comfortable and finds the teams within the publishing firm, warm and receptive to any enquiry — however innocuous and foolish it may be — they will encourage other writers to sign up with the firm as well. (Commissioning will be a tad easier for the editor and it will help the publisher keep abreast of changing reading tastes and trends.) This word of mouth recommendation is the best certificate of approval that a publishing firm can ever hope for. No amount of spin doctoring will ever help it earn such an image in the open market. In fact 'author management' is a skill listed on LinkedIn, the website meant for professional networking.  While googling for the term, there are a number of links that are available, including consultants and publishing outsourcing vendors who specialise in providing "author management" services.

Space For Mediation
This is a space, where many literary agents are stepping in to be the human interface between the publisher and the author. The agents hand hold and help the author through every step, before and after publication of the book since most editors are snowed under with work, and are only able to devote time to the author for the duration of the production, and not necessarily beyond. The agents are becoming an integral and an indispensable part of this eco-system since they are able to forge a long relationship with the author. Having said that, it would be crucial for publishers to bring back some of the warmth into their operations, as it will ensure the sustainability for their business, which cannot be quantified in money at all. In fact, it would help contain explosive news like that of the ongoing and very public tiff between Booker prize winning author, Ben Okri and his editor, Robin Roberston hurling accusations at each other or last year's equally prominent one between V. S Naipaul and his first editor, and former publisher at André Deutsch, Diana Athill. The bottom line is that publishing is about communication and human relationships, which can sour or blossom depending upon how it is managed and ultimately, have an immediate impact on the P/L sheets.

Jaya Bhattacharji Rose is an international publishing and literary consultant
She can be contacted on [email protected] Follow Jaya on Twitter @JBhattacharji