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5 Ways to tame your publishing lions

Kevin Patton Lions
Kevin Patton playing with two of his lions in 1980.

Forget kindergarten. All I really need to know about being a textbook author, I learned as a lion tamer.

I’m a textbook author and professor now, but in my youth I was an apprentice lion tamer. And it continues to surprise and delight me that many of the principles I learned during those adventures have helped me in my career.

Some years ago, I got a call from author Steve Katz who helped me realize the value of the lessons I’d learned while lion taming. In Washington, D.C., Steve had been a chief-of-staff for a powerful political figure. He was now considering a switch to consulting and had an idea for a book that would help him launch his new career. 

Steve told me that a handful of staffers in DC consider themselves to be “lion tamers.” They have to manage their “lion” in a way that doesn’t make it seem like they were being managed—they are “kings of the jungle,” after all. He wanted to write a book based on this lion-taming analogy and needed my help in getting the “real lion taming” part of his analogy correct.

Steve’s book, Lion Taming: Working Successfully with Leaders, Bosses and Other Tough Customers, was a hit with the business world. That’s because he really nailed it—we can be more successful when we learn how to manage our “bosses” like a lion tamer manages real lions.

Who are our lions when working as a textbook author? How can they be managed to make us all more successful?

Among our pride of professional lions are various sorts of editors, illustrators, and many others. We are not their boss—in some ways, they are our bosses. Yet, to get our job done, we sometimes have to facilitate a changes in their behavior—or recognize when to adapt to their behavior instead.

Here are 5 tips that you can use to tame your own lions:

    1. Respect lions. Besides recognizing their power, which may far exceed ours in certain matters, the abilities of lions must be respected.  Besides being able to kill you instantly and eat you, they have amazing stealth, athleticism, strength, sociability, and even humor.  Likewise, respect that our lions have talents, skills, and expertise that complement our own.  When we value and respect these abilities, our projects have more success.
    2. Build relationships. Before working with it, the lion must get to know and trust us—and we must learn the likes, dislikes, and quirks of that cat. Not all lions are alike, nor are all editors. Lion tamers spend every day with their lions, but even just a few minutes here and there with our lions will likely be enough to get to know each other enough to forge a smooth working relationship. The trick is recognizing this fact and intentionally nurturing our “lion” relationships.
    3. Leverage talents. Without exception, the star lion tamers are those who let their lions tell them exactly what they are good at and what works best for them. Sometimes, it’s an unexpected flip in the air or an enthusiastic double rollover. The lion tamer encourages it, and it becomes a show-stopping addition to the act.  Sometimes, it’s a lion letting you know that this pedestal is just too shaky—and you better stabilize it. Likewise, when we let our publishing lions do what they do best, it usually makes things work out better. Asking for, and listening to, advice and ideas from our lions–even if it means changing our original plan or our long-held patterns—can be a key to success.
    4. Do not fight lions. It always puzzles me when people think that a person can force a lion to do anything it doesn’t already think is a good idea. Lions are incredibly huge and strong and have giant, meat-ripping fangs and claws. When we back them into a corner or aggressively challenge them, they will stand their ground until we back down—assuming we survive. My friend Steve learned this to be true of politicians he “managed.” Success comes when you make it “their idea” in the sense that you facilitate consensus among all partners.
    5. Stay playful. I found that things always go well when the lions are having fun. Every practice and every performance is play time. Very serious, very careful playtime—but playtime nonetheless. Playfulness makes a serious professional relationship with publishing lions work better, too. And these days, I’m thinking that a sane person cannot survive in textbook publishing without a sense of humor.

Kevin Patton is an award-winning professor and textbook author in human anatomy and physiology. A longtime TAA member, he produces a blog at

The views and opinions expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect that of the Textbook & Academic Authors Association. Read more about TAA guest posts here.