It is pretty safe to say that relationships, whether professional or personal, can be tough at times. But when they’re working, they can be amazing and rewarding.
The author-editor relationship is no exception. The truth is there will always be bumps along the publishing road. But how you handle them determines whether they become molehills or mountains.
Below are three common issues authors face with advice from editors on how to deal with them.
But before sharing their advice, I want to offer some quick advice myself…
First, preparation is key. If your editor is aware of the direction you see your ‘author brand’ going in right from the get-go, you thoughts will be heard early and you can create a discussion platform that can be referred back to. I blog about how to prepare here.
Second, it’s so important to always be charming and polite. Being firm does not mean being rude and there is a world of difference between the two. Be nice and treat people with respect and they will want to engage with you.
Now, onto the advice editors shared with me.
1) The unresponsive editor
Speaking with other authors, one of the biggest issues they face is editors simply not responding to emails. I call it Publisher Ghosting.
It's important to remember how busy editors are. As Kate Mills, publishing director for commercial fiction at HQ Stories and formerly publishing director at Orion, says: ‘Editors can be in meetings much more than authors realise. Unfortunately we don’t read at our desks any more – our jobs have changed over the last ten years, reading is done at home now in the evenings and at weekends.’
Despite this though, I think it’s important to expect responses to emails within a reasonable timeframe, even if it’s a quick ‘sorry not to be in touch but will be soon’ email. I’ve been ridiculously busy in previous jobs but have always aimed to send a holding email within twenty-four hours. As Kate says herself: ‘In the best author/publisher relationships, the communication is frequent and fast.’
But what to do if you don’t hear from your editor within a few days?
Phoebe Morgan, commissioning editor at Avon and the co-chair of the Society of Young Publishers says: ‘I would use email to politely check in – and if that doesn’t work, I’d speak with your agent and ask them to chase too. Phoning out of the blue is usually a last resort – for me, I prefer to schedule times to chat with my authors so I am fully prepared for our phone call.’
Kate agrees about the polite chaser email to start with: ‘If you haven’t heard in a few days, a nudge along the lines of ‘Did you see my email re…’ is fine. Of course, if you’re waiting on a response to a manuscript, that may take longer, but hopefully your editor will have given you a timeframe in which you can expect to hear. Hopefully an author shouldn’t ever feel like a pest.’
That’s the key. You should not feel like a pest! It all comes back to that 'grateful sap' persona come of us authors have picked up. As long as you’re not hassling them unnecessarily, it’s fine to send a polite chaser email then take it to your agent (if you have one) next.
To add to Kate and Phoebe’s advice, if nothing seems to work, I’d check whether your editor tweeted in the time you’ve been waiting. Like the tweet. Respond to it. Don’t chase them in the tweet, this is more about reminding them you’re there.
Still nothing after all this? Then I’ll be blunt. Unless they have a genuine excuse, it’s time to rethink whether you want this person as your editor. In my view, communication is a key part of the process.
2) Disagreements over covers
Book covers can be a big bone of contention – publishers have a wealth of experience but we authors feel we know the book intimately.
It's often a running joke, the story of an author who designs their own cover in Microsoft Paint and sends it to their editor as a suggested cover. It's seen as part of the transition to being a 'traditionally published author' that you know it's your publishing house that will handle the design for you. But what this joke has done is make authors think they have to be completely hands-off in the process.
The truth is, you have every right to express your opinion... especially if you have already done your research and know your genre, as I recommend above. But how to approach your editor with your concerns?
Phoebe advises to first sleep on things. ‘Try to avoid emailing straight back with your initial, emotional or gut response – instead, sleep on it, ask your family and friends.’
She also asks that you think about all the work and thinking that would have gone into creating your cover behind-the-scenes: ‘All jackets will usually have a huge amount of effort put into them, with input from not only the designer but sales, publicity, marketing and editorial too. Book jackets along with the propositions are pitched to the retailers by the sales team, and so having something that stands out and positions the book well is of paramount importance.’
Still dislike your cover? This is where that all important preparation comes in. Kate advises: ’I find it helpful when an author doesn’t like their cover to receive a calm, thoughtful explanation of what’s not working from the author’s point of view. In some cases, I’ve found myself being totally persuaded by the author’s considered response. Having good examples of covers you think sit comfortably alongside your book helps a publisher see where you’re going, and how you think your book should be positioned.’
She also adds: ‘If you separate the different components that make a cover, there might be things you can build on – the font, the colour-way, the positioning of the title, etc. Pointing those out, as in: “I like the title font, but feel the image isn’t right…” already shows you’re looking for a solution together.’
If your cover isn’t changed despite putting your best case forward, I recommend patience. See how your book sells. If your novel sells well then fine, your publisher was right. If not, you have your communications with your editor as proof to push to have the cover changed for the ebook version... and push the case for your next hardback / paperback release.
3) Winning a new contract
There’s nothing that beats the jubilation of an editor adoring your work and taking you on as an author. But then that time comes when your contract is up and the dynamic can change. What can we do to increase our chances of getting a new contract?
Both editors agree it comes down to the quality of the next book you deliver. ‘Nothing puts an author in a stronger position than delivering a great book,’ Kate says.
But it’s not the only thing taken into the mix. Both Kate and Phoebe emphasise the importance of showing willingness to promote yourself, not just via social media but also by writing features and so on.
‘When publishers decide about re-contracting,’ Kate says, ‘often the whole team is involved in the discussion and will talk about their experiences of working with that author. If a publicist says ‘He didn’t want to write features…’ that goes in to the mix. That’s not to say we won’t work with that author again, but it means we know we’ll need to find a different way to promote without relying on feature coverage, etc.’
So it really is a case of writing the next book and making it the best you can, getting stuck in with the marketing and maintaining a good relationship with your publishing team. These are all things I hope I’m helping you with on this blog!
What if your contract isn’t renewed though? I plan to blog about this in more detail down the line but Phoebe makes a good point about it being just as hard for the editor. ‘It is so hard deciding not to re-contract someone and it breaks my heart every time,’ she says.
She advises authors not to see it as a sign to give up: ’I know lots of authors who have been published by several different companies in their lifetimes, and sometimes a fresh start can be a good thing, so if your current publisher has made the decision not to recontract you, don’t give up! It definitely doesn’t have to mean the end of the road.’
And that is the key: don’t give up!
ABOUT THE EDITORS:
I am super grateful to Phoebe and Kate for answering some tough questions.
Phoebe runs a great blog for authors here and I see her as being one of the interesting up and coming editors who could lead the way in changing a few things in the industry. As an editor and an author herself, she offers a brilliant insight into the publishing world and I'd strongly recommend following her.
Kate Mills is one of the nicest editors out there and I often hear great stuff about her from authors... despite turning JK Rowling down, ha! Seriously though, despite having a scary title like 'publishing director', she's fun and down to earth as you'll see from her Twitter feed. If you want to read all about her experience of turning down JK Rowling, you can read it here.
Knowing where you best fit into the book market is one of your first steps to taking control of your career and author brand.
In the indie publishing world, there’s a technique called ‘writing to market’ where authors scour Amazon sub-categories to pinpoint a growing trend. They then write and publish in time to leverage what they hope will be hungry market based on that trend (by the way, this is different from what's known as 'genre-swapping' where publishers will list your novel in a vaguely related category small enough to get your book to the top of the pile). You can find out more here about Chris Fox's brilliant insights into writing to trend.
'Writing to trend?!' I can imagine some of you gasping in horror. After all, we're told all the time by agents and publishers not to write to trends. And with good reason for those of us who are trad published. Our publishing cycle is too bloody slow to chase a trend that could well have disappeared or evolved by the time a book is released.
But even if you don't want to write to trend, we authors can use some of the techniques to help us understand our place in that market. By learning this, we can position our author brand and our books to leverage more sales and positive reviews.
Maybe you're reading this thinking you already know your place in the market. Are you sure? Follow the steps below and you might be surprised. In fact, just taking those steps will reap benefits, trust me. It's the best learning curve I ever took.
You see, back in 2017, I published my fourth novel Her Last Breath. It was pitched as a psychological thriller with the description “A girl has gone missing. You’ve never met her, but you’re to blame.” It had a dark cover of a woman looking like she was about to jump into a stormy ocean and I'd written it very much focused on delivering a plot which offered twist after twist.
It was different from my first two novels which were pitched more as being women's fiction. Why change direction? As I explain in this interview for the Honest Authors Podcast, I wanted a bite of the psychological thriller cherry after seeing what a success other authors were making of it. My third novel, No Turning Back, had seen me move into darker territory and as it had sold well, I reasoned going even darker would make sense.
But then the sales figures started coming in: Her Last Breath was attracting my weakest launch sales to date. When I realised the sales weren't great, I did what all good authors do: s*it myself, ha! But then I decided to take action. I did some research and some thinking, and it soon became clear what the problem was: I'd confused my readers.
First, some of my loyal readers who love the women’s fiction elements of my writing - the character journey, the family drama, the heart-breaking tear-jerking revelations - were turned off by the packaging and the fact I hadn't focused as much on the character journey. The fact is, the crime and thriller elements weren’t a strong motivator for them.
Second, readers who were looking for a new psychological thriller to read were disappointed. It wasn't quite dark enough. Here are some of the comments readers made:
'I would define this book as a family saga with suspenseful elements rather than an edge of your seat high-end thriller.'
'Tracy Buchanan writes well, the story starts at a good pace, there is right amount of suspense at the right areas. The story starts with a bang but there is something missing to make it a complete thriller.'
Of course, there could be lots of contributing factors when it comes to sales. But I strongly feel it was mainly down to my confusion about where I sat in the market, which had a knock-on effect on how I wrote the novel itself and then how it was packaged.
By figuring this out, I was able to pinpoint what direction I needed to go in next. From my research, it became clear women's fiction is my strong suit. As soon as I realised that, I began writing The Lost Sister, a book that feels so so right to me. Even though it's not out as I write this post, early reviews show me I've made the right choice to return to my women's fiction roots.
So how can you figure out your place in the market? Here are 5 simple steps which can help you determine, and embrace, your true place in the market. As I said, even if you're sure you already know your place, this can be a really useful exercise for all readers. Here are 5 tips...
1) Look at your reviews:
Reader reviews, as painful as they can sometimes be, are a goldmine in helping you shape your writing and chances of success with subsequent novels. Even if you just select the four and five-star reviews on Amazon, you’ll learn something. I learned those readers who loved my writing adored the women’s fiction elements of my novels and compared me to the likes of Jodi Picoult and Nora Roberts. Those who didn’t were frustrated I’d pitched myself as a thriller author when I wasn’t. This really helped me with my next novel.
2) Look at Amazon’s categories:
List five genres you believe your writing belongs in. Don’t worry if this is a struggle as this is something that will become clearer along the process. For me, it would be women’s fiction, psychological thrillers, crime, contemporary fiction, and romance. Now go look at these categories on Amazon (I looked at the UK and US sites). Glance at the descriptions of the novels in the top 25 or more for Kindle and paperbacks. Which categories feature novels that sound most like your best-selling novel and the novel you’re hoping to write next? This is the genre you should be focusing on. For me, it became clear that women's fiction was the category I should be focusing on.
3) Look at annual bestsellers:
Sometimes, a bestseller can be a fleeting thing. Someone may have got the top spot for a day or two, and never see it again. Do not get lost in the noise of the short-term bestsellers, we are after longevity. Therefore, I recommend looking at the top selling author lists that usually come out at the end of the year which reveal that year's overall bestsellers. Use it to learn more about the authors doing well in your market...and how they do it.
4) Gather data:
Compile an evidence document that includes cover and description examples used by the bestselling authors in your genre. What categories are they listed under? How does this compare with your positioning? This information will be useful for marketing discussions with your publisher.
5) Immerse yourself in your genre.
Sure, you might already be social media friends with authors who write in your genre, but do not limit yourself to just following other authors to immerse yourself. There are some amazing associations and groups that offer support and champion your genre. Once I got to grips with the fact that I write women’s fiction, I discovered the Romantic Novelists Association and I can honestly say I have gained so much from this wonderful community. Attend their events, engage in the community and embrace your genre.
These simple steps, whilst not a magic bullet, will help you lay a foundation to understanding what your audience craves in your writing, how other authors find success in this genre and, ultimately, where your writing should be aimed to maximise your sales.
UPDATE: GENUINE REVIEWS ARE BEGINNING TO REAPPEAR SO AMAZON HAS BEEN LISTENING :-)
There's been some panic recently with authors and reviewers noticing reviews disappearing on Amazon. I actually shared a post to my Savvy Authors' Snug group on Facebook about disappearing Amazon reviews many weeks before this all kicked off as it's actually happened before.
Many believe it’s part of Amazon’s crack-down on dodgy paid-for reviews, not just for books but all products sold via the website.
Admirable reason. Problem is, many people are discovering genuine and sometimes even verified reviews are going missing. Whatever Amazon has recently developed to seek out dodgy reviews is proving to be a tad over-zealous.
I think it comes down to one of Amazon's review policies:
'In order to preserve the integrity of Community content, content and activities consisting of advertising, promotion, or solicitation (whether direct or indirect) is not allowed, including:
Creating, modifying, or posting content regarding your (or your relative's, close friend's, business associate's, or employer's) products or services.'
And by 'close friend' that can include anyone who they think received a free copy of your book (bloggers, journalists and advance readers) or simply someone who follows you on Twitter or is a Facebook friend. Not good when many authors connect with bloggers and readers via our social media channels.
So for now, until we know concrete reasons why, here are two steps you can take:
1) Be careful about the kind of links you share. Long links give Amazon information which can set off their algorithms. So for The Lost Sister, when I search for it on Amazon the link is mega long:
Don’t use a link like this. Instead, shorten it by simply going to your book page and finding the 'share' link on the right. This will create a nice neat link for you. Or you can delete everything after the first long number. So for The Lost Sister, it’s https://www.amazon.co.uk/Lost-Sister-Tracy-Buchanan-ebook/dp/B0796WD7S5 As always, check the link works before posting.
2. Tell you publisher. They probably know about it anyway. But your publisher will have more clout with Amazon then you and can put in a query.
I hope this helps! Things might change over the coming days so watch this space.