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Troubleshooting the Author-Editor Relationship

Advice from two publishers at HQ Stories and Hodder Books

The author-editor relationship is often a positive one. But there will always be bumps along the publishing way. It's how you handle them that determines whether they become molehills or mountains.

Below are three common issues authors face with advice from two brilliant editors – Kate Mills, Publisher for commercial fiction at HarperCollin' HQ Stories and Phoebe Morgan, Crime Publisher at Hodder Books – on how to deal with them.

1) The unresponsive editor

Speaking with other authors, one of the biggest issues they face is editors simply not responding to emails. To put it bluntly, ghosting.

It's important to remember how busy editors are. As Kate Mills, Publisher for commercial fiction at HarperCollins' HQ Stories, 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, Crime Publisher at Hodder Books said: ‘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!



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