What Editors Need to Know About Author Care

A line drawing of a person slumped over their laptop and desk, in need of support from their publishing team

Updated June 2023

Working in publishing, you hear people talk a lot about ‘author care’, but I think I only truly understood what that meant after spending time as a writer myself, and talking to other writers about their experiences too. I’ve been having many discussions with authors about what they need and want from editors, and on the author/publisher relationship more broadly. Authors often compare notes, and all the tips below aren’t all from my experience, but come from the shared hive mind of writers.

Here are five tips for editors on avoiding pitfalls in author relationships, viewed from the author’s seat:

1. Silence is deadly

If you don’t reply to their emails, or if they don’t hear from you for a while, they will assume the worst. That you hate their book, or you’re about to drop them. If you don’t have the complete information that they asked for, it’s always, always better to say you’re working on it than to wait until you have the perfect answer.

While a publisher’s inbox is always overflowing, a writer’s often isn’t, and each publisher email arrives like an unexploded bomb that could also be the answer to all their hopes and dreams. Emails are loaded as a writer but frequent communication eases some of that tension, even if it’s just a quick note to say you’ll be in touch about X next week.

Extra tip from BookMachine: This also goes for delivering bad news. It can be far more collaborative to bring more honesty into your discussions with your authors. Explain that the figures aren’t looking as good as we hoped, or we didn’t get as much press as we were hoping for. Discuss ways in which to improve the situation, rather than either actively pretending everything is great or just simply not offering the information. 

2. Author time is not infinite (but they often hate saying no)

One thing I’ve heard over and over from author friends (and illustrators too) is that they’ve been asked to deliver something ‘early next week’ on a Friday, which means working over the weekend. Often, a short deadline is fine if you have advance notice and you can move things around, but in all the schedule tussling in-house, the author’s time doesn’t always get taken into account.

I know how hard it is to get a schedule to add up – pleasing production, design, sales, rights and everyone involved. But while authors can turn things around quickly sometimes, it’s never a given, and advance warning makes everything easier. But also, your author may be eager to please and promise things that are bad for them, mentally or physically or both.

3. Publishing is OPAQUE

My experience as an editor coming up through the ranks was that knowledge only came by osmosis. No one really sits you down and explains how publishing works. When I became an author, I already knew how things worked, to an extent, but even then, I’ve appreciated it so much when publishers have broken down information for me and explained the jargon. Partly because every publisher has different jargon, but also some ways publishing works are weird even if you’ve been in the industry for 15-odd years! 

Every explanation you give to new authors of the behind-the-scenes stuff is a gift. For example, telling authors which promotions are paid for and which aren’t will stop them feeling bad about not making this or that ‘bestseller chart’. Or explaining what it means when a book is sold at a discount, and how that affects their royalties. (Yes, this is also an agent’s job, but just as writers are often afraid of saying no, they’re also often afraid to ask their agents questions for fear of looking silly!)

4. Treat authors as colleagues

Now, on the whole, authors don’t know much about the inner workings of publishing (see above). But treating them like colleagues who just happen to be out of the loop and need more information is incredibly helpful and welcome. Rather than thinking of it in terms of drip-feeding them information, or ‘managing expectations’, think about the information that would make their lives easier. Being frank about sales expectations might sting at first, but it allows people to plan their lives – financially, for starters, but also emotionally. Writing is such an emotional business, but having facts rather than woolly nothing is almost always preferable.

Extra tip from BookMachine: The perfect partnership could be thought of as similar to co-parenting a child (where the child in this instance is the book!). Work together with your authors on how best to get the message out – each of you working to your strengths, as equal partners. Building a two-way flow of information and knowledge can help to redress the power imbalance between author and publisher, and improve the overall author experience, and even the impact of the book when it reaches the market. Set a code of best practice when it comes to working on this crucial relationship so including them in the process is baked-in.

5. Acknowledge changes in direction

Something I’ve heard from a lot of authors is that, when a project changes direction on the publisher side, what they really need is acknowledgement that it’s happened. Failure to do so can feel a bit like gaslighting.

In an ideal world, everyone will be on the same page with a shared vision from the beginning. But if, for example, a senior person at the publisher suddenly decides that a book needs to be positioned/edited differently, telling the author explicitly that things are shifting, and why, is a great thing. Having been in those meetings where someone suddenly suggests taking a book in a whole new direction, I know that navigating the in-house politics is tricky. But any level of transparency you can bring to the author is A Good Thing, so they don’t think they dreamed the initial direction!

All in all, looking at things from an author’s point of view might cost you some extra time upfront. It might involve a few more emails and calls but the benefits to the relationship with the author are huge. The ripples of that positive relationship can save a lot of heartache (and emails, and phone calls, and meetings) over time, too. Sensitive author care that involves treating them like a colleague can mean better publishing and more success for everyone involved.

Louie Stowell worked at Usborne Publishing as an in-house writer and editor then Penguin Random House as Publisher of the Ladybird Trade list. After 15 years in publishing, she now works full-time as an author. Her latest book, Loki: A Bad God’s Guide to Being Good, is a Sunday Times #1 children’s bestseller. 

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  1. Thank you for this Louie. As an author with six novels behind her, still trying to find that rare endangered species, the agent, I can wholeheartedly agree with those tips. The weeks I’ve waited to hear something, and then been too frightened to ask and upset the fragile author/publisher seesaw. The monumental generic ‘not right for us’ statements leaving me confused and demoralised. The thought of any publisher wanting to take my work in another direction without my knowledge could fill me with anxiety – if I was lucky enough to ever have one.

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