I began my publishing career in children’s publishing as an editor, long enough ago that I applied to a job ad in a physical copy of a newspaper. Over the next fifteen years I worked at Usborne and Penguin Random House, on non-fiction, picture books, novelty books and audio. My final in-house role was Publisher at Ladybird. I’d been writing on the side for a while, and during the pandemic I finally made the leap to writing full-time.
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:
- 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. I know from experience on the publisher side that it’s very tempting to wait, but it’s so easy for a freelance author to imagine the worst if all they get is silence. 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.
- 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.
- 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! So know that 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!)
- 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.
- 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 #3 children’s bestseller.