As it's the Halloween season, I thought I’d dig deep into the dark dark souls of published authors and extract our top 5 fears… and offer some advice on how to deal with them. So go fill your skull goblet up with wine the colour of blood and lock your pet bat away so it doesn’t disturb your reading. We’re delving into the dark side of authors’ top fears…
Your publisher doesn’t offer you a new contract
I thought I’d ease us in, ha! In all seriousness, this has to be the biggest fear for traditionally-published authors. Obviously, if you have an offer from another publisher on the plate anyway, the blow is lessened somewhat. But if it comes as a surprise and you have nothing lined up, it can be really tough. So what to do? Don’t give up, that’s what! The fact you got a publishing deal in the first place is fantastic. Brush yourself down, take a break then consider your options. If you have a novel to sub, which other publishers can you or your agent approach? If it’s the novel your previous publisher rejected, don’t write it off. Remember those rejections you’re bound to have had before you struck that first publishing deal? And yet you still eventually ended up with your deal. This shows you responses are so subjective. Use any feedback from your previous publisher to revise the novel then get back on the submission wagon. Another important bit of advice? Don’t be rude to the publisher who has let you go. They will have their reasons. There may be opportunities in the future with them, or one of their staff who moves onto another publisher. Stay professional!
Halloween Hero: One bestselling author told me about a very difficult experience she had with a famous publishing house. Editorial changes were forced upon her which she disagreed with and because of this, the novel didn’t sell well, readers pointing out the very same issues the author had expressed concerns about to her editor. Her confidence was destroyed and she gave up writing for months but then one day, she was inspired to start a new novel. This novel attracted several offers from publishers and hit several bestseller lists. She’s now with a great publisher and is happier than she’s ever been.
Your sales suck
Very common horror story. It’s a tough market out there. To make matters worse, publishers aren't hugely transparent about what they mean by 'good sales'. Sure, it's hard to say as so many variants come into play but we all know there must be some indication according to genre and more. In fact, I'm currently doing an author survey about sales to try to get an idea. Feel free to fill it out here and keep an eye on this blog for when I post an article about the results.
So, what if your sales clearly suck? First, make sure your publisher is doing all they can to pick up those sales. Price reductions. Promotions like Bookbub and Kindle deals. There may be something that can be done. As I always say, don’t be afraid to ask your publisher what they’re doing to increase sales… or ask your agent to get on the case with them. Some publishers are willing to go the extra mile too, changing the covers and even titles of books (this is obviously easier with digital books). There are countless times when authors I know have done this and ended up getting a sudden lift in sales. If this doesn’t work, write the next novel. Often, there is no rhyme or reason to why one book won’t sell well. The more books your write, the more of a chance you have that one or more of them will hit the zeitgeist.
Halloween Hero: Me! Oh come on, surely I'm allowed to make myself a hero considering this is my article ;-) My first novel The Atlas of Us sold a decent amount but not quite enough to have it deemed a debut success. I was disappointed and started to wonder if the writing career I'd dreamed of would really last that long. I thought about giving up but instead, I focused all my energy on my next novel, My Sister's Secret. That went on to become my best-selling novel to date, even hitting the Kindle and Kobo number one spots!
Your sales are on a downward trajectory
The market is pretty naff at the moment so a lot of authors are seeing a year-on-year reduction in sales anyway. But if you’re just not seeing any improvement at all and your publishers and agent are scratching their heads about what’s going on, it might be time to try a different approach, whether that be a different genre and / or pen name. This is difficult to stomach for someone who just can’t see themselves writing any other genre but don’t dismiss the idea straight away. Take a break, spend some time ‘playing’ with genres. You might find it’s easier and more exciting than your thought.
Halloween Hero: A great example of someone changing genre with huge success is the lovely Carol Wyer, author of current Kindle top 10 bestseller The Birthday. After her comedies didn't sell so well, she came up with the idea for a thriller, something totally different to what she usually wrote. It paid off: her series went on to sell hundreds of thousands and she's inked up a new deal. However, she would always advise authors to stay flexible. Should the tide turn again and romantic comedies become more popular, she will be penning a few more!
You’re getting terrible reviews
I always tell people, the more books you sell, the worse your reviews will be. However, it still evens itself out and you’re not stupid, you can tell when readers just aren’t vibing with your novel, especially if its average rating is a lot less then your others. So what to do? If you're brave enough, then dive into those reviews and see what you can learn. I don’t mean the silly one and two stars. You’ll usually find a better indication in your three star reviews. If you have an agent, ask for their honest opinion. Ask your editor too. Tell them not to sugarcoat it. We all see things different with hindsight and they should be no different themselves. Read the novel back yourself if you have time. Can you see where it could have been improved? Use that knowledge to inform your next novel. As the saying goes, when life gives you lemons, make lemonade… don’t squirt that bitter lemon into your eye for the sake of your ego.
Halloween Hero: I spoke to an author at an event recently who told me after publishing three books with great reviews, her fourth got terrible reviews across the board. When she read the reviews, she realised the main reason was that readers felt they'd been missold... the cover and blurb suggested the novel was a thriller when really, it was more literary fiction. This information allowed the author to ensure her novel was packaged properly next time and her latest novel is getting fabulous reviews.
You have severe writer’s block
We all get writer's block, especially after we're experienced any of the scenarios above. I recommend taking a break to inspire yourself. Don’t just read other books but binge some Netflix, go to the cinema, visit some interesting places. No point staring at a blank screen. Then read some books about plotting and fine-tuning your craft. I find this often ignites some ideas in me. Obviously, you can’t then spend a year doing this especially if you have a deadline. There will come a point where you’ll need to get back to the desk. When this point comes, take a different approach. Do you usually just write organically (a ‘pantser’?) Have a go at planning. Usually a planner? Then write from the hip.
Halloween Hero: An author I know had the triple whammy of below average sales and reviews, then being dropped by their publisher. A very common occurrence, sadly. It completely knocked him for six and when he tried to write a new novel, it was impossible. He decided to put his laptop aside for a month and spent that month doing all the things I mentioned above. In the process, he came up with a completely new idea. That idea landed him a new deal with a great publisher.
Are you a traditionally-published author going through one of these horror stories right now? Then join the Savvy Authors’ Snug on Facebook so you don’t feel so alone. We share plenty of horror stories there, but also the wonderful outcomes too.
If you’re a traditionally-published author, you might be assigned a publicist. The job of that person is to help get your name out there. By ‘out there’, I mean articles and reviews in newspapers and magazines (both print and digital) and blogs too. If there isn't a dedicated social media person available, then they might cover social media too. To be clear, a publicist is often different from the marketing team who will usually be in charge of retail placement and ads. A publicist, or PR, will be the person trying to get 'free' publicity for you.
The contact you have with your publicist will vary depending on which publisher you’re with. At the beginning of your relationship, there will often be a long questionnaire to fill out to give them an idea of any ‘newsworthy’ potential you have. You might be lucky enough to get a phone call, Skype call or face-to-face meeting with them too.
In my view, a publicist can be just as important a person to an author as their agent and editor. You can write the best book in the world but how will people know if word doesn’t get out there about it?
So how do you make the most of that important relationship… and how can you troubleshoot any problems? Here are my top 5 tips:
1. Preparation is key
If physically possible, then I recommend meeting your publicist face-to-face as soon as you can then again 2-3 months before each book is published. If you’re popping in to see you editor, for example, try to get some time with your publicist too. Or ask to arrange a phone chat or Skype.
I know for some authors, this first chat with their publicist can be a daunting prospect. This is why I advocate as much prep as possible. You'll have a head-start if you’ve written the thoughts document I recommend in this article as it will help you understand how you want them to pitch you: so what media and angles do you think will work for your readers? Of course, your publicist will often know best, but at least you'll go in armed with knowledge. Also prepare some ideas of your own and a list of questions.
In an ideal world, you will have had a publicity plan when you got your deal or soon after which you can discuss with them. If there is no plan, then ask them to email you their plan after the meeting (or even better, ask if they can bring one in when you arrange the meeting). This will usually make sure they do! As the weeks and months go on, you can refer back to their plan to check all is in order.
If you're not getting any requests to write articles or posts in the lead-up to publication, and it's only a month before publication then a quick polite email to your publicist checking in doesn't harm. Then the week of publication, I recommend popping them another email to confirm where they're at with their plans for publication day itself, especially if they handle social media (and if they haven't sent their publication day plans already, of course!).
2. Don’t be scared to chase up
One of the biggest issues I hear from authors is a lack of publicity support, despite initial promises. Some authors have even told me that, despite getting a big advance and a beautifully-presented publicity plan as a way to win them over, all they got on publication day was one tweet. One tweet!!! The advice above will help, but if you've done all this and still nothing, don’t just sit there and cry into your vanilla latte. Contact your publicist, or ask your agent to, and ask what's going on.
As Sabah Khan, my brilliant publicist at Avon says: ‘I think the relationship between an author and their publicist is so important and part of what makes it strong is being able to be honest with each other. If I felt an author needed feedback on a piece or felt they needed some media training, I would hope I could tell them quite simply and honestly. I’d also hope they could be honest with me and so if they felt that they weren’t getting enough publicity, they need to be honest and tell me what they would like to see.’
But please be polite and understanding... and do NOT email every single day, one polite email will suffice. I used to work in PR and it is so difficult drumming up publicity. Journalists make promises of interest then don’t follow up. You even get told a piece will be published only to discover it’s been bumped off by a bigger news story. Understand it's a challenging job and your obnoxious email isn't going to help. Yes, it's important to get the best 'service' you can. But it's also about a happy medium between asserting yourself as an author, but not being rude.
3. Be realistic
I’ve said it countless times: publishers have lots of authors on their rota and the simple fact is, some will naturally get more publicity then others, so don’t get too precious about it. But you absolutely should expect promises to be kept and decent publicity support too considering the percentage publishers take off your royalties (and even if you got a huge advance, even more reason a publicist should be working hard to make sure they make that advance worth while, right?)
But be realistic. As I say so many times, only you can dedicate 100% of your time to YOU. Don’t expect your publicist to be able to dedicate 100% of his or her time to you. There is nothing worse then authors who harass their publicists for updates as though they are the sole author on their rota. As Sabah says: 'I’m very lucky to do the job that I do, and I really love that my authors trust me with their secrets and the precious gift that is their novel – so I need them to have every faith in me when I say I’m on the case!'
So while you should expect your publicist to do work for you, you should also use your contacts and keep your eyes peeled for opportunities as well (just make sure you let them know anything you’ve committed to so you avoid avoid duplication). As Sabah says: 'A publicist would love to spend hours and hours on each author but we have to be realistic about how much support any one author can have so anything an author can do themselves is a huge bonus.'
4. Show willing… within reason
Publicists like it when authors show willing. If you put in the effort your side and reach deadlines, then they will do the same for you. So fill in those questionnaires, send them ideas. When a request comes in, do what you can to say yes.
However, I completely understand how busy life is and if you’re sacrificing precious writing or family time to write a 2k article for a blog that has 5 followers, then you are perfectly within your rights to push back. You should also not share anything you feel deeply uncomfortable about. I’m personally quite open about my life, and have numerous articles placed by my publicist Sabah in the national press about my infertility and other issues. As Sabah says, her ideal author is one who ‘shares things about themselves and be vocal (not too vocal!) about what they think, and contribute to topical conversations.’ Of course, not everyone is as open as me. If you’re not, then you have to accept you might not get as much media coverage.
5. Keep YOUR promises
If you have a deadline for an article, stick to it. If you’re going to pull out of something, have a bloody good reason. A big part of a publicist’s job is nurturing relationships with people who are very influential among readers. You let them down without a good reason and it makes your publicist look bad.... and you.
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.