editorial · publishing · strategy

What it’s really like to change publisher partway through your career

When you’re first starting out as an author, all you want is to get a publishing deal. I know – I’ve been there! But what happens if, a few books down the line, you decide you need a change? There are a myriad of reasons why an author might move publisher partway through their career – it could be a change of genre, they might be following an editor who has moved jobs, they might just want a change of scene and feel the need to experience somewhere else. If that’s you, then try not to worry – it doesn’t need to be a bad thing! It isn’t something I have been through myself, but I do know several authors who have moved publishing houses and so I spoke to a few of them about their experiences to see what they thought…

Below, Debbie Howells and Claire Allan tell us what it was like to make the leap.

1. Can you tell us a bit about your publishing journey so far – how did it start and where are you now?

Debbie: My first three books were women’s commercial fiction.  When I sent the third, Wildflowers, out to agents, six asked to read the full manuscript.  I couldn’t believe it! Unfortunately all six passed.  I self-published all three and they sold really well, but I was realising that if I wanted a traditional publishing deal, I needed to change genre.  I wrote my first psychological thriller, The Bones of You, in less than three months, and in the most unbelievable whirlwind of events, had several offers of representation.  After signing with my agent, Juliet Mushens, it sold at auction to Pan Macmillan.  It was published in several territories, was chosen for the Richard and Judy book club and became  a Sunday Times bestseller.  The deal with Pan Macmillan was for two books – my second was The Beauty of the End.  After that, they bought my next two books, The Death of Her and Her Sister’s Lie.  I’ve written a fifth book which is being published in the US – The Stepdaughter.  My sixth book, The Vow, is due to be published in the UK this October, by Avon.

Claire: I started writing fiction in 2006 and was really lucky to secure a publisher with my first novel, Rainy Days & Tuesdays which hit the shelves in June 2007. I published seven further women’s fictions titles with Poolbeg Press, before switching genre – and publisher – in 2017. I’ve since published four thrillers with Avon, with number five due out in January 2021.

2. You moved publishing houses quite recently – can you tell us how that came about?

Debbie: When I finished writing The Vow, Pan Macmillan didn’t renew my contract, but at the same time, Juliet had been speaking to an editor at HarperCollins who was interested in reading my next book.  That editor was Phoebe Morgan!  When Phoebe first read it, she had a clear idea of how she’d like to publish it.  It involved a title change, some rewriting and a different emphasis on one of the storylines, but neither in any way detracted from the story and in fact, with her editorial touch, the book is so much stronger.

Claire: After writing eight women’s fiction novels, I really felt the desire to shake things up and try my hand at something more serious in tone. It happened that at that time I felt that Poolbeg had taken me as far as they could. They are a relatively small, independent publisher in Ireland and while my books had hit the Irish bestseller list I hadn’t been able to break into the UK market. I needed a publisher with a strong track record and a big reach to enable me to do that.

3. Did you feel worried about leaving your first publishing home and trying out a new one?

Debbie: I wouldn’t say I felt worried.  When Juliet and I came in to meet everyone, I was bowled over by how friendly and professional they are.  Avon are such a dedicated, dynamic team, who fully deserve their recent accolade of winning Imprint of the Year.  I’ve been kept involved with every stage of the publication process and  already there is a power house of publicity happening, even months before publication.

Claire: I was absolutely terrified to be honest. I still had two books in contract with Poolbeg so it was a huge decision to ask to leave that contract early, especially with no eager publisher waiting in the wings. I knew I was taking a huge risk and that it could all blow up in my face. On a personal level, it was very hard to leave my editor, Paula Campbell, who had become a friend to me. I knew how she worked, and what she liked. Facing a new editor was intimidating!

4. What things do you think an author should take into account before making the decision to move publishing houses? Is there anything you wish you had known?

Debbie: I would suggest looking at the publisher’s author list, the publicity and sales, as well as discussing with your agent – if you have one.  There are many brilliant books out there.  Publicity really can make all the difference.

Claire: The main thing is to really think about what a new publishing house can offer that differs from your current publisher. How can they improve your books, how can they give you an extra push. Also each publishing house works differently to others so don’t expect to walk into a set up just like the one you’ve left. Moving from a small independent publisher to an international operation like HarperCollins was a bit of a culture shock. However, they have transformed my career and I do believe they have made me a much better writer. I have learned so much from my editors, and from the entire team.

5. What questions did you ask your agent in the moving process?

Debbie: I think Juliet pretty much had my questions covered before I asked them!  Another of her authors was being published by Avon and she was able to give me an overview and answer my questions about the publishing schedule, contract etc.

Claire: I didn’t ask a lot of questions to be honest. Both my agent and I were on the same page when it came to where we wanted my career to go. My agent had another author placed with Avon, and had been really impressed with the dedication and passion of the team. She felt we would be a good fit and I trusted her experience and guidance.

6. What advice would you give to someone wanting to move publishing houses?

Debbie: I would say embrace it!  You bring with you valuable experience, but be open to theirs, too.  I’m a firm believer that while it might be unsettling at first, change is usually good.

Claire: I think an author should trust their gut when it comes to publishing. Like any relationship, sometimes an author knows it’s time to move on, especially if they feel they have stagnated. Do your research and target publishers who offer what you want for your career. In my case, I really wanted a publisher not only with industry clout but who were brilliant at marketing and PR and Avon fitted the bill perfectly. Be prepared to feel a bit like the new girl (or boy) in class for a bit and be open to working a little differently.

Thank you so much, Claire and Debbie! I hope anyone reading this finds it useful – and remember, as Claire says, trust your gut! If you’ve changed publishers, what has your experience been like? Feel free to comment below.

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