An Interview with Phoebe Morgan, Author and Editorial Director at HarperCollins
By Natalie Joyce, Halimah Haque, Arabella Petts, Lauren Fardoe and Cassie Waters
Given your eight years of experience in editorial, what do you personally think makes a bestseller? Is it something you get a feeling about upon first read, or something that comes to you at a later stage in the process?
To be honest, I think you can get a feel very early on when reading submissions. If something is amazing—whether that’s the idea, the voice or the structure—I usually feel it within the first few pages, particularly the voice. With The Chalet by Catherine Cooper, which reached number five on the Sunday Times list, I loved it from the agent’s pitch, read it overnight and pre-empted it a day later. I just thought the setting and the idea was amazing, and then luckily the voice matched! With Girl A by Abigail Dean, it was her voice that hooked me from the very first line, which is still etched in my brain, and then it was also the phenomenal structure that made the novel into something very special indeed. I cried reading it, which doesn’t happen that often, and it’s now spent nine weeks and counting in the Sunday Times top ten. Many factors go into making a bestseller though and a lot of it is down to internal work by the publishing teams which cannot be controlled by the author. The author’s job is to write the best book possible and sometimes, sadly, amazing books don’t sell as well as they should. The market fluctuates and there have been times where I have thought something would sell and it hasn’t. That is always tough, but it’s important to keep perspective. I love it when authors have a break-out hit later in their careers: it’s a brilliant reminder that this is a long game and that great writers will usually find readers in the end, even if it takes a little time.
How does your role as an Editorial Director influence your writing and vice versa?
I think my day job gives me a very realistic approach to publishing and writing. Obviously, it means I am more aware of the market and know what is and isn’t selling more than some writers. Sometimes I will think about writing to a certain trend, but it’s also important to write novels you enjoy writing and that you yourself would enjoy reading, to be authentic in what you create. I’m very aware of the factors that go into creating a genuine bestseller. Often, it’s supermarket or other retail support, marketing spend, eBook price, and other factors. All you can do as a writer is to write the best book possible and then help to publicise it if you’re comfortable with that. I always say yes to opportunities that might help grow my profile and I do use social media to connect with readers, but these are both things I actively enjoy and not everybody is the same in that respect. I think my day job does help me in terms of thinking of book ideas and structures as that’s a big part of my job as Editorial Director. I’d also say that being an author really helps me empathise with the writers I publish at HarperCollins. I genuinely do understand how they feel when they are disappointed or happy, and this helps me create stronger relationships with them. I hope they feel the same!
What have been your top three books of 2021?
One of the downsides of being an editor is that you hardly ever get the time to read novels you’re not working on. However, I had a week in October where I was ill with Covid and managed to speed through some fantastic novels! I loved A Slow Fire Burning by Paula Hawkins, Wrong Place Wrong Time by Gillian McAllister (forthcoming) and The Night She Disappeared by Lisa Jewell, which I thought was incredible and probably her best yet. As you can see, I love reading thrillers even when I’m not at work!
You published your latest book, The Wild Girls, earlier this year. Do you have any rituals or traditions that you complete to prepare yourself and get you into the correct head space when writing thrillers and murder mysteries?
I don’t really have any rituals. I just force myself to sit down and write! I found writing in lockdown quite hard. Most of The Wild Girls was written in lockdown one (which was a great distraction), but by lockdown three I was certainly flagging. When I write I usually drink copious amounts of herbal tea and light a candle, it helps me feel comforted and stay in the zone. I’m terrible for getting distracted on my phone! Sometimes, I put it in another room so I’m not tempted to waste time on Twitter. My favourite part of writing is the beginning—I love meeting my new characters and getting inside their heads and all four of my novels are written from multiple points of view. The middle is the hardest part. It can feel like a real slog, but you have to focus on the end goal and think about how great it will feel to type "the end."
Do you read your book reviews? Do you have any advice for fellow or aspiring writers on dealing with bad or good ones?
I don’t read all of them, no, but I do for the first week or so after publication and then I check them every now and again when I remember to. I am quite philosophical about reviews. Because I work in publishing, I know that literally every author receives some negative ones and my view is that as long as the majority are positive, above a four-star rating, then I’m happy. I’d seriously worry if my reviews were dipping below that and I’d probably reflect on whether there was something wrong with the book, but I’m used to getting some negative ones. Reading is so subjective, and you can’t please everyone. I know a couple of writers who don’t read their reviews at all, and if you know you’re the sort of person who would find it upsetting then do just steer clear. Or ask a friend to read the positive ones to you if you need a boost. I think constructive reviews can be helpful, but Amazon attracts all sorts. You have to laugh at the one stars!