Claire Coughlan meets the author and Avon commissioning editor to talk about writing, and publishing, from both sides of the fence
Last year, HarperCollins imprint HQ published Phoebe Morgan’s first novel, The Doll House, a taut psychological thriller. Throughout the process, Morgan had a broader perspective than that of most debut authors. She is commissioning editor at Avon Books, specialising in crime, thriller and women’s fiction, and can "see it from both sides", she says. The Doll House went on to reach the number one spot on iBooks and number 35 in the Amazon Kindle store. Morgan has just signed a new two-book deal with HQ, with the first title, The Girl Next Door, set to appear in April 2019.
Her popular blog at phoebemorganauthor.com, where she connects with readers as well as aspiring authors, aims to demystify publishing, with posts on subjects including pricing and promotions, responding to edits on your book, and restructuring your novel. Morgan encourages readers of her blog to get in touch with questions and queries, and many queries come from aspiring authors. Avon currently has an open submissions window, so Morgan says she has encouraged the people who have contacted her to submit through that.
"Quite a few people have asked if I’d read their manuscript and give them pointers, and I have done that as well, when I've had the time," she says. "I like it when people reach out to me because I think it’s always good to give people a helping hand."
Morgan was a winner of this year’s Trailblazer awards, which are supported by BookBrunch. The awards, now in their third year, are run by the London Book Fair and the Publishers Association, with BookBrunch as media partner, and are for publishing professionals under the age of 30 "who are demonstrating innovation and ambition in the book industry". She is also co-chair of the London branch of the SYP (Society of Young Publishers).
We meet in Dublin, where Morgan and some of her HarperCollins colleagues are visiting to celebrate the annual Big Book Bonanza. This month, Avon publishes Her Name was Rose, the debut psychological suspense novel by Irish author Claire Allan, who previously wrote eight women’s fiction titles for Irish indie Poolbeg.
On the saturation of the market with psychological thrillers, Morgan says: “They still perform really well. I still buy them; and I think a lot of editors are still buying them. The bar has been set higher, you’ve got to have a stronger hook than you had four years ago because now there are so many. You need a high concept or you need a really strong sense of voice, because obviously there is more competition."
Morgan says that because Avon has a small list, there has to be room for each author. "Most of my list is crime and thriller - I think it’s because I like to read that genre, so I’m more naturally drawn to it," she explains. "I also write in that genre, so they are the manuscripts that I tend to pick up more."
Morgan would like to find a new women’s fiction author, and has previously said on her blog that she’d particularly like to find a new Irish author.
Seeking women's fiction
"I’ve got a couple of brilliant women’s fiction authors but I’d like to take on some more," she says. "I think with women’s fiction, it’s hard to find the right tone. It’s interesting because there was a big women’s fiction boom in the ‘90s, and later. Then it went into decline and the psychological thriller took over and dominated the charts. I do think women’s fiction is coming back." She mentions being open to books with older protagonists as well.
"We’re also trying to do more projects where HarperCollins come up with the idea and then retain the rights, finding an author to fit our brief," Morgan says. "Which is not for everyone, I know. We’re trying to find a younger, millennial voice."
Morgan has a strong social media presence, which she says is helpful, though not essential, as an author. "I find it useful to connect with other writers, and I’ve had good opportunities come out of it," she says. "I don’t get involved with anything political; I just use it for work and occasionally for personal things. I think it depends what you make of it, it can be a really useful tool for marketing your book. I always tell my authors that, but I never force them to use it, because it doesn’t come naturally to everybody."
Morgan grew up in Suffolk. After studying English at Leeds University, she pursued journalism, before landing her first job in publishing five years ago, as an assistant at Octopus. She says she "always wanted to write", having taken creative writing classes at university, but didn’t embark on fiction seriously until the age of 24, when she began the first draft of what would become The Doll House.
"I really like being an editor. I wouldn’t want to ever change that," she says. "I’ve always wanted to do my writing on the side, and it’s really nice to be able to juggle both at the moment. I feel lucky to be able to do the two things that I love."