David Corbett, here. I’m teaching at the History Writers of America Conference in Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia today, so I’m handing over this month’s post to a writer I very much admire, Hilary Davidson.
Before she became a full-time, award-winning, bestselling novelist, Hilary was a journalist, starting as an intern at Harper’s Magazine in New York then joining the staff of Canadian Living magazine in Toronto. After deciding that she’d rather write than edit, she left her day job to freelance full-time. That decision led her to write 18 nonfiction books and articles for wide array of publications.
Her debut novel, The Damage Done, won multiple awards for Best First Novel, and launched the Lily Moore series that continued with The Next One to Fall and Evil in All Its Disguises. Hilary’s first standalone thriller, Blood Always Tells, was published in 2014 and her latest novel is One Small Sacrifice, the bestselling first book in the Shadows of New York series. The next book in that series, Don’t Look Down, will be released in February 2020.
Hilary’s short stories have also won multiple awards and have appeared in a wide variety of outlets and anthologies; in 2013 she gathered some of her personal favorites for a collection called The Black Widow Club: Nine Tales of Obsession and Murder. (For more information about Hilary and her books, visit her website.)
I asked Hilary if she could provide our readers with some guidance on how to navigate the often perilous cross-currents of today’s publishing world. Turns out she had a very on-point story to tell about the need to take a leap of faith—in oneself.
SHOULD I STAY OR SHOULD I GO?
Growing up, there was nothing I loved reading more than advice columns. They were in newspapers and in magazines, and even in the tabloid papers my grandmother passed along to me. The most-asked question over the years was always some variant of, “My spouse is a good person, but we don’t see eye-to-eye on a lot of things or share the same values; I don’t know whether to stay or leave…” The usual response—unless the partner was engaging in truly terrible behavior—was that such feelings were normal and of course any sane person would stay.
Accept what you have, that was the message. Good enough is as good as it gets.
A few years ago, I found myself asking the same question, only it had nothing to do with love; it was about my career. I would be the first to admit that I’d had a fortunate start in publishing: I was represented by a well-established agent, published by a Big Five publisher, and my debut novel had won the Anthony Award for Best First Novel. Who wouldn’t be thrilled with that? But by the time I published my fourth novel, Blood Always Tells, I was looking at my career and wondering whether I needed to stay or leave.
To be clear, there are no villains in this story, and no one was doing me wrong. But there were signs that I wasn’t on the right track. One of them was that my agent didn’t like Blood Always Tells; specifically, my agent didn’t like Dominique, the point-of-view character at the start of the novel. “Who wants to read about a woman who’s having an affair with a married man?” my agent asked while we were talking about the book. A few days later, my agent emailed me some suggestions about things to do to boost my profile, such as blogging about vintage clothing. To be fair, vintage clothes are an obsession for my series character in my first three novels, but those dark-edged books didn’t feel like they would be served by cozy posts. At the same time, I’ve had friends whose agents ignored them for months after they sent them a new manuscript to read; my nagging doubts about my agent seemed like very small potatoes by comparison.
I also had doubts about my publisher, even though they were doing some things that were above and beyond, such as sending me on tour for my third and fourth novels. But there were issues, such as the lack of availability of my first novel, The Damage Done, which was the start of a series. After it won the Anthony Award, it was brought out briefly in a mass-market paperback edition, and then it ceased to exist in print. By the time the third novel in the series came out, this had become a painful issue. I remember being at a book festival in Brattleboro, Vermont, in a standing-room-only crowd of mystery fans, trying to explain this. “You can still get the eBook,” I told them.
No one in that room wanted an eBook. They weren’t happy about buying the third book in a series when you couldn’t get the first one. I agreed with them wholeheartedly.
My publisher eventually agreed to create a print-on-demand version of The Damage Done, and they even offered it to stores with a standard return clause. But stores were suspicious, even when I contacted them directly to explain the situation. “You can’t return a print-on-demand book, no matter what you say” was a line I heard over and over. It felt like I was pushing a boulder uphill.
Writers are often reminded of how grateful we should be for being published at all. But I wasn’t feeling grateful; I was stressed-out. If I had turned to one of those advice columnists I used to read, I’m sure most of them would’ve advised me to stay the course, but that wasn’t what my gut said. I wrote endless lists of pros and cons.
“You know what you want to do,” my husband told me. “But you’re afraid to give up what you have, in case you don’t get anything else.”
That was absolutely true. I realized that I needed to believe in my own work and my own worth. I needed to trust that if I moved forward, it would open up new opportunities to me. My horizons would broaden, not diminish.
Everyone’s circumstances are different, but I realized I’d been in this place before, back when I’d been on staff at a big glossy magazine based in Toronto. I had a good job and worked with people I really liked, but I dreamed about writing, not editing. At first, I looked around for a better job; then, when I was offered one, I balked because I realized that moving up the hierarchy of editors wasn’t going to bring me any closer to my dream. I ended up quitting that job and launching my freelance writing career. It was nerve-wracking (I was single at the time and living alone, so no one was picking up the slack if I failed), but it was absolutely the right thing to do.
Making the jump to a new agent and a new publisher was both easier and harder than launching my freelance career. Easier, because I was married to someone who believed in me, and having two incomes lessened the financial stress. But it was also harder, because I was already—in some ways—living my dream. That actually made it tougher to deal with self-doubt. What if this was as good as it would ever get? What if I moved on, only to find myself in another good-enough situation? Nothing was ever going to be perfect, right?
But I would never know if I didn’t try.
Obviously, I’m writing this with the benefit of hindsight, and if you know me, you know how this story turned out: I am now represented by an agent who is truly simpatico with me and the darkness in my work, and I’m published by a company that gave my first book with them the enthusiastic push it needed to become a bestseller. I’m also on good terms with my former agent and former publisher. (How good? My former agent helped me get the rights back to my first four novels, and my former publisher handed them back without any issues; I told you they were all good people.)
Because the moves I’ve made have been public, I’ve had people contact me about what the process was like. I’ll tell you what I tell them: the toughest part was making the decision to leave. Once I chose my path, I could focus on my next steps. There were no recriminations; I really do think people respect your decisions when you keep everything above-board. Be direct but also be thoughtful. Breaking up involves negotiation: for example, my agent asked for a grace period to sell foreign rights, and I agreed. Some people don’t want to leave a relationship unless they’re sure that someone else will have them, but I think that’s a bad way to go. I’m all for networking, but you never have a conversation with an agent about changing representation when you’re still with another agent.
But most of all, be honest with yourself. If you’re mad that your publisher hasn’t gotten you into People magazine, you need to calm down. But if you’re upset that your publisher won’t assign you a publicist and you’re scrambling to mail out ARCs yourself, that’s valid. I knew that I wanted to reach a far bigger audience than I had. And I knew that I couldn’t keep doing the same thing over and over and expect to get better results. Everyone’s situation is different, but I can tell you this: I’ve made several big jumps now—starting with quitting that comfortable staff job—and I’ve never regretted any of them.
Does anyone have any questions for Hilary about her experience? Anyone have anecdotes of their own to share on having to change course mid-career?