The Savvy Author: What You Really Need to Know to Be Successful

04/02/2015 11:09 am ET | Updated Jun 02, 2015

"The writing world is a small one, Kristen," said my first agent, "And by that I mean that what you do and say can very quickly become common knowledge." This was my agent's cautionary introduction to a profession that I love and of which I was damn happy to be a part. Her advice was excellent for a young author and her brilliant handling of my first book made my experience in publishing a very pleasant one.

What she said was true 10 years ago and it is doubly true in today's constantly electronically connected world. I was reminded of her comment two years ago when I heard a story about an author who had pitched his book to an agent who had rejected it. Upon receiving the rejection email, the author immediately fired off a nasty-gram to the agent. People talk and his words quickly got around to other agents. The upshot was that he had a helluva time getting other agents to even consider his work.

Now it is easy to be upset when your work is rejected; I mean the word "rejected" has such a negative feeling to it. But what you have to remember is that it isn't you who is being personally rejected. It simply means that a particular agent wasn't interested in what you wrote. As Hemingway once said,

"A writer is a damn fool to give up. Times change, tastes change, publishers change. You will find an audience."

Thank you Papa Hemingway. By the way, Ernest Hemingway self-published his first book, Three Stories and Ten Poems, after a rejection letter and look at his success!

What the author whose work was rejected, (there's that unpleasant word again), should have done is bitch and moan in private and then send a polite letter or email to the agent thanking her for taking time to read his manuscript. Believe me that polite 'Thank you' would have been remembered and appreciated. When I was the head fiction editor of a magazine, one of the things I hated most was sending a letter of rejection. I worded it as kindly as possible and encouraged the writers to please submit other work. One letter I received back thanked me for my kind words and went on to submit two short stories later that year, one of which won an award for best new fiction. Being polite matters very much. The polite message should also go, not only to agents, but to publishers, editors, and anyone who is involved in your book's potential success.

One thing I urge new authors to do is invest in a good copy editor. Bad grammar, unless part of a character's speech, is totally unacceptable as is poor spelling. Any agent or publisher will immediately reject your manuscript. One of the best copy editors I have had the pleasure to edit my books is Courtney Davison. Even the best author can make a mistake and even if you re-read your work ten times over before submitting it, you may not catch an error. A good copy editor polishes your work.

Another area where authors need to be savvy is in the area of publicity. Unless you're already a well-known author whose publisher has a team of publicists working for them, you are your own press agent. Even well-known authors are doing a lot of self-promo these days as the publishing industry undergoes major changes and financial belt-tightening. One caveat; be very careful of hiring a publicist. While there are many honest, hard-working publicists, you can get burned in the thousands of dollars by a dishonest slick talker who promises everything, takes your money, and produces nothing. Think of hiring a publicist in the same way as buying a car; the sales pitch will be geared in favor of the person selling the product or service. You need to do your research before making a decision.

Be very careful of places that offer to publish your book for a fee. Scam artists are everywhere. Now that being said, I must also say that there are utterly reputable places, including many name publishing houses and literary agencies, that also offer this service. They do all the publishing work for you for a fee. Just remember: It's a business and they're in it to make money. You might be better off with CreateSpace and IngramSpark. You'll learn a lot and you'll reap all the profits. Once you have a published book, ask anyone and everyone for book reviews that you can post on your website and social media. Agree to all interviews; someone is listening.

Don't discount the power of social media but don't overestimate it either. Join everything that can help sell your book but make good choices. Authors' sites are great and you make some good friends and contacts on them but remember; everyone there is selling their own books and may not necessarily be potential buyers of your book. Your best bets are book clubs and local book stores where there are readers.

Never, never, ever, burn bridges! A colleague once sent me a card saying, "I burned all my bridges so they will light my way to a better future." Cute on a card but so wrong for an author. Remember you are the CEO of your business and the product you are selling is your writing. In business you have to let personal feelings go and focus on getting your work published. Keep all contacts, and I mean, all. Agents and publishers move from one job to another and sometimes start their own publishing houses. Stay on friendly terms. It will be worth it.

Redefine success for yourself. Success means different things to different people and the level and definition of successful varies from one person to another. I have a friend who is successful at doing nothing but ebooks; he doesn't want to do print, yet his ebook novels, coupled with writing for two magazines, have garnered him a very good income. He sees his writing career as successful and by all accounts it is. I have come to know many people who do nothing but ebooks. Then there are other authors like me who do both print and ebooks and see those sales as a measure of success. I like the idea of a print and ebook combo and it has been a successful venture for me. It's all subjective.

Believe in your own worth. Anyone in the arts, (writers, actors, dancers, musicians, painters, etc.), has to have a healthy combination of self-esteem and ego. You should know you're good. Be a savvy writer and author. You owe it to yourself.

Kristen Houghton is the author of 6 top-selling books including the PI series A Cate Harlow Private Investigation. The first in the series FOR I HAVE SINNED is available where all books are sold.
©copyright 2015 Kristen Houghton all rights reserved

© copyright 2015 The Savvy Author Kristen Houghton