Hey, friends! Kristen here. Today I am so excited to host my very first guest writer of 2016. Maria Ribas is a literary agent and the super awesome author behind the writing website, Cooks & Books.
Today, she's here to talk to us all about a few habits highly successful authors practice that make literary agents want to jump for joy. Believe me, this is some amazing insight, so don't miss out! Without any further ado, allow me to hand it off to the lovely Maria...
Remember that earmarked book from the 90s that was supposed to teach us how to be highly effective people? I think we need one for publishing. Raise your hand if you agree!
Everyone wants to be highly successful. And we all know who the highly successful authors are: they get all the sales, all the reviews, all the fame and fortune. But how did they get there, and how do they stay there? Is their success the perfect confluence of writing skill, platform savvy, and maybe some pure, dumb luck?
Yes and no.
Yes, there is an extraordinary amount of whacky, weird luck in the publishing world. (Lookin’ at you, adult coloring books.) But there are also some underlying principles—an operating system, really—that runs on autopilot for these successful authors. They know how to do the right things, because they’ve done them over and over and over again.
When I started out in the publishing world as an editor, I didn’t know a foreword from a preface. I had a full tank of enthusiasm and an empty skull, waiting to be stuffed to the brim with publishing wisdom. At the time, I was pretty sure I knew nothing about publishing.
And I was pretty right. But what I didn’t realize was that I did, actually, have a few things going for me. (Other than a knack for pestering the heck out of people until they would give me interesting work.) I had four things:
- An obsession with following up and deadlines. (This from a brief stint as a paralegal at a law firm.)
- A stubborn desire to be over-the-top nice so that every single person would like me. (This is not always a good thing, let me tell ya.)
- An annoying amount of curiosity about how publishing worked. (I think I abused the “any questions?” prompt more than anyone can reasonably forgive me for.)
- No other options.
Publishing was it for me, and I was going to have to make it work or go back to that law firm. (And I was not going back to that law firm. People shouting made my bookish-self nervous.)
Over time, I realized that there were a lot of other skills and habits I needed to develop if I was going to do a little better by my authors each year. I also realized that many of the most successful authors I worked with had exactly those habits I wanted to develop. I was learning a lot from them, and they were learning a lot from me.
Eventually, I began noticing the habits that were holding certain authors back, and the ones that were most helping other authors succeed. These are the same habits that Literary Agents also strive for, and I think any writer, blogger, or creative can benefit from developing these habits.
And while I think the interplay between emotion, behavior, and creativity is too unfathomably deep to fully cover here, these are the habits I’ve noticed fuel the most successful authors.
Habit 1: Highly successful authors almost always follow-through.
It sounds easy: do what you say you’ll do, when you say you’ll do it. But we all know how hard it can sometimes be to follow through. Funnily enough, highly successful authors don’t have some superpower that allows them to get everything done on schedule. Instead, they have one secret: they don’t overpromise.
Overpromising can lead even our best intentions astray, and it often results in not-great work. Bestselling authors have a strong understanding of the way they work, what they need to accomplish something, and what is (and isn’t) realistic for them. Agents watch for this from Day One of signing an author, because we know what lies ahead: an author who overpromises is setting herself up for failure and frustration, and those things can deflate even the most motivated person.
We also know that perpetually broken promises can be red flags for either fear (an author is procrastinating on a project because it feels scary to her) or lack of focus (an author is overextending herself and trying to do too many things at once). Either way, both things can eventually stunt an author’s success during the publishing process, as well as make it triply stressful.
Habit 2: Highly successful authors treat every single person they encounter with respect.
This is a big deal, and you’d be surprised how often the emotionally-charged process of publishing a book can send anyone on a finger-pointing spree.
But turning on your publishing team is the worst thing you can do when things get stressful—that’s when you most need your agent and editor on your side, so that they can cheer you on, rather than duck for cover.
Unprofessional behavior can undermine and ultimately destroy the relationships authors most need in order to have long, happy careers. I’ve seen authors be dropped from their agencies, and even from their publishers, because they struggled to play nice.
So even when things go wrong (and they inevitably will!) remember that working with your team, rather than against them, is the best way to fix it.
Habit 3: Highly successful authors understand purpose-driven marketing.
What’s the most common cause for a book not succeeding? Not enough marketing behind it. What’s the most common cause for an author not marketing enough? Fear. (And as Elizabeth Gilbert says, all procrastination is fear.) Deep down inside, many writers are scared to share their work with the world, and they’re uncomfortable with the entire idea of marketing.
But highly successful authors have made peace with these fear demons way before they enter the publishing process, because they’ve been spreading their work out into the world all along. They also understand that authentic marketing is not about self-promotion—it’s about serving others.
Most bestselling authors believe, at their core, that their purpose in life is to improve readers’ lives through their work. Once you believe this, sharing your work becomes an effortless habit.
Habit 4: Highly successful authors love to wow people.
The most successful authors I’ve ever worked with make everyone around them say “wow” all the time. You ask them to implement a new marketing tactic? They do it right away and go full force to support it. A magazine editor asks for an original article? They write an excellent piece and turn it in two days early. You introduce them to a connection? They are the epitome of graciousness and gratitude.
This doesn’t mean the same thing as overachieving, which is dangerously close to over-promising. In fact, this habit is rooted in a deep sense of both quality and discernment—highly successful authors don’t do things half-heartedly, half-well, and half the time. Instead, once they agree to something, they zero in on doing it at the highest level they possibly can.
To them, it’s all about saying a big, excited “Yes!” to the things that matter, and a polite “No” to everything else.
Habit 5: Highly successful authors are endlessly curious.
They want to know everything there is to know about writing and book publishing, and they get excited when they find a new source of information and insight. Bestselling authors have carefully studied their craft, and they understand that they need to approach both failures and successes with curiosity, rather than judgment.
If a book flops, they try to understand why. If a chapter isn’t working, they dig in deep to dissect what’s going on. If they launch a bestseller, they take time to look back and analyze what worked so well and what could work even better next time.
They also understand that, without time to reflect on their careers, they’ll miss the valuable lessons that every task can teach them. This means taking time to pause, rather than always running on the hamster wheel of a to-do list.
Habit 6: Highly successful authors are persistent.
We’ve all heard this a million times: never give up on your dream. But we’ve heard it a million times because it is flat-out true. The only wait to fail, truly, is to give up. Highly successful authors have spent years and years building skills before they even get their first book out, much less reach the peak of their careers.
It may have started when they read their first book as a child, but it continued on, relentlessly, through every book-related thing they do today. They know that no word read, written, or contemplated is ever wasted—it’s all building their library of thought.
Often highly successful authors will say that they kept at it because they didn’t know what else to do with themselves. That’s the fascinating thing about passion: when you can’t imagine doing anything else with your life, persistence becomes your only path. And literary agents love to see that level of dedication!
Habit 7: Highly successful authors are people first, authors second.
That’s right, highly successful authors aren’t successful all the time, and they’re not even authors all the time. They’re just people: flawed, funny, willing to laugh at themselves, in love with their work, but just as much in love with family time and a good dinner.
The one thing that I believe most sets successful authors apart from struggling authors is that successful authors make room in their lives for the things that fuel their creativity. Without time to be just a person, or a parent, or a friend, creatives can burnout, lose focus, and even lose their love for their work. But most importantly, a life without balance isn’t a life worth living, and just like anyone, literary agents want to work with happy people.
So the best thing you can do to succeed as an author? Focus on becoming a happy person, one whose career fuels your purpose in life, but doesn’t define your existence. These are the authors who we agents feel honored to call clients, and those are the clients who become our friends.
Can we all give Maria a round of applause? Gosh, I cannot wait to take what I've learned today and begin applying it to my daily writing life, and I think Maria and I would both love to know if you plan to do the same.
Comment below and make sure to check out all of Maria's amazing work over at Cooks & Books. See you next time!
Maria Ribas is a Literary Agent at Stonesong, a former in-house editor, and an excitable home cook. She writes about how writers and bloggers can build author platforms, get published, and sell more books at Cooks & Books.
Follow her on Twitter or Facebook (newly launched!), or sign up to receive her newsletter with publishing industry insight, free printables, and platform-building advice.
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Kristen Kieffer is a writer of fantasy fiction and the creative writing coach behind She's Novel. She's made it her mission to help aspiring authors write sensational novels because obliterating expectations is her jam. Her other passions? Coffee and Tolkien, of course!