How to become a successful author

Written by nick redfern | 13/05/2017
How to become a successful author
Getting started as an author (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images)

Have you ever thought about becoming the next J.K. Rowling? Do you have aspirations to be the successor to Stephen King? If the answer is "Yes!" then there are a few things you need to know about the world of publishing before you can reach your goal. In fact, more than a few. How to plan your book, the process of writing, securing a literary agent, promoting your title when it's published, and the legal side of the business are all issues that, as an author, you will find yourself encountering. So, above all else, be prepared!

"The writer who possesses the creative gift owns something of which he is not always master - something that at times strangely wills and works for itself."

Charlotte Brontë, author of Jane Eyre.

Know your subject

If you do decide to embark on the career of an author, you first need to decide on what particular subject you want to write. Do you have a love of horror novels, romance stories, real-life murder mysteries or autobiographies? Are sports-based titles, military history, or people who claim to have been abducted by aliens your thing? Does fact or fiction get you excited? Whatever the answers to those questions, writing on a subject that you are already familiar with is an immediate bonus.

Taking the first steps on the sometimes bumpy road to becoming an author is often the most difficult part of the process. And it's a process that you'll need to consider carefully. If a career in non-fiction is what you're looking to pursue, it's not enough to simply fill your book with reams of names, dates and facts and leave it at that.

Similarly, if your goal is to become a famous novelist, you have to do more than just invent characters and situations. What you need to do, in both cases, is write in a fashion that captures the attention and imagination of the reader.

For fictional work, create characters that are believable and interesting. Build a solid tale. End each chapter on a cliffhanger that leaves the reader wanting more. For non-fiction? Tell the story as it happened. But remember that you're writing to entertain as much as you are to inform. Keep it captivating.

How to become a successful author
Choosing your topic (Comstock/Comstock/Getty Images)

Finding an agent

Many inexperienced authors are very reluctant to go down the path of using a literary agent to sell their manuscript for them. After all, why should you be forced to pay a percentage of your monetary advance, or royalties from sales, to an agent when you could simply do all the work of selling the book to a publisher yourself? It's a very good question. But, the fact of the matter is that having a reputable agent on board, one well-versed in the complexities of the publishing world, is essential for the would-be author.

If you're worried about being fleeced by some book-based equivalent of a dodgy, used-car salesman, don't be. The trick is to choose your agent carefully. Despite what many first-timers often assume, a good, industry-respected agent will not financially charge you for taking a look at, or fully reading, your manuscript. Nor will they charge you for taking you on as a client or submitting your work to a publishing company.

What they will do is take a cut - 15 per cent is the generally accepted figure - from whatever deal they can get for you. In other words, the publisher pays the agent, the agent takes his or her fee out of that payment, and then forwards the balance on to you.

Of course, there are the occasional bad pennies in any industry, so take the step of choosing an agent with a good track record, one who has a solid, long history of selling books, and who doesn't try and hustle you for money up-front.

How to become a successful author
Getting a publisher (Thinkstock Images/Comstock/Getty Images)

You have finally made it!

The question of contracts

How to become a successful author
Paperwork and legal matters (Stockbyte/Stockbyte/Getty Images)

When the deal for your book is done, you'll receive from the publisher a contract to sign, which may run to dozens of pages and which will be packed with matters designed to protect both publisher and author. Does your book contain photos? Do you need permission to use them? Have you included extensive quotes from other books? If so, did you get the nod from the relevant author and publisher?

Then there are matters relative to the spin-off rights to the book. Your contract will almost certainly contain a section on how - and at what percentage - you will be paid if Hollywood comes calling and makes an offer to turn your story into a blockbuster film.

A reputable literary agent will be very conversant with the complex matter of contracts, can advise you on the legal-speak (gobbledygook might be a better term) contained within, and will go back and forth with the publisher to ensure that the terms of the contract are just about as beneficial for you as they conceivably can be.

Tips and Warnings

  • Know your subject. Get yourself a literary agent. Be prepared for the complex world of contracts. Get out there and promote, promote, promote!

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