Interview with Michelle Houts

I'm lucky (or cunning) enough to have lured yet another successful writer over to my blog for an SAT - Successful Author Talk. SAT authors have conquered the query, slain the synopsis and attained the pinnacle of published. How'd they do it? Let's ask 'em! Even more special - this is a WoW! Edition of the SAT - We're Ohio Writers! Yeah - cause we grow 'em here.


Michelle Houts lives and plays on a family farm in West Central Ohio. She shares her days with her three children, the famer of her dreams, some cattle, a whole lot of barn cats, a golden retriever, and a goat who believes he’s a golden retriever. She enjoys reading, cooking and hiking any place that has hills because where she lives it is very flat. An eternal student, Michelle has degrees in special education, early childhood education, and speech-language pathology. THE BEEF PRINCESS OF PRACTICAL COUNTY  (Delacorte, 2009) is Michelle’s first novel for middle grade readers. It received the 2010 IRA Children’s Book Award for intermediate fiction and was a finalist for the 2010 Buckeye Children’s Book Award.

Michelle's SAT will revolve around her non - traditional approach that landed her a contract.

Are you a Planner or Pantster?

I think I'm a planner. To a fault, maybe. I'm sure there are times that I spend too much time thinking about what to write and not enough time actually writing!

How long does it typically take you to write a novel, start to finish?

I have a lot of rings in my life's circus right now. More than three. Many more. So, my writing time varies greatly from month to month. Generally, I allow about 4 months for a first draft. After that, the real work begins.

Do you work on one project at a time, or are you a multi tasker?

I only work on one novel at a time, although I am by nature the multi-tasking type, and I'd love to have the freedom to just get up each morning and follow whatever whim my heart desires on that day. Since I'm not there (yet) I have to be disciplined enough to finish a project before moving on to another. That being said, I do always have several novels in various stages, but once I've committed to one of them, I have to finish it. I will, however, indulge in some picture book manuscript creation or revision even while working on a novel because I find that a good way satisfy that need to multi-task!

Did you have to overcome any fears that first time you sat down to write?

Mostly the fear of anything over 500 words. I never saw myself as a novelist until a family friend (who happened to be a retired English teacher) told me I should give it a shot. I dreamed of being a picture book author. But it was a novel that got me published.

Have you ever quit on an ms, and how did you know it was time?

I guess I've temporarily quit on two novels that have been put away to... ripen or decay? Not sure yet. Either or both could see the light of day again. Or not... Mostly, I put them away because I had a better idea and had decided to go with it. So the new book, which turned out to be THE BEEF PRINCESS OF PRACTICAL COUNTY, took over the space on the top of the desk while the others went into hiding.

Tell us about your non - traditional approach to success.

I was blessed to do what some say is impossible and I sold my first novel to Random House through the Delacorte Dell Middle Grade Contest. It didn't win. No one won the year I submitted. But it did get noticed and passed on to an editor who called and said if I was willing to work on it a little, they might be willing to offer a contract. I did. And they did. And that was the beginning.

So you think contests are a great way for aspiring writers to get their foot in the door?

I think aspiring authors need to explore all avenues toward publication and be careful not to rule out anything. Entering a contest worked for me. It was a way to get into a house that was otherwise closed to unsolicited manuscripts.  But I also attended conferences, joined SCBWI, and learned how to be my own best advocate.

Do you think you’ll want an agent for the next go-round?

You bet. Don't get me wrong. My experience with the folks at Delacorte was fantastic, but I don't really wish to repeat it. I have too many unanswered questions, and I felt a little alone in the big, strange world of publishing.

How did it feel the first time you saw your book for sale?

I live in a rural area and I did a lot of book signings and launch parties and school visits where a local retailer hand-sold my books because a person would have to drive for miles to buy one themselves. So the first time my daughter and I went to a major metropolitan area and I walked into a bookstore and saw it there on the shelf, face out, right next to HOWLIDAY INN (Houts, Howe - see how that works?!) I thought I might wet my pants. I took a picture instead. Much more appropriate.

How much input do you have on cover art?

Funny you asked. Remember I didn't have an agent to help me wade through that manifesto of a contract I was given. So, what do you think stuck out to me? Section 7. The one that says the publisher will design the jacket and select the cover art and I will not. Maybe that's because it was one of the few sections written in verbage I could understand. I might have been signing away rights to my dog's first litter of puppies, but I wouldn't have known it. Section 7 I understood. And it filled me with dread. These publisher people were in New York City. My book was about cattle. Beef cattle. What if they put a big old dairy cow on the cover? I panicked and prayed until the jpeg of the cover arrived. Then I danced. I loved it. No udders anywhere! And the best part? Everyone, and I mean everyone, thinks the girl on my cover in my daughter. What a hoot!

What's something you learned from the process that surprised you?

I remember a time when my editor and I weren't agreeing on one aspect of the book. She saw it one way. I saw it another. I got her editorial letter with her suggestion and I crumbled. I thought it was the end. I figured: they are a major publishing company and I am just a farm gal from Ohio. Who sounds more powerful in that duo? What surprised me was that when I called my editor and explained my grief over the direction she'd ask me to take, she quickly backed off. I'll never forget her words: "Your name is on the cover of this book, Michelle. Everything that goes in it has to ring true to what you want to say." It wasn't the end. No one was going to strong-arm me into making the book they wanted. I was permitted to own the material. What a happy surprise.

How much of your own marketing do you?

I decided early on that it would be well worth it to invest a portion of my advance back into marketing the book. I know some would shake their heads and say it is the publisher's job, but I knew that there would be a limited amount of resources dedicated to promoting a first-timer. So, I had my
and blog set up. I got into Facebook and spent a few dollars on nice, color postcards, business cards, and school visit flyers. I lined up all my own bookstore appearances including a four-city Ohio mini book tour. It's been well worth every penny.

Do you think social media helps build your readership?

I believe it has helped me connect with readers. Usually I get "friended" or emailed AFTER someone has read the book, but readers are more likely to feel a kinship with an author that they've been able to communicate with. So, it may well be helping me build a fan base for that next book.