Do Writers Have Worth Beyond Their Debut?

Are debut novels magical?
(Source: Adobe Stock)

It has long bothered me that the publishing world gives massive attention to debut authors. I know it is in keeping with they “hey look, shiny and new!” mindset of Hollywood and the world in general, but I feel like it is disingenuous to all other authors. Last weekend’s New York Times Book Review really irritated me because they devoted an ENTIRE issue to fall’s debut authors.

Oddly enough, the New York Times itself addressed the issue of the attention given to debuts in 2016. One of the contributors writes, “A debut novel is a piece of the writer’s soul in a way that subsequent books can’t ever quite be.” I don’t agree with that. Yes, the debut author was able to tinker with it without the pressures of business looming (more about this below), but I don’t think just because it is your first time doing something that means it has more of your soul. I care deeply about each one of my books, and each one is a part of me, no more or less on my sixth than on my first. If that ever changes, that is the day I need to stop publishing.

Why does the attention to debut authors bother me so much?

1) It gives the impression that only debut authors matter. Yes, we all like to know what/who is new and up-and-coming, but there is a reason wisdom comes with age and experience. Rare indeed is the author who hits it big with their first (or even first published) book. Even publishing industry insiders admit they have no idea what will hit and what won’t. From the same NY Times article: “It’s impossible to know for certain whether the top picks will become huge stars or disappointments who never fulfill their extraordinary promise.” So why to they persist in that model? Her answer boils down to (and I’m paraphrasing here) “Hey, life isn’t fair. No one said publishing was a meritocracy.”

I get that. But still, the constant trumpeting of debut authors leaves everyone else in the shadows. “Oh, this your second/fourth/seventh/twelfth book? Yeah, no one cares…Who’s the hot new debut?” is not a mindset that helps authors who may have not been struck by lightning the first time around and had to write their way into learning how to produce fantastic novels (which is 99.5% of the authors out there).

Take F. Scott Fitzgerald for example. His best-known book is undoubtedly The Great Gatsby. It was his third book. If he had been one of the chosen debut authors today, he would constantly have had to live with This Side of Paradise, his debut, as the measuring stick by which all of his other books were judged. Paradise did well, but it wasn’t a huge money-maker. By today’s standards, it may not have earned him a second book, much less that fated third.

2) It puts enormous pressure on those debut authors to succeed. If they did well enough with their books to get major media attention, chances are good they also have large advances to try to earn out, which is enough stress. And honestly, especially in the area of literary fiction, most of those highly-touted debuts were meticulously workshopped in MFA programs, which gave the authors a chance to revise, revise and revise again, something they won’t have once they are under contract. To take an example from popular fiction, look at Veronica Roth. Divergent was FANTASTIC and it was her MFA book. The next two books paled in comparison. And she was one of the lucky ones who attracted enough of a following who stuck with her.

Many of these OMG prodigies disappear after their debut or second or third book because they were either dropped by their publisher when the next book(s) didn’t do as well or they burned out from all the pressure. Harper Lee is a great example. Now, I don’t know her story well, so maybe she was only ever intending to publish one book, but it seems more like she was stifled by her own success, a theory that The Telegraph seems to espouse. “Much more common is the writer who is effectively destroyed by a single huge success. The burden of fame and acclaim weighs down particularly on the creative faculties.” Or as my mom would say, “if you start out on top, there is nowhere to go but down.” Honestly, I feel sorry for these authors.

3) It gives the impression that your first book is the only one that will matter or is the best you will deliver. I don’t know about anyone else, but my books get better with each one (if I do say so myself). That is because I learn and grow and change and expand my skill set with practice. I mean, Daughter of Destiny was good and won a lot of awards, but when I read it now, even I can see how much my writing has changed and strengthened. I am grateful I didn’t have someone presenting me as the greatest thing since sliced bread back then because I wasn’t. I’m still not. Maybe someday I will be. But one thing obscurity has done for me is allowed me to make mistakes and grow and change at my own pace.

These highly-publicized debut authors don’t have that. They will always have to measure up to the bar set by that first book. And that bar often is not set by how good the book is, but by how skilled its publicist is. If they blow a crappy book out of proportion, then the author has to hope they will do the same for the next however many it takes for their work to not be crappy. Whereas if the same debut was treated like any other book, they would only have to live up to or surpass a realistic standard.

Don’t get me wrong – some debuts are totally worth all the press. Take J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter for example. But I don’t know that I would want my debut to be considered my masterpiece. If it is, then what else is there to strive for? What is the point of the rest of your career?

I could talk to the New York Times until I’m blue in the face and they wouldn’t listen. But I think the focus on debut authors is a relic of the old model of publishing that is daily proving itself in need of an overhaul. The same writer I argued with at the opening of this blog also noted, “Sometimes it is the case that a novelist, debut or otherwise, writes a great book that doesn’t reach the right readership and fails by sales standards, which makes her less appealing to publishers next time around. That’s a dangerous model.”

It’s an irony of the industry as well because as many new authors (and several of our Spellbound Scribes) can attest, publishing houses are reluctant to take on debut authors for the simple fact that they are unknown and untested. But yet, when they do, they make a big deal out of some of them being the next big thing. I know it all has to do with making money, but it makes no sense, especially in an age when we can choose to publish our debuts ourselves.

I have no answers. I just wanted to get this out there. What are your thoughts on the subject?

7 thoughts on “Do Writers Have Worth Beyond Their Debut?

  1. LivRancourt says:

    I’m seriously (SERIOUSLY) glad my debut didn’t turn into a THING, because I wouldn’t want to have readers expecting me to turn out a series of light, comic-book-y paranormals, which would eliminate all but one or two of my other books.

  2. interesting topic. .I’ve always thought that the second book is always better. Or at least, i like the later books of authors more than their debut. true, some debuts are incredible amazing, but like you say, experience makes it better.

    1. I totally agree. Most of the time, if you come to an author later in their career and then go back and read their backlist from the beginning, you can watch them grow and mature as a writer. Which is actually kind of cool.

  3. Shauna Granger says:

    Let’s not forget, if a book–especially a debut–gets a huge push they also have to combat the pirates. Now, we have to deal with that BS all the time, but if a book is super anticipated and has a major media push behind it, pirates have been known to tank a new author because they don’t end up earning out enough to stay picked up by the publisher. I think if I get picked up by a publisher I’d take a smaller advance and hope for bigger royalties later just to offset these problems.

    1. I’ve heard plenty about pirates and indie authors, but never about them sinking a new author. That’s interesting. I guess it’s the same principle as people refusing to read a series until all the books are out. If book 1 doesn’t have good enough sales, book 2 and beyond won’t ever happen.

      1. Shauna Granger says:

        Yeah, Maggie Stiefvater did a whole post on how The Raven King was nearly tanked thanks to pirates.

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