It often feels, rightly or wrongly, that publishing — and the book industry more widely — is obsessed with the debut author. The newest, shiniest author, whose first book has the potential to reshape the nature of literature. How could they not be? A debut author is a blank page onto which any manner of future can be projected. A debut author usually brings with them years of silent, unpaid work before anything came to fruition, but we won’t talk about that. Let’s focus, instead, on the overnight success, on the hottest new title, on the sparkling new voice.
And then the debut author writes a second book, and suddenly they are no longer special and shiny, but only one of many, many authors trying to make enough sales that paying rent might be a possibility one day in the future.
I don’t think this bias is as strong as it feels when you are the debut author, staring down a future where you’ve lost your shine. In fact, there are areas in which it’s the opposite. The number of times I’ve heard someone say, “Oh, it’s really rare for debuts to be included in that list / invited to that festival / nominated for that award,” probably far outweigh the opportunities that are specific to newbie authors.
But still, there’s a peculiar emphasis on that first book, a pressure to be a success right out of the gate so that you’ll get the chance to try again, because if your sales are poor, it might be the end of everything. Is this true? Maybe. Sometimes. But there are also many, many authors whose ‘overnight success’ came with a later book; authors who went five years without selling anything, and then landed a bigger deal than they ever managed before; authors who never hit a bestseller list but kept those slow, steady sales at a solid enough level to build themselves a career.
They’re just not the stories we remember, when we’re trying to work out where we belong in the teeming pack of authors on the internet, frantically trying to market their books when they actually hate promo and would much rather be writing.
(Okay, I know there are writers who claim they would rather be doing anything but writing, and will clean their house and pair their socks rather than sit down at a computer and write. Maybe they’re telling the truth, though I have to wonder why you’d become a writer if that was the case. But for me, while there are days when it feels like pulling teeth and I’d much rather be napping, writing is still the thing I do when I’m supposed to be doing literally anything else, because I love it.)
I’m thinking about what it means to be a debut author, because I’m coming to the end of my time as one. Perhaps it’s already ended, magically dissolved the moment the calendar rolled over to 2023 and a new year of fresh-faced authors stepped forward into the sun. By my measure, it’s not over until The Hummingbird Killer publishes, in two months today — but two months doesn’t feel very long, standing on this side of it.
I can’t decide if I’m afraid of losing my debut shine, or if it’s a relief. It never felt quite true, anyway, to describe The Butterfly Assassin as my ‘first’ novel — it was the fifteenth book I wrote, of twenty-four that I’ve drafted so far (the most recent of which I finished on Wednesday; more on that soon, possibly). Yes, I was brand new to the world of publishing, and yes, it’s been a learning curve. But I have been writing for more than half my life. Sometimes it feels like writing is the only thing that makes sense to me.
The debut label can be a double-edged sword. Of course one hopes that the first book is the worst you’ll ever publish — peaking too early leaves you with nowhere to go. But some reviewers latch onto the concept of debut as meaning inexperienced, and while I’m definitely inexperienced at Being Published, I don’t, at this point, consider myself at all inexperienced at writing; I have too many millions of words under my belt for that. That means it stings, sometimes, to receive those inadvertently patronising compliments that manage to hit like an insult, like remarking that the writing style is surprisingly good for a debut.
So it feels more… honest, somehow? to no longer be a debut, to be settling myself in for a career. Or at least the hopes of a career. A second book (a sophomore novel, some writers call it, but I’m perfectly happy calling it my ‘second’ book, I don’t see why the fancy terminology is needed) is still only the foundations, but it’s bringing me one step closer to building something of this. Staking a claim on the ground ahead: I’m here to stay. This wasn’t a one-off.
Saying that, I think I have an easier transition to this next stage of my writing career than many do, because my debut was the first book in a trilogy, and so I have two more books on the way in the same world. I can bring my audience with me, rather than having to convince them to jump ship to something new. And I’d drafted both books before the first was published, so I didn’t have the torture of writing them with readers breathing down my neck and reviews haunting my mind, clamouring for more of this or less of that and confusing my sense of the story.
But I’ve also faced some challenges, which shape my experiences — and I’m not talking about being trans, disabled, and releasing a book with zero romance in a very romance-led genre, although I can’t say any of those things helped. No, the biggest challenges really have been practical ones, and the biggest of those is the fact that I moved house five times in ten months last year, with The Butterfly Assassin publishing about two-thirds of the way through that absolute nightmare of transitional stages and constant uprooting.
Some of those moves were a surprise. I would move to a new area, start befriending the booksellers and exploring possibilities for school visits and other connections in the community — and then I’d be forced to uproot myself again, and leave those bookshops behind, and start again somewhere else. I had some lovely local bookshops at the time that TBA came out, but less than two months later I moved again, leaving them behind and all the connections I’d begun to forge.
By the time I arrived in Cambridge in September, still with lingering covid symptoms, I was too drained and fatigued by the past year to have it in me to start that process again. I called in at a bookshop or two, but trying to catch the attention of an overworked and underpaid Waterstones employee at a large shop like the one in central Cambridge isn’t the same as hanging out in the little independent shop around the corner from your house, chatting to the booksellers for half an hour about everything and nothing. It’s friendships, or at least the potential for them, that I’ve lost there, as much as publicity opportunities, or whatever business-minded way you want to look at it.
As such, I’ve spent a lot of time feeling displaced, uprooted, the most visible champions of my book no longer local to me. No school connections, no idea who to talk to about doing events; that means no World Book Day visits, no assemblies. I did have one library event a few months ago… to which nobody at all turned up, which rather discouraged me from trying again. It’s exhausting, you know, trying to put down roots and then ripping them up again, over and over. After you’ve done that a few times, it becomes a lot easier to give up on trying.
So, yes, my publicity efforts faltered. My attempts to organise events fell by the wayside; I prioritised my day job, and my post-covid fatigue relegated me to bed most of the rest of the time, at least for the first few months. I made one brief visit back to central London in January for the first time since the summer, and called by half a dozen bookshops — it reminded me what it was like to Be An Author, because I hadn’t been able to do that for a while. Otherwise I felt like I was trapped in a box, shouting into the void that was Twitter, and increasingly without the energy to do even that.
But I wanted roots. I wanted to stay. I needed to believe I’d live in this house more than three months, more than six months, maybe more than a year. Not because I like the house particularly, but because I needed some firmer ground to plant myself into, until I could feel settled enough that making connections even felt worth it and I wasn’t perpetually waiting for them to be taken away again.
And I made a promise to myself in the form of planting daffodils and tulips in our front flowerbed, after I’d broken up the horrible hard soil and cleared out some of the rocks and added actual decent compost on top. The bulbs said: I will still be here in the spring to see these flowers.
My daffodillies started coming out these last couple of weeks. It is spring, and I am still here.
And the bulbs I planted with The Butterfly Assassin last year… well, I am still here, and The Hummingbird Killer comes out in two months, and I will no longer be a debut, just as I will no longer be newly moved into a house with a front flowerbed made entirely of rocks, weeds, and the saddest of sad soil. (Even if I really do need to do some weeding soon.)
I think not being a debut will be nice. Maybe there’ll be less pressure. Maybe there’ll be different pressure. Maybe the readers who liked The Butterfly Assassin will hate The Hummingbird Killer; maybe they’ll think it’s better. I will keep writing regardless, just as I will keep planting things in my crappy little flowerbed, because I wrote for over ten years before I sold anything, so that’s never been the point of this.
But I want to stay. After The Hummingbird Killer, there’ll be book three. I don’t know what will come after that. I hope something will. I hope many somethings will. I’m writing some of them now, bulbs that I’m planting with hope, not knowing whether they’ll sprout and certainly not when or where they’ll flower. I’ll work out which connections matter, which roots I want to put the time and effort into putting down, and I’ll start rebuilding some of those webs that felt so constantly shattered during my Year Of Moving House.
Perhaps, like the daffodillies, I’ve been underground for a few months, only gradually beginning to poke my head above the ground. But soon, I think, I’ll be ready to flower. And part of that will be book two, and part of it will be about seeking out opportunities again, creating them where they don’t exist, talking to people and making connections and being part of something, for the sake of friendships as much as for the sake of helping my books find their readers.
(If you’re reading this, and you’re from a school or library or bookshop in the Cambridge area: I want to know you. I want you to be part of what I’m building. Get in touch, please.)
It’s spring. The flowers are coming out. The Hummingbird Killer releases in two months, and I’ll no longer be a debut. A new step in a winding journey.