publishing · writing

Why your debut novel isn’t your only chance at success

Today, in publishing terms, is Super Thursday. There are almost 600 books being published, which is good news for readers, but scary for authors because of the sheer amount of perceived competition. Combined with this, 2020 has of course been an incredibly tough year for debut authors, as the world has battled through months of lockdown, the closure of bookshops, Amazon and some supermarkets prioritising essential items, and the cancellation of book launches, tours and promotional events.

For many writers, there is still the notion that their debut is their one chance at success – their key moment to capture readers, the publication day that will determine the course of their future career and make the difference between a life of disappointment or a star-studded existence full of canapes and awards. They are not foolish for thinking this – it is correct that a lot of publishing houses do put a lot of focus on debut books. However, as many, many authors and publishers have now proved, a debut is by no means the ONLY chance of success and there are so many writers who have had big, break-out success with their second, fifth, twelfth (you name it!) books. I spoke to a few of them last month, in the hope that this piece would provide reassurance to those who are, perhaps, struggling with being a 2020 debut and predicting rather gloomy futures for themselves. As an editor and an author myself, I am all too aware of the ups and downs publishing paths can take but to me, these ups and downs can be perceived as a good thing – a hopeful thing. As long as you persist, there will be another book, another chance, and in the meantime you’re building up a solid portfolio of work (which is more than a lot of people ever do!). The only way you’ll never see success if if you give up…

Sarah Vaughan, author of the hugely successful 2018 novel Anatomy of a Scandal told me: ‘Anatomy of a Scandal was my third novel but people often think it was a debut because my previous two had failed to make an impact (though my second, The Farm at the Edge of the World, was a bestseller in France.) I didn’t realise it at the time but I effectively reinvented myself by switching genres (though I’d argue that all my novels are preoccupied with issues pertaining to women and even the first one has some darkness in it.) I also changed publishers after my original editor left. I wrote Anatomy out of contract not knowing if it would be published but that gave me the creative independence to write the novel I was burning to write. It’s success – Sunday Times bestseller, Richard and Judy pick, and now a forthcoming Netflix series – is something I could never have predicted. I didn’t think beyond wanting to get a new deal.’

David Barnett, author of Calling Major Tom, said: ‘I think we — as authors and publishers — have to get out of the mindset that a book has to succeed or fail in the first month. It doesn’t. Many readers don’t rush out and buy a book on publication day, unless they’re rabid Stephen King fans or something. Some people wait weeks  or months or even years before getting round to reading a book they like the look of. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. You just have to make sure everything is being done to keep the book visible and available to those who might eventually get round to it.’

Barnett is speaking as someone whose publication journey has had ups and downs. He told me: ‘My most successful book to date has been Calling Major Tom (Trapeze, 2017). The debut issue is a sticky one here, because for this novel I was published as David M Barnett. I had previously had a trilogy of Victorian fantasy novels published as David Barnett. The Gideon Smith series was published in the US by Macmillan. Major Tom was a completely different beast in a completely different genre; book-club/commercial fiction. The difference in sales was phenomenal. I’m not quite sure what the Gideon Smith books sold, to be honest, but they never earned out their advances. Calling Major Tom was launched with not a huge amount of publicity and became a word of mouth hit, within about six months. Last time I looked properly, which was a year ago maybe, it had certainly hit more than 75,000 sales in the UK across paperback, ebook and audio. It also sold to maybe ten foreign rights territories.’

So was it plain sailing after his most successful book? Barnett says no, not quite. ‘There were more ups and downs. To be honest, I was a little surprised that the follow-ups to Calling Major Tom didn’t shift the same numbers. Goes to show that readers are not necessarily loyal, and you have to win their hearts afresh each time. It can be a little demoralising, but you’ve just got to push on and be better each time.’

Author C.L. Taylor, now a million-copy bestseller with her suspense novels, told me that for her, a change of genre and some good timing helped her career switch course: ‘My rom-coms (2 of them, the first of which sold 5,000 paperbacks and the second of which sold 10,000 paperbacks; neither charted) were published at the tail end of the romantic comedy boom, and my psychological thrillers were published in the second wave of thrillers so timing was a big part of my changing fortunes. I do think changing publisher also made a big difference. The marketing felt more innovative and my editor became more involved. My second publisher weren’t afraid to price my first ebook with them at 69p and as a result it sold hundreds of thousands of copies.’

Of course, the UK market is not the only measure of success. Lia Louis, whose second novel Dear Emmie Blue caused a Rights storm, told me: ‘I was surprised! To have auctions in America and Germany and various other countries all going on within days of it going on sub and that book being a second book was absolutely astounding. I don’t think I did anything differently [from her debut, Somewhere Close to Happy] really – I guess Emmie is more romantic, and a little hookier, and the balloon [on the cover] is a good emblem perhaps making it more commercial but I don’t really know!’

Louis also had advice to give other authors who may not be seeing big success with their debuts: ‘We can very easily get whipped up in comparing ourselves to other authors but I don’t think anything can be gained from comparing your book or journey to someone else’s and correlating that with “I’m in the wrong place” or “I’m not doing such and such but they are”. Thinking that if you don’t soar up the charts, do incredible things with your debut that it’s all over, that your shot is done, is not true. I am still very new to this but from what I’ve seen and from what I have learned so far, there is a different path for everyone and you can never call it or predict it! If we authors all had graphs spanning ten years, the lines would be ALL different shapes, peaks, troughs, steady lines and things happening we never expected! So my advice is don’t compare and just keep writing books you love.’

Sweta Vikram says she had the most success with Louisiana Catch, after writing 12 other novels. Why, I ask her, does she think that one took off? She said: ‘I have thought about what made LC bigger. My writing definitely matured along with marketing skills. Honestly, it’s a multitude of reasons. The issues were relatable and timely. It came out in April 2018 when the #MeToo movement was gaining a lot of momentum. As one of the themes in my novel was sexual assault, people could perhaps relate to it.’

Author Jackie Kabler saw success with her fifth book, psychological thriller The Perfect Couple. She says: ‘My debut was a cosy murder mystery which came out with a small publisher back in 2015. It only sold two to three thousand copies overall. In contrast The Perfect Couple sold 100,000 ebooks in the first eight weeks, reached number two in the Kindle chart and spent 13 weeks in Amazon’s top twenty most sold books chart. To date (August 2020) it’s sold over 150,000 ebooks (as well as additional print and audio sales) and I’ve also sold foreign rights to Germany, Hungary and Sri Lanka so far.’

Thinking about the reasons for this success, Kabler said: ‘The decision to switch from writing cosy crime to psychological thrillers was partly a commercial one – I could see how popular thrillers were and knew the cosy crime market was smaller. Being with a much bigger publisher also helped, as there was little marketing or publicity done by the small publisher I was with previously as they just didn’t have a budget for it.’

In terms of advice, she said: ‘Keep going! It’s all cumulative – if people like your latest book they’ll look for other books you’ve written and buy those too, so you do get more than one bite of the cherry. I’m really seeing that now – even the sales of my cosy crime series have shot up, so much so that they’re being re-released by a bigger publisher. And don’t give up the day job (not too soon anyway!). Writing is an unpredictable business and one success doesn’t necessarily guarantee future success – I live in fear that my next book will be a turkey!’

Kate Lord Brown, who told me her second book has been more successful than her first, said: ‘Writing is a long rollercoaster ride – if you make it past the initial sparkle of being a ‘debut’ very few authors become brand names with a rocketing upward trajectory. Everyone else in the middle is aiming for the stars but there are ups and downs. If you’re really, really lucky your debut will hit something in the zeitgeist and your reputation skyrockets from book one. I’ve noticed for a lot of people it sometimes takes a name change, a genre change to really take off. For everyone it’s about resilience and perseverance, and remembering why you write: because you have to, because you love telling stories, because you love books.’

Writer Jessica Adams echoed this sentiment: ‘You need to write about what thrills you. Right now. That’s because we live in a constantly changing world at the moment.’ She also advocated thinking about success in other formats, namely audio, and thinking about the other ways in which readers consume in a modern world. And she’s right – audiobooks continue to grow as a format, with sales growing quickly year on year.

A lot of these authors cited changes of genre, name, or publisher as a possible reason for seeing success. However, many more have said that actually, they don’t know why one of their books suddenly took off – and for me as a publisher, this is sometimes the case as well. On occasions, novels we didn’t necessarily have down as the ones that would go on to really break out have exceeded expectations – perhaps they have caught a moment in the public consciousness, or the cover or title has proved even more appealing than we originally hoped. Obviously, as publishers we want ALL our books to perform really well, for our sake and for the sake of the author – but the fact remains that some will do better than others, as with any business. Often, this really is out of the author’s control. There are things authors can do to help promote and sell their books (advertising, social media, events), but sometimes even the books with a lot of marketing spend don’t do what we hope. I say this not to be negative, but to take some of the burden and worry away from the author. Your job as a writer is to write the best book you can, and work with your publisher on it – and if you don’t see the success you want with book one, write another! I promise you won’t regret it.

Happy publication day to everyone out today – congratulations and I hope all your books soar.

2 thoughts on “Why your debut novel isn’t your only chance at success

  1. Thanks for this post, Phoebe. I’ve just read it with my breakfast tea. It was positive and after the year everyone’s had we need some positivity. I’d already decided to change genre but hadn’t done anything about it. I do know my characters though, they’ve been on at me for weeks, so today, might be the day they get set down on paper.


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