Suspend Your Disbelief

Shop Talk |

A bad time for writers? Not if you're a "debutant."

True or false: It’s harder now to get published than ever.

Answer: It depends.

In the Financial Times, Adrian Turpin argues that the picture for debut novelists isn’t as bleak as you’d think:

For most literary authors, the not-so-brave new world of publishing by numbers is terrible news. But there is one type of writer exempt from its strictures: the first novelist. Unsullied by inconvenient sales figures, the debutant exists uniquely in a state of prelapsarian grace, a blank canvas on which publishers can dream. […]

Even recession has failed to dent the perennial desire for the new. While the book industry as a whole has been slow to regain confidence since 2007’s high-water mark for deals, 2010 saw several six-figure advances for debut works of fiction. The existence of bookstore promotions for first novels – notably, the Waterstone’s 11 and the Amazon Rising Stars – and the prevalence of dedicated prizes, such as the Costa First Novel Award, Orange New Writers and the Betty Trask, also offer an incentive that does not exist for second or third novels (by contrast, the Encore Award for second novels is far less well-known).

Why are debut novelists still able to find publishers? Turpin points to bold new talent from the United States—partly developed by burgeoning MFA programs and outlets for short fiction—as one of the main factors. And he praises debut writers, both American and British, for being willing to tackle “big” issues.

I’ve heard similar stories from agents and friends. “When you’re an unknown new writer, you’re sexy, and editors will take a risk on you,” a friend told me after her debut came out but her second book failed to find a publisher. “But unless your first book makes a big splash, you’re a known failure.” One Story—a journal that does an amazing job of supporting its authors—will host its second Literary Debutante Ball (featuring emerging writers) this spring, but the Literary Second Book Ball doesn’t have the same ring.

As a would-be debut novelist myself, I hope Turpin is right, and that the hunger for new voices persists. But it’s hard to be optimistic. And after that debut, what about the second novel? Will it turn your firstborn book into a “ball and chain,” as Turpin suggests?

Further reading on the debut novel:

Literary Partners