Sunday, October 7, 2018

The Myth of the Debut Year

Our topic at the SFF Seven this week is "If I could go back to my Debut Year..." You can tell I didn't suggest this one because I don't believe in the "Debut Year."

See, the "Debut Year" is a bit of magical, sparkle-pony mythology of Author Land.

This is how the myth goes:

One day a writer receives "The Call" where an editor offers the Big Book Deal. The writer's First Book comes out - their Debut Book - and they have their Debut Year. It's a time of glory and terror and dancing sparkle ponies. The writer is hopefully toasted as the New Big Thing. Reviews always discuss the book in terms of it being the author's First Book. And every mention of the author after that will note their First Book.

All of this is a fictionalization. We're novelists, after all! But I think it's also a damaging bit of mythology, so I'd like to discuss why.

First, let me break this down in reality.

1. All of this is cast in traditional publishing terms. Not only that, it's pretty much only for deals with the Big Five. So, only authors who publish their first book (see caveats to this) with the Big Five get an experience anything close to the Debut Year.

2. Almost nobody gets "The Call," even though you still hear people talk about it. If you're working with traditional publishing, you'll almost certainly be working with an agent. Those exchanges happen first via email. Your agent may call with exciting news, but very rarely - even vanishingly rarely - is there a single phone call with the final deal news. This is a fictionalization that makes it sound good.

3. Not many authors get a Big Book Deal. You just hear about the ones who do. And, because it's a Big Book Deal, the publisher puts a lot of marketing behind the book, so you hear about that, too. But hey - it's a book deal and that's fabulous!

4. But, you know what? It's one book deal. If you plan to make a career as an author, there will be more book deals. Lots of them. You might also self-publish or do that instead. We tend to celebrate "Firsts" of all kinds, but there's no particular magic to them. (Besides that you're a newbie, which is likely the point of this topic, but I'm ignoring that. You'll find out why. Stick with me.)

5. There is a lot of terror. Moments of glory. Mostly a lot of work. Spoiler alert: No sparkle ponies.

6. Some writers get to be the Big New Thing, which is super cool. Most don't. Even those that do? Well, like prom queens and MVPs, there's a finite shelf life to being one, and there's a replacement coming the following year, if not sooner.

7. The "First Book" is a myth I'd really like to see die.

  • Most writers have written many books before their first published one.
  • Most writers have written and published extensively before their first published novel - poems, essays, other nonfiction, short stories, novellas, etc. By making a big deal about the first novel, we're elevating it above all other forms.
  • Because they understand the "magic" of the debut, very often publishers will ask an author to adopt a pseudonym and present the initial book under that name as a first book by a debut author. All smoke and mirrors.
  • In new publishing landscape, an author's first book is much more likely to be self-published or published by a small/digital-first publisher. These don't get the same splash.
The reason I think this mythology of the Debut Year is damaging is that any author who doesn't get this particular brass ring ends up feeling less than. Because this is most authors - I want to say 95% or more - that makes a lot of people laboring under a false perception of being lesser.

For myself, my "First Book" was WYOMING TRUCKS, TRUE LOVE, AND THE WEATHER CHANNEL, an essay collection published by a university press back in 2004. A lot of those essays had been published in literary journals and magazines - including Redbook, my big score - so the collection wasn't even my first publication. 

After that...

[insert montage of time passing here]

...when I transitioned into fiction, my "first book" was a digitally published novella. My first novel-length work was published by Carina, an imprint of Harlequin, also a digital-first publisher.

My first print deal was with Kensington, for The Twelve Kingdoms trilogy. The first book, THE MARK OF THE TALA, was my 4th novel-length publication, my 2nd print book, my 13th fiction publication, and I have no idea what number it would be in overall number of creative works.

The first book in my first Big Five book deal, THE ORCHID THRONE, comes out next summer. It will be something like my 30th novel-length publication.

The point is, I never had a Debut Year.

Okay, yeah - maybe we could say it was 2004, when Wyoming Trucks came out. That's why I put that photo at the top, because that's at my signing and launch party, where I'm clearly bright-eyed, cheeks flushed with excitement.

It was a great night.

And good things came of that book.

But I was never the New Big Thing. I didn't get rich or famous. The only sparkle pony I have is a plastic one that an author friend gave me.

What's most important is that this is just fine! My career has grown slowly and steadily, which I will absolutely take over what some of my friends have gone through - a Debut Year that burns fast and hot, but ends in ashes and reinvention. Building a career through small presses and thoughtful self-publishing is a viable path - often a far better one - than shooting for the moon and the Big Book Deal. Even if you *do* get the Big Book Deal, that's no guarantee of the future.

So, the others of the SFF Seven might have more to offer on the actual topic. But when I consider going back to my Debut Year, I don't know when that was.

Even if I did know, and could go back - I wouldn't change a thing.