Sunday, February 6, 2011

Is 2011 the Year for Debut Novelists?

A best-selling novelist recently told me it’s easier for debut novelists to sell their first book than it is for an established novelist to sell their second or third or fourth. I didn’t believe her, but I didn’t question her further, because who am I to question a best selling novelist who’s been through the process and obviously knows of what she speaks?

And then I read a Washington Post book review for Hannah Pittard’s “The Fates Will Find Their Way” in which the reviewer, Ron Charles, claimed this book was just one of three impressive debuts he’d read in January—a clear indication to him that “new voices can still catch the attention of big publishing houses.”

Hmm. And I thought the only debut novelists selling anything these days were those who wrote about vampires and werewolves and zombies, or who set their tales in dystopian, post-Apocalyptic wastelands. Or both. Not that there’s anything wrong with those genres. Those are the types of books that are popular right now, and there are many talented authors—including plenty of debut novelists--who’re finding success filling the demand created by this niche. Plus, they’re keeping people interested in reading so who am I to complain?

But it got me thinking about the rest of us, debut novelists who don’t write in the popular genre (and whose works sometimes don’t even fit into a genre at all). What are our chances or success? We may not be writing about creatures from the deep or mutant monsters or “end of days” Armageddon, but does that make us any less worthy of attention or praise or glowing reviews? Hell no. It just makes our job that much harder, our marketing efforts more strenuous, our ability to stand out from the (non-zombie) crowd that much tougher.

But it’s being done. By people like the aforementioned Hannah Pittard. And Karen Russell, who is finding success with Swamplandia!, her debut about gator wrestlers at a run-down theme park in Florida. She’s wicked talented, and there’s no doubt her book will become a best-seller. Oh, and Helen Simonson, the author who told me that debut novels sell more frequently than second or third or fourth books. Her debut, Mr. Pettigrew’s Last Stand, about a retired major who must navigate the stuffy upper-class characters in his hometown in England while grappling with his feelings for an outcast Pakistani woman, was a best-seller last year.

So I guess Mr. Charles, the Washington Post book reviewer, is right. The publishing industry is looking for new voices and unique stories, not the same-old, same-old. These three ladies are shining examples that people are craving something different. Which is awesome for authors like me, who are writing stuff that can’t easily be classified. And that’s okay, Ms. Simonson said. She tried to fit the mold and write in a popular genre, only to discover that not only did it not feel right, but she felt like she was betraying herself. The writing process became so much easier for her, she said, when she switched gears and wrote about what she was truly passionate about. And you know what? It worked. Her debut novel became a best seller. “Write it, and they will come,” she suggested.

Now Ms. Simonson is working on book number two, which I’m sure she’s freaking out about, since she’s the one who told me second books don’t sell as easily as debuts.

So my advice to her is this: since this Englishwoman loves to write about her home country and had success setting her debut there, she should totally write a follow up novel about mutant virus-infected monsters invading her precious England on the eve of the apocalypse. 

Guaranteed best-seller.

1 comment:

  1. My suggestion to all those trying to get their first novel published is Keep Trying. Hopefully, you will get there before you turn 90, and are too tired to enjoy the fame.

    How about a good time travel novel? Throw in a little romance. Or is that too overdone? I would read it and love every page of it. One of my favorite authors has done well with her novels of time travel. If you ever decide to go that route, I will buy the book. It would be a definite Best Seller.