Shocking revelations about debut novels


Silk’s Post #99 — Maybe “shocking” is a bit strong, or maybe I’m just easily shocked. Or maybe it’s just a cheap trick of a headline.

But now that you’re here, let’s talk about the somewhat depressing truth that we unpublished, unknown writers live with every day: the top reason a person buys a particular novel is because it was written by an author the purchaser has already read. This is a simple fact of fan behaviour.

This means that if you, the unpublished author with the unfinished book in progress, actually make it to “The End” (most don’t), and then manage to get through several rewrites that succeed in improving your novel to a level that is truly ready to pitch (again, you’d be in the minority of unpublished writers), and then actually get an agent (unlike most), and then that agent manages to sell it to a traditional publisher (good luck on that one, too), and one fine day you actually see your debut novel on the retail bookshelf … that is where the most unlikely miracle of all has to happen for your book to break into the bestseller list.

Readers have to risk $10 or $20 of hard-earned discretionary cash on a book by someone they’ve never heard of in hopes they might like it – rather than pick up the latest novel by one of their favourite authors, which they have every expectation of enjoying.

So is your debut novel doomed?

The shocking answer is: absolutely not.

I started thinking about it while reading my book club’s selection for September, The Rosie Project, a charming first novel by Aussie writer Graeme Simsion (2013, HarperCollins). Above the title on the cover were the words “The #1 International Bestseller”. Lucky bloke, that Simsion, I thought. One in a billion.

But then I thought back to some of our other book club choices over the past couple of years. Hmmm. Weren’t there some other debut novels on our list? Yes, there were:

  • The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak
  • The Help, by Kathryn Stockett
  • The Best Laid Plans, by Terry Fallis
  • The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern
  • The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, by Jonas Jonasson
  • The Outlander, by Gil Adamson
  • A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, by Marina Lewycka

In fact, of the 27 novels my club has read together, eight of them were debut efforts – nearly 30 percent. This is a much higher percentage than the industry average of first novel deals as a proportion of all fiction deals signed in a given year, which Publishers Marketplace apparently shows to be about 10 percent. This may mean that my little book club is especially adventurous when it comes to book-buying, or it may mean that popular fiction genres (mystery, romance, sci fi and the like), which typically don’t get on book club lists, are more dominated by “name brand” authors.

But who cares? It still adds up to hope for unpublished authors.

Shocking Revelation #1 is that something like 10 percent of fiction deals are for first novels, according to my (admittedly not exhaustive) research. (That does sound high, but to hear some doomsayers talk, any measurable percentage of debut deals would be shocking.)

Shocking Revelation #2 is that a healthy number of these win prestigious awards and become top sellers – and that’s just in print. Clearly, the indie market is where a growing percentage of debut novels get published today. (An interesting hybrid story is that of Terry Fallis, who, after many rejections of The Best Laid Plans, went ahead and self-published with stunning success, before being picked up by a traditional publisher after he had proven his marketability).

Shocking Revelation #3, for me anyway, is how many bestselling and prizewinning novels over the years have been first novels – books that made their authors so famous that we don’t think of their first titles as debut efforts anymore. Many are “household name” books, so legendary they seem to have always been there, like the mountains or the sea.

The ultimate debut novel Cinderella story, as most writers are probably tired of hearing, is of course the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling. But there are many more eye popping examples. Here is a list, culled from several websites, of some famous first novels:

  • Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte
  • The Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison (his only novel)
  • To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee (her only novel)
  • White Oleander, by Janet Fitch
  • This Side of Paradise, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Cafe, by Fanny Flagg
  • Cold Mountain, by Charles Frazier
  • Gone With the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell
  • Snow Falling on Cedars, by David Guterson
  • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, by Mark Haddon
  • The Secret Life of Bees, by Sue Monk Kidd
  • Dr. Zhivago, by Boris Pasternak
  • The God of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy
  • The Tiger’s Wife, by Tea Obreht
  • The Lovely Bones, by Anna Sebold
  • Black Beauty, by Anna Sewell
  • The Notebook, by Nicolas Sparks
  • The Devil Wears Prada, by Lauren Weisberger
  • Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, by Rebecca Well
  • The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde
  • The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel Dafoe
  • The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, by Kim Edwards
  • Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen
  • Twilight, by Stephenie Meyer (yes, that Twilight)
  • The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenberger
  • The Descendents, by Kaui Hart Hemmings
  • Deja Dead, by Kathy Reichs
  • The Kite Runner, by Khalid Hosseini

What do all these first novels have in common, besides being publishing miracles?

They’re very, very good; they have the “it” factor. (Yes, you can argue that, but success speaks for itself.)

What do all these writers have in common, besides being both good and lucky?

They persisted. (No, you can’t argue at all with that.)

Just think of all the fantastic novels that have been written over the centuries that you’ve never heard of – because they simply stayed in some aspiring writer’s bottom drawer and never were published, or maybe even finished.

Woody Allen once famously declared that “80 percent of life is just showing up”. He was talking to us. To writers. Here’s what he said about what he said:

“I made the statement years ago which is often quoted that 80 percent of life is showing up. People used to always say to me that they wanted to write a play, they wanted to write a movie, they wanted to write a novel, and the couple of people that did it were 80 percent of the way to having something happen. All the other people struck out … they couldn’t do it. That’s why they don’t accomplish a thing, they don’t do the thing. So once you do it, if you actually write your film script or write your novel, you are more than half way towards something good happening. So that was, I’d say, my biggest life lesson that has worked. All others have failed me.”

In a pursuit that’s freighted with so much angst and complexity, isn’t it refreshing to hear advice that’s so simple, and so obvious?

Debut novels get to be bestsellers because they’re great in some way. So make yours great.

Even more fundamentally, they succeed because the writer persists and gets the job done. So keep writing.

Shocking Revelation #4 is that, against all the considerable odds that aspiring writers are constantly lectured about, debut novels do get published and become bestsellers. Miracles do happen, so believe in yourself.

And get to work.

4 thoughts on “Shocking revelations about debut novels

  1. Hello from a long time follower and a very sporadic replier.

    Yogi Barra said that 90%of baseball is physical and the other half is mental. Not sure if he and Woody Allen knew each other, but they were talking to us. I wish you guys all the best.


    • We have some voracious readers and have had some fabulous discussions (lubricated by generous amounts of wine) on everything from “On the Road” to the Steve Jobs biography!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s