A blog by bookseller Tamsin Rosewell and author Caroline Lea, in conversation.
When you step back and admire it from afar, one of the most baffling things about today’s book industry is its apparent obsession with the ‘Debut Author’. Publishers tend to announce to a debut as if they are offering the most exciting pudding on the menu…with extra ice cream. From a bookseller’s point of view however, a ‘debut’ is, in itself, not at all interesting – as a hook from which to talk about and sell the book, it is just not enough. What conversation are they expecting me to have with my customers: ‘This book is by someone who has not written anything else I know about’? I have had instances where publishers have been so absorbed trying to sell me a ‘debut’ that they have omitted to tell me that the author has also been: an actress for 20 years; ran a forest school; has 15 fostered children; is also an established playwright; is a formidable academic in her field – and many other things. In fact, logically, almost all debut authors will have been doing other work before their first published was book. So why on earth does the industry seem to think that, at that moment, the most interesting thing they could possibly say about them is that they have never had anything else published? Furthermore, customers coming in to the bookshop and saying ‘I’d really like to read a book by a debut writer’ are few and far between. So why is there is perception that to sell and to be interesting you must be a debut?
I absolutely agree that debuts are surrounded by a sense of excitement; part of this is a very natural desire that we all have to ‘discover’ something new. In an age when the internet puts so much knowledge at our fingertips, it’s arguably very difficult to actually experience something first hand, without expectations: we google holiday destinations, hobbies and even prospective partners. Very little has that excitement of first time encounter about it and the discovery of a ‘new voice’ carries exactly that appeal and allows readers to recommend something that they’ve found to friends. However, I also think much of the perception of the exciting debut author is linked to a lack of transparency about the writing process and the publishing industry itself. When I mention that I’m a writer, people imagine glamour and riches and a natural talent: what they don’t see is that I draft and redraft each novel around sixteen times, and that this is normal. What they don’t see is me working in my pyjamas until 1am in order to send the latest round of changes to my editor. Neither of these images has the enormous appeal that the media presents of the glamorous writer (my pyjamas are particularly off-putting). And I wonder if this mystique feeds into the appeal of the debut: look what this wonderful writer has conjured! Imagine the talent necessary to write something so superb! And it’s a DEBUT! This perception is actually hugely damaging and means that lots of writers give up when their first draft is awful. First drafts are always terrible. Whether you’re on your first book or, as I am, writing your fourth, some things about the process will not change: your first draft will be shit, you’ll be convinced that you’ve forgotten how to write, and you’ll spend publication week wishing you could stop yourself from checking your reviews on Goodreads.
People really don’t walk into a bookshop looking for something by a debut author, they tend to be looking for something that has earned a bit of status. But publishers seem to be pushing the new at them with full force marketing. There was one novel that became very high profile recently; it was presented to the world as an extraordinary debut, knowledge of which had spread by word of mouth. In fact we know that the book was planned as a mass market seller and given a huge budget, also there were focus groups going on 18 months before the book’s release. The book was fine – it was a good piece of general ‘up-lit’ fiction; but it wasn’t the gosmackingly stunning debut that its marketing implied. I have no problem with marketing per se, it is a vital part of a healthy market, but it irks me when high-spend marketing is presented as bookselling. It wasn’t the booksellers who were hyping that book because of its quality, it most certainly did not ‘just sell by word of mouth’; the hype was generated by a publishing company in London. Any good bookseller can spot hype at a hundred miles distance. Let’s put the heavy marketing of ‘debut’ aside for the moment as an odd disconnect between the mind of a publisher and the requirements of a bookseller, because there is a far more serious question to be asked. If the effort, energy and marketing budget is going behind the debut authors, where does that leave the authors who have 10, 20, 30 books to their name? Why are they not perceived as worthy of promotion, energy and support? To me, as someone selling books into schools, talking about them in a constantly busy bookshop, and suggesting ideas for book-groups, the authors who have huge experience, knowledge and established reputations are the ones of greatest value. I’ve nothing at all against debut authors, truly, I wish them every success – but why is our industry choosing actively to support and applaud them over the ones who have the experience? I had a bit of a scuffle with one publisher a few years ago when I wanted to do a window display for a new book by an established and critically acclaimed author – but they wanted me to do their latest debut instead. I said no, I was going to do my established author a window display because his work is extremely important to us. Again, they asked me to do their young female debut instead. They told me that they already had bunting and standees and other point of sale material for it. No, I’m going to do my established author. Three times they asked me. Three times I said no. They sent me the bunting anyway. I gave it to a school and did the display I wanted to do.
I’ve been hugely lucky with my publishers at Penguin Michael Joseph (MJ): my latest novel, The Glass Woman, is my UK debut, but my first novel, When the Sky Fell Apart, was published in Australia in 2016. My wonderful editor at MJ, Jillian Taylor, was very clear about not ignoring my previous novel and right from our first meeting, she talked about building a ‘career’ for me. She’s always interested in what I’m writing next (and not only in my next novel: she’s read my poetry and short stories too, and regularly encourages me to enter competitions, even when I doubt myself). She absolutely believes in my writing, as does my equally wonderful agent, Nelle Andrew, who is never content to let me settle for anything less than the best possible version of my work, and will make editorial notes fifteen times, if necessary: this is as true of my current work as it was with my debut. However, I know that many writers have a different experience: they are encouraged to publish under a different name to ‘rebrand’ themselves. I wonder if this is partly driven by the different response in the media to debuts: reviewers are often much harsher on second novels, and there’s less space to shout about (and fewer prizes for) seasoned writers. It’s impossible to ignore the fact that publishers need to make money, and that the success of many novels is driven by the publicity surrounding them. If column inches are dedicated to debuts, then it makes absolute sense to focus on these, but I think it creates something of an ouroboros (I discovered recently that this is the name given to the symbol of a dragon eating its own tail and I’ve been keen to use it as a metaphor for something).
Cartoon by David Sipress for The New Yorker
Is there less space to write about seasoned writers? Surely the problem is that there is a certain amount of space for media and social media attention, and a certain amount of budget within publishing company for promotion, and both of these things are disproportionally allocated toward the debut. One publisher friend (and fellow non-fiction enthusiast) suggested to me that our industry’s fascination with ‘début’ is an extension of a preoccupation with fiction generally. To many, the word ’début’ is synonymous with ‘new novel’. She points out that many non-fiction reviews say things like ‘It reads like a novel’ or ‘Reads like the best thriller!’ as a compliment. It is as if non-fiction really aspires to be fiction, but didn’t quite make it. She’s right, we really don’t use the word for work by an historian or biographer. And we don’t really use it for illustrators either. It does seem to have evolved to find yet another way to present fiction writing as the most desirable. I’d argue that the market is far broader than that. Non-fiction is a very high-selling area, and illustrators are far more important to our industry than we acknowledge. If column inches are being given over to debut novelists, then that is because the publishers have been promoting and applauding them over the established writers and non-fiction writers – exactly like my experience with the window display. While I don’t want to pop the little happy-bubbles of debut authors who are lucky enough to be getting attention and budgets, I worry that in four books’ time that will be them being jostled aside for the latest new thing, abandoned by the industry. Publishers and many industry reviewers can’t seem to stop lusting after the next debut; that distracted boyfriend meme fits them very well! Are we really rejecting the brilliant, experienced and hugely reliable authors in favour of the concept of ‘new’? What is the appeal to the book industry of the concept of new? It is certainly a fairly standard marketing approach; each season we are presented with clothing, phones, make up, cars and any number of other consumable things that are re-imagined as new; in many sectors ‘new’ is what sells: new handbags; new phone technology; new lipstick colours; new diet fads; new season’s clothes… but can we say that books are different?
It would be brilliant if we could: but unlike shiny gadgets and technology, writers and their books improve with age. I know that I’m a far better writer than I was four years ago when I wrote The Glass Woman and I hope that my next novel will build on its success. We judge actors and directors and musicians by their body of work; the same should be true of writers, surely. I’d love reviewers and booksellers (and my publisher) to be able to pitch each new novel I write by saying, this is even better than her last one. I have faith that I have the right agent and the right editor who will nurture me and help me to produce better writing and will present it as just that: the result of my hard work and experience. But I’m aware that there are lots of writers whose second and third books have received less publicity than their first and it is a frightening thought, that the industry and the media might, as a whole, be encouraging readers to see books as a new commodity, which should be thrown out and updated every couple of years. As I said, I think it would help to have more transparency around the hard work that takes place to produce a book (both from the writer and their agent and publishing team). Books are pieces of art, often made through years of agony and sacrifice: let’s not diminish that fact by pretending that writing is a matter of talent alone. And I think many readers enjoy returning to authors whose work they admire, rather than simply looking for the next fresh thing: that’s very much media-driven and perhaps also propelled by publisher’s perception that they need to present something ‘new’ and market it as such. Sadly, I think this attitude feeds upon itself: publishers feel that publicity attention will be more powerful if they can present a shiny debut, and newspapers perpetuate this idea by dedicating double page spreads to new authors (or perhaps it’s the other way around). But you’re right: this is an unjust and worrying focus and very unfair on seasoned writers, whose work may be getting pushed aside for the next ‘big thing’. So much of a book’s success depends on its visibility and, whether because of media focus or publishers’ budgets; much of the oxygen is taken by the debuts, and this is what’s made more visible to readers.
Yes, a first book is often far from a writer’s best. It takes them a while to get into their stride; maybe it is book five that is the stunner rather than book one, and we don’t seem to be allowing room for that to happen in this market. It is also not really fair on the new writers on whom there is a huge amount of pressure for their first novel. I’m not at all convinced that bookselling works the same way as the market for consumer throw away desirable fashion. While it depends slightly on the time of year, at a guess I’d suggest that over 75% of our book sales revenue as a shop is from what I’d call backlist, (let’s say books over 18 months old – and many much older). If established books have the power to keep selling, and my revenue is largely dependent on them, why are the publishers bombarding me with a volley of new, rather than pushing their backlist at me? One new book with which we did a huge amount of work was The Lost Words
; we were ordering that book into our stock regularly, hundreds at a time, for well over a year. And yet at no point did any publisher drop me a note and say: ‘I see you’ve sold hundreds of copies of The Lost Words, can I check that you’re aware of all the other books written by Robert Macfarlane?’ Or ‘can I check that you’ve seen the work we’ve published by Jackie Morris?’. As an approach to marketing, surely having a significant backlist has got to be an advantage in our market, and a far stronger and more reliable one for a publisher to focus on than ‘new’.
: I agree absolutely. I often buy a writer’s entire backlist if I read something I love (Robert MacFarlane is a great example). Equally, I’ll eagerly await the next work from a writer whose work I’ve enjoyed – I genuinely waited by my letterbox all morning for both Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss and The Snakes by Sadie Jones. But it’s hard not to get caught up in all the hype around debut fiction. Often – so very often – this is well-deserved and the work is wonderful. But on a few occasions, I’ve felt like the book has been pitched in a particular way for publicity purposes and I’ve felt slightly disappointed because the book didn’t match my expectation, whereas if I’d read it without that sense of huge anticipation, I’d almost certainly have loved it more. Very rarely are debut books ‘the best I’ve ever read’. I can think of a couple: To Kill a Mockingbird
; The God of Small Things
. But these are the exceptions. Both Hilary Mantel and Margaret Atwood have a vast back-catalogue, which extends far more widely than the (wonderful) Wolf Hall, Bring up the Bodies
and The Handmaid’s Tale.
Indeed, and if an established author’s backlist is not being supported, or is even unavailable, then it makes it even more difficult for them to make a living. I think I’d go further and say that while some debuts are great, there is an awful lot being published that is really not particularly good; I have read several books recently and thought ‘why on earth did the publisher think this should be published?!’. I’ve also read a lot that I’ve thought was …well…fine. While I accept that any art, and indeed any market, needs a regular, life-giving injection of ‘new’, our concept of ‘new’ is odd and very forced. There are far too many books published today; the larger publishers are publishing between 400 and 750 new titles a month. They seem to have adopted a scattergun approach to publishing, spewing out hundreds of new books each month and seeing what sticks. While this approach would make some commercial sense if you wrote it down on paper, the reality is that it is not possible for booksellers to support it. Even if I had a shop the size of Waterstones Piccadilly I wouldn’t have space to display even a quarter of what is published in any one month, while also keeping on display the backlist that I need for that 75% of my revenue.
I also think that this is unfair on the many authors whose books are published and then left unsupported, with bookshops already drowning in a volume of new releases that they don’t need and can’t support. As booksellers we tend to look more kindly on the smaller publishers who will create only a dozen or so books a year, but whose lists are strong and carefully planned.
Yes, and I think that’s a shame for writers whose work is published but is given very little investment by their publishing house, and thus the work sinks. I understand that everything that publishers take on carries some risk, but as consumers we’re so very receptive to advertising messages that, sometimes, the most successful books are the ones with the largest publicity budget. I don’t know whether the solution is for publishers to release fewer books – this would also feel sad, as it’s hard enough to get published in the current climate as it stands, let alone if fewer new writers were taken on. And I think many of the smaller publishing houses often don’t have the publicity budgets to launch their new releases to the stratospheric heights of the bigger houses’ biggest debuts. It is wonderful that there are prizes available for small publishers and less commercial releases, but these prizes don’t always translate into sales. It’s a difficult industry, where readers are likely to buy books they’ve heard about, or those that are widely displayed in store fronts – and again, this is something that is often influenced by the marketing behind the book.
In our experience prizes rarely translate into sales unless there is marketing budget to promote the win and push it in high volume into chain stores – and I’d argue that then it is the marketing that is selling the book and not really the prize itself. There are now far too many book prizes and some of them have dreadful reputations among our customers. All the time we hear things like ‘Oh I heard that this one isn’t too awful, despite being on the Booker shortlist’, and ‘It’s my turn to choose for the book group, but I really don’t want a prize-winning book, what’s good?’. (But questioning the value and validity of prizes is another discussion entirely – perhaps we’ll have that conversation next!). Do you think that today, in this market, the onus is on the author to do their own marketing and promotion? We have these amazing platforms in social media that enable authors to be in control of their own fan base; do you think that the combination of budget restrictions and volume of books published means that the balance has tipped so that the author needs to be doing this work rather than expecting and relying on marketing budget? While this certainly isn’t a new thing – Charles Dickens could be found in market places, and then in theatres all over the world talking about his work and doing readings – it doesn’t come naturally to all writers. Does this just mean that those who can’t make best use of the new tools available to them, are on the back foot?
There’s definitely an expectation that authors should be active in their own publicity. Perhaps this has always been the case, but the accessibility of social media means that writers feel that they ‘should’ be promoting their books, even when they are lucky enough to have (as I did) a blog tour, radio interviews, public events and competitions around the book. With my publisher, my social media engagement wasn’t ever a deal breaker: in my initial meeting, I admitted that I loathed doing Twitter and Facebook and my editor was sympathetic. I’ve since been converted and have found, particularly on Twitter, an enormously supportive community of wonderful writers: we all cheerlead each other’s work and sympathise with the various stresses of drafting, editing and publication. Social media also allows contact from readers, which is often great. However, I do worry that, for some publishers a lack of social media engagement could make a writer seem less ‘marketable’. I’m also lucky enough to have brilliant local bookshops, run by lovely booksellers, who’ve been happy to run events for me and to fondly push my books into reader’s hands. Many of these events were organised by the bookshops themselves, after I’d chatted to the booksellers, and I do wonder if marketing might be harder for an author who struggles to approach booksellers and speak in public: authors are often introverts by nature. I do think that a book’s chance of success often increases through events and promotion: much of the responsibility for maintaining the momentum of the publicity falls on the writer and this is inevitably hard on those who can’t or won’t do the cringe-inducing thing of publicising their own work.
There is something else lurking at the back of my mind, a doubt that niggles away: for some reason, this debut fascination seems to be about women. I heard from a very successful author that she and other women with her publisher, a major UK publisher, had been approached about changing their names so that they could become a debut again. Given that those women are hugely experienced and successful writers, now being asked to write their next debut novel, it looks very much like this is about some perception of a marketing requirement. Is it deemed too difficult to sell the work of a seasoned and experienced woman? It is largely the female authors who are expected to be perpetual debuts, and it reminds me uncomfortably of the beauty industry’s marketing that implies that to be admired and valued you must have the appearance of being new and fresh, and that there is some deep intrinsic value to looking younger than you are. Is our view of female authors that to be respected and valued they must be new and free from the wrinkles of experience, rather than accomplished and furrowed? I don’t mean to suggest that male writers are not affected by this – it was a 60 year old male author whose work I was planning on putting into that window display, when the publisher attempted to elbow him out of the way to promote a new young female author. However, while I have had the ‘problem of debuts’ conversation with many female authors, I’ve never heard of a man being asked to change his name and start again. I also get the clear impression from what is being marketed at me as a bookseller that is it totally acceptable for an experienced male author to be grizzled
and made slightly grumpy by decades of experience in the British Book Industry. But rarely is that ok for a woman. While lust for the fresh-faced debutant female author seems to be coursing through the veins of the marble-carved men who are the establishment of our industry, it makes little sense to a bookseller.
I’ve said on a few occasions that I wish I could have been writing in the days when authors were angry, pie-eating alcoholics (hello, Hemingway), but the glut of information available on the internet also includes photos, and though readers are buying a book, they often want to know what the writer looks like. In a world that revolves around Twitter and Instagram, a decent author photo is a definite advantage – I think this applies to both men and women. However, I recently read a quote (from a book whose title I can’t currently remember) that said something along the lines of, ‘What a lucky thing to be a man, when an ugly face isn’t the end of you.’ And I do think large sections of our society are still stuck in the days when we expect men to be intellectual and forgive their wonky noses and beer paunches, whereas we like women to be attractive and somehow this makes her opinions more appealing – unless she’s too attractive while also being too clever, a combination that seems to raise suspicions and hackles, as evidenced by the social media uproar last year over a supermodel who was also a genius at computer programming. We’re so superficial and our expectations are so centred on appearances: we often buy books based upon their beautiful covers (and there’s enormous pressure on publishers to produce glossy covers) but I increasingly wonder if we also buy books based upon their glossy authors. And at that point, we return to the desire to buy something that is shiny and ‘new’.
: Interesting discussion. Shall I put this discussion up as a blog post?
Yes, go on then!
Caroline Lea is the author is When the Sky Fell Apart, published by Text, and The Glass Woman, published by Michael Joseph, Penguin. She can be found at @CarolineleaLea
Tamsin Rosewell is a bookseller at Kenilworth Books, she worked in Parliament and on Whitehall for 12 years and for also for English Heritage. She can be found at @autumnrosewell and @KenilworthBook
As always, a huge thank you to the authors, agents, editors, publishers, booksellers, illustrators, teachers and librarians who took the time (over an Easter holiday!) to read and commented on this blog for us. Every blog we release has been read and commented on by at least ten other people from across the industry.