Publishing a debut novel is never easy. 100,000 long-form works of English-language fiction are published every year and even in normal circumstances it’s a struggle to for a first-time novelist to stand out from the pack. But the last 15 or so months have been particularly trying. Full lockdown meant no one was browsing bookshops, picking up things that caught their eye, taking a chance on a name that they hadn’t heard before. Instead, people were buying online, which was good news for the backlist and a few massively hyped, mostly American debuts, but terrible for the vast majority of new authors, who weren’t able to connect with the independent bookshops that are so often their most vocal champions. Even those published in the relatively restriction-free months of the summer and early autumn found that social distancing rules meant no in-store readings, book-signings or in-person festivals of the sort that are crucial for writers looking to build themselves an audience.
You might have forgiven the class of 2020 for giving up and retraining in IT, or joining the army, or whatever it was those government posters wanted people in the arts to do. But instead of crying into their cups, the pandemic’s debut authors took it upon themselves to make a noise on behalf of their books in all kinds of innovative and surprising ways.
The first thing they did was get together. Author Polly Crosby, whose debut novel The Illustrated Child came out in October 2020, created The Debut20 group, an open-invite collective of debut authors of all stripes. As she says: “It was started just before the pandemic for purely selfish reasons: I wanted to create a hub for debut authors, a place where we could go through the publication journey together. With the advent of the pandemic, D20 became a lifeline, a place where we could go for advice, to celebrate and commiserate, and also a platform for telling the world about our books.”
The 2020 group has taken two forms: a private Facebook group where the authors have been able to share tips, plan, plot, and scheme away from public view, and a Twitter feed which has been their mouthpiece to the world. One of its great successes has been the self-initiated online literary festival Diary of a Debut Novelist, which was set up by Emma Christie whose debut The Silent Daughter was published in 2020. Organised from a camper van while she was touring northern Spain, the festival was broadcast via Facebook the festival ran over five consecutive Wednesdays in September last year with 30 writers taking part and thousands watching the sessions. It’s now a monthly event and as Christie says, it “gives everyone a wider audience which leads to more exposure and surely leads to more sales.” This kind of self-organisation has been a key theme from Penny Batchelor and EC Scullion’s Thriller Women website, which runs interviews with crime writers (the two of them very much included), to Yvonne Battle-Felton’s many platforms which include Bookable Space, her African-American literary salon.
Inspired by the 2020 group, first-time novelist Kate Sawyer, whose book The Stranding is published this June by Hodder and Stoughton, set up an independent Twitter group, DebutsUK2021, which has grown to more than 180 writers.
“My work in events and theatre taught me that the best way to promote is to cross-promote, to create an environment that lets audiences find something new as well as what they originally came for. It's been a resounding success. There has been a real generosity of spirit in both the message groups where we cheer on the successes and try to allay fears or soothe hurt feelings after scathing reviews and publicly where many of us retweet praise or notable events.” And as Sawyer points out, there have been a fair few bestsellers from the group. “Abigail Dean, Emma Stonex, Elodie Harper, Jennifer Saint to name but four - and it has lifted us all up as a consequence. Personally, I've found that it's connection that has made a difference to people becoming aware of my forthcoming novel."
For my own novel, Peterdown, which is published by Corsair and came out in May this year, I have created a series of bookplates which are being stocked by independent booksellers from Hastings to St Andrews. I wanted to create something that would be covetable and unique, so each signed bookplate comes with a vintage sticker, a bespoke piece of text and an ink stamp. And I’m not the only writer giving away objects with a connection to the narrative. Susanna Kleeman, whose novel Twice is out in June, is planning on giving away actual prehistoric flint heads along with the book when customers buy it from Housmans, the radical booksellers in north London. And Matt Cook has been busy making real-life analogues of the fictional leather bookmarks which appear in his novel Life on Other Planets, which was published by Lendal Press this month. The bookmarks are promotional material for the Church of the Holy Heavens, an imaginary space cult, which plays a key role in the book, and he’s planning on giving them away with copies on his book sold by independents in and around Liverpool.
To publicise her debut Cow Girl, Kirsty Eyre “sweated her tits off and nearly passed out” wearing a £12.99 Fresian onesie on the hottest day of the year at her virtual book launch. Tim Ewins generated interest for his first novel We Are Animals by reading it nightly chapter-by-chapter in 50 different voices ranging from The Mitchell Brothers to Dilys from "Fireman Sam". As his publisher noted: "anyone expecting uncanny vocal accuracy may be disappointed. For originality and determination to sell his book, however, he is peerless." And the indefatigable Kate Sawyer drove to all 29 of East Anglia’s bookshops. “Meeting booksellers masked face to masked face, pressing a proof of my 'whale book' into their hands and telling them a little more about it, I hope will make them remember me when the Hodder sales reps drop in.”
One of the benefits of the pandemic for lots of debut authors has been the shift from in-person to online book groups, meaning writers can engage with their readers via Zoom in way that rarely happened before video conferencing became such a ubiquitous part of life. For novelists with a disabling illness like Lorraine Wilson, whose first novel This is Our Undoing is out in August, the move online has been a particular boon, allowing her to be part of events that would otherwise have been closed to her. And all writers have found themselves able to engage with book groups in ways that would have previously been impossible. Nikki Marmery whose debut work of historical fiction, On Wilder Seas, came out in March 2020, was able to talk to book groups all over the country, giving them access to her stash of maps and manuscripts that she used in her research and providing suggested points of discussion.
But, as Trevor Wood discovered, book clubs are not the only way of reaching an audience. The author of The Man on the Street, which won the CWA New Blood Dagger and the Crimefest Best Debut Award, was asked by a fellow writer to do a talk for a local branch of the Women’s Institute. Without knowing it he was then placed on their national speakers list which lead to invites to do Zoom talks with another nine different WI groups from Plymouth to Newcastle, with as many as 80 readers attending the busiest of his talks.
At some point, of course, the pandemic will be over and things will return to normal. I suspect, though, that there has been a mentality shift that will probably endure beyond the easing of restrictions. People always tell you that publishing your first book is inevitably a let-down, and I think that one of the reasons that the experience is so anticlimactic is the loss of agency: you go from total control of your characters’ fates to hoping desperately that someone will review your book and the transition is a difficult one. The efforts of the debut authors have, for many of them I think, gone a long way to making this more manageable. I suspect this collaborative enterprise and initiative is here to stay.
David Annand’s debut novel, Peterdown, is published by Corsair. He is still making bookplates for any interested booksellers: https://www.davidannandwrites.com/limited-edition.