What debut authors need to know

What debut authors need to know

Publishing a debut novel can be a stressful process for all concerned – not least the authors. Even those who feel prepared and knowledgeable can find themselves coming unstuck. As part of a group of traditionally published authors whose novels hit the shelves in 2020, I’ve experienced all the highs and lows both personally and vicariously.

One thing we’ve all agreed on – nothing can prepare you for your first foray into the world of authordom. But, there were some aspects of the journey that we feel could have been made easier by a little more insider knowledge.

Together, we’ve compiled a guide of ‘do’s and ‘don’ts’ that may help smooth the way for the class of 2021.

Don’t... be afraid to speak up!

One feeling many of the debut authors I’ve spoken to shared was a sense of gratitude – landing a publishing deal, sometimes after years of trying, can feel amazing. It can also make new authors feel on the back foot when it comes to getting involved and speaking up during the publishing process. “The publishers felt like gods in those first few months, holding the secrets of the publishing world in their hands,” says Polly Crosby, author of The Illustrated Child. “I would have agreed to anything just because I felt they knew everything and I knew nothing! I wish someone had told me I should trust myself more, and have confidence in my thoughts and ideas. The publishers were keen for my input, but I didn’t want to make a fool of myself!”

“I wish I’d know that you don’t have to accept every editorial suggestion,” adds Susan Allott, author of The Silence. “I spent a day in despair before my agent explained this to me!”

Don’t... expect to ‘feel’ like an author

From the outside, published authors can seem like they’ve got it made. They’ve achieved something that many only dream of. But stepping into that role isn’t always as confidence-inducing as you might imagine - even well-established authors carry their fair share of insecurity. “I wish I had known that when you get a book deal and end up with an amazing publisher it doesn’t necessarily mean that all the worries, insecurities and self-doubt you have about yourself suddenly go away. They actually just change shape, and so managing your own head-talk is just as important as it was pre-deal,” says Hannah Gold.

Don't... obssess over reviews

Worrying about how your book may be received by readers is only natural. But it’s not always a good idea to immerse yourself in the early reviews. As a group, we collectively found that the earliest feedback on NetGalley was often negative – as the DNFs tend to come in first. “I wish I’d known how important it was NOT to read the reviews for the first few months,” agrees Abigail Mann, author of The Lonely Fajita. “With NetGalley, all that achieved was a base neurosis counterproductive to actually writing a second book!”

Don't... take it personally

While not all authors find themselves contacted on Twitter by readers, this does happen. Often, it can be a pleasant experience, with readers passing on positive feedback or asking when your next novel might hit the shelves. But having put a piece of work out for public scrutiny, you may find the odd reader decides to tag you in less positive feedback. “Whilst the vast majority of contact is positive, it’s not something you necessarily think about before you’re published,” says Zoe Somerville. “This seems to be especially an issue on Twitter.” Nothing can soften the blow of a negative direct tweet, but knowing that one may come your way will at least enable you to prepare yourself.

Do... manage your expectations

I’m as guilty as the next newbie writer of thinking that certain things we see in publishing happen to all authors. Having seen our favourite authors on supermarket shelves, or piled high on bookshop tables, it can be a surprise when debut authors find their book isn’t destined for these high-visibility platforms. “Don’t expect to automatically see your book in a shop (bookshop or supermarket),” agrees Nikki Smith, author of All in Her Head. “Realise from the start that not all books are given the same publicity and marketing budgets, so it’s probably unrealistic to expect to see yours on any underground tube posters.”

Do... network with other writers

Okay, so you might not be exchanging friendlies with Stephen King just yet, but there are lots of other authors online who will be happy to give you advice and support. This is particularly true of other debut authors. Groups on Facebook have been of particular support for our debuts, so if you can’t find one for your year – why not start one? They’re a great place for swapping notes, giving advice, sharing both angst and success. “I wish I’d known how beneficial it would be to team up with other debut authors from across the genres to share information, tips, advice, support and wine,” says Trevor Wood, author of The Man on the Street, who has collaborated with several authors to run ‘debut panels’ to publicise novels and share insight with readers.

“I wish I’d known I could reach out to other authors for advice and help,” agrees Victoria Dowd, author of The Smart Woman’s Guide to Murder. “In addition, joining authors associations The CWA and the Society of Authors has been invaluable.”

Do... pitch in with publicity

While you may be lucky enough to have a publicist beavering away on your behalf, there are still things you can do personally to help your book’s visibility. “It helps to be a self-starter and not rely on your publicist to do everything for you. Be proactive, contact local indie stores, reach out to bloggers who you think will like your work,” advises Hannah Tovey.

If you do decide to get proactive, it’s a good idea to liaise with your publicist to prevent doubling up.

Do... build your social media

You don’t want to constantly spam your followers, but becoming more active and carefully considering shared content can be a great way to build your brand in advance of publication. “I wish I’d realised the importance of having a social media presence,” agrees Louise Mumford, author of Sleepless. “I’ve got it all going now, but without it I would have missed out on so much!”

If you’re new to social media, don’t spread yourself too thin by trying to be everywhere at once. Better to build on one platform with meaningful content and proper presence than try to go from zero to influencer in the space of a few months.

Do... be realistic

We all want to have that runaway bestseller. But many established authors see the process as more of a ‘slow burn.’ It’s important to be excited about your book, and enjoy as much as you can. But part of the enjoyment comes with being realistic with your expectations. “I wish I’d known how much of a book’s success was out of my hands,” agrees Rosie Walker, author of Secrets of a Serial Killer. “I think a lot of debut writers spend their first months up to and after publication freaking out that they’re not doing enough to promote themselves. Yes the author is expected to set up a website and engage with readers, but it’s not 100% their job to sell their book – it’s their job to write the best books they can.

“I also wish I’d known that my book isn’t ME. A bad review doesn’t mean I’m a failure, it means my book didn’t connect with the personal taste of the one reader who wrote that review. That’s not the same thing.”

Gillian Harvey is a freelance writer and author. Her debut novel Everything is Fine, published by Orion, is out now.