Why Are Today’s Debut Novels Failing To Launch?

On the Road was not Jack Kerouac’s first novel, but you’d be forgiven for thinking as much.

Though 1957’s On the Road is widely considered to be Kerouac’s “debut,” the author’s first novel, The Town and the City, was in fact published in 1950. By all measures, it flopped. Between that book and the launch of On the Road, Kerouac started working with the literary agent Sterling Lord, who believed he could be the voice of his generation and laid the groundwork for his public reception as such. What, exactly, did Sterling Lord do to prime Kerouac’s audience? From 1953 to 1957, he leveraged his own professional connections to place excerpts of On the Road in magazines like The Paris Review and New World Writing, building hype for the young novelist’s next book. This is common practice today, but in the fifties, it was a novel solution to the name-recognition problem faced by unknown writers.

After a few years of seeing Kerouac’s byline in print, the thinking went, readers would pay attention when they recognized his name on the cover of On the Road. It was one of the first literary “debuts” of its kind, explains Temple University professor Laura McGrath, author of the forthcoming book Middlemen: Literary Agents and the Making of Contemporary American Literature. McGrath argues that Sterling Lord created the blueprint for the literary “debut” phenomenon we still see today.

But unlike in the late fifties, when there were only a handful of venues for reaching the public—national magazines with hundreds of thousands of subscribers, a few television channels—today’s overstuffed, under-resourced media landscape means that book coverage is more fractured and reaches fewer readers. These days, an unknown author’s chances of success hinge on cobbling together an audience through aggregate. Last fall, while reporting Esquire’s “Future of Books” predictions, I asked industry insiders about trends they’d noticed in recent years. Almost everyone mentioned that debut fiction has become harder to launch. For writers, the stakes are do or die: A debut sets the bar for each of their subsequent books, so their debut advance and sales performance can follow them for the rest of their career. For editors, if a writer’s first book doesn’t perform, it’s hard to make a financial case for acquiring that writer’s second book. And for you, a reader interested in great fiction, the fallout from this challenging climate can limit your access to exciting new voices in fiction. Unless you diligently shop at independent bookstores where booksellers highlight different types of books, you might only ever encounter the big, splashy debuts that publishers, book clubs, social-media algorithms, and big-box retailers have determined you should see.

In December 2021, The New York Times called best-selling debut novels “the bald eagles of the book world.” Of the fifteen that appeared on the newspaper’s hardcover-fiction list that year, writer Elisabeth Egan wrote, “only five were by non-celebrity authors who had not been anointed by Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, Jenna Bush, or the Good Morning America Book Club.” Today, it’s not enough to land a spot in one of these coveted book clubs. According to an editor at a venerable publishing imprint, debut novelists need three key publicity achievements to “break out”: one, a major book club; two, a boost from Barnes & Noble, Amazon, Indie Next, and/or Book of the Month; and three, a major profile.

A few times a year, one of these breakout debuts lands on everyone’s reading list—think Jonathan Escoffery’s If I Survive You, R.O. Kwon’s The Incendiaries, and Stephanie Danler’s Sweetbitter—but those are few and far between. There were roughly five hundred thousand books published in 2023, per BookScan (which captures only about 85 percent of industry data), and no one knows how many debuts are published each year. Most come and go without much fanfare. The vast majority of titles sell fewer than five thousand copies, but across the entire industry, book sales are up. In 2004, there were at least 648 million books sold in the United States, and in 2013, 620 million; last year, there were at least 767,360,000 books sold—a significant increase. If that’s the case, then why does it seem like it’s harder now for a debut writer to “break out”?

Debut novelists need three key publicity achievements to “break out.”

For starters, the business of promoting books has changed. When publicist Nicole Dewey started working in publishing twenty-five years ago, she says, there would be “reams” of advance copies to send to booksellers, along with a robust ecosystem of national papers and magazines eager to review books. Regional media and alt-weeklies were thriving, too. “Getting the review on the cover of The New York Times Book Review, an NPR interview, People magazine, and maybe a morning-show interview used to be the golden ticket for a book,” Dewey says. (A literary agent shares a different winning combination: an excerpt in Time or Newsweek, a TV segment, and a review in The New York Times.)

Today, there is no such formula. To succeed in our fractured media environment, Dewey says, her publishing imprint, Spiegel & Grau, sustains publicity efforts over a period of several months instead of halting a title’s PR efforts in the weeks after publication day. She believes the strategy works: Shelley Read’s debut novel, Go as a River, which came out in early 2023, has sold 120,000 copies across all formats and is now selling twice as many copies per week as it did a year ago.

The days of unlimited advance copies are over as well. A publicist at a major publishing house (who requested anonymity) says that before the pandemic, they would have mailed “thousands” of advance reader copies (ARCs) to tastemakers in publishing, media, and bookselling, ensuring a buildup of industry buzz over several months. Many publishers realized they saved money by switching to digital galleys during 2020, when reviewers’ mailing addresses were changing and warehouses were short-staffed. “Now I’m lucky if I get seventy-five galleys,” that publicist says. “How am I supposed to ‘make’ a book if I don’t have galleys?”

Today, publicists have a Spidey-sense that a book will pop when they receive more incoming requests than there are advance copies available, particularly requests from colleagues at other publishing houses who want to read a certain book for fun. With most titles, it’s the other way around, and publicists offer galleys to overwhelmed media workers who may or may not respond to their emails.

While promoting On the Road, McGrath says, Sterling Lord highlighted the parallels between Jack Kerouac—the young, photogenic author who did actually embark on a road trip—and Sal Paradise, his protagonist. That way, readers would feel as though the world of the novel “extended beyond it,” McGrath continues, and readers could “participate in the publication” by buying a copy of the book. Such a “narrative arc” becomes a game changer for a debut author when it lands, says independent book publicist Lena Little. “I think the public is often eager for the intimacy of getting to know the writer,” she adds.

Connecting an artist’s biography to their art—or, by another name, creating a parasocial relationship between readers and authors—has long been an effective marketing strategy. But for debut authors, it now goes beyond writing personal essays and includes becoming a bona fide social-media influencer. In his book Filterworld: How Algorithms Flattened Culture, the cultural critic Kyle Chayka argues that all creators must also be influencers to compete in the attention economy. “Influencers get attention by exposing parts of their life that have nothing to do with the production of culture,” Chayka says, whether by tweeting about it, posting visuals on Instagram, making TikTok videos, or writing newsletters. But lately, the social-media landscape has changed in a way that disadvantages unknown novelists specifically, more so than first-time nonfiction writers.

In 2012, remembers Lisa Lucas, who recently departed from her role as Pantheon Books’ publisher, Book Twitter was “emergent” and Facebook showed which of your friends had RSVP’d to book launches. “The burgeoning utility of social media gave everyone this extraordinary opportunity to do more, be seen by new people, and connect with authors and writers and communities and institutions that they had literally never been able to connect with directly,” Lucas says. Just twelve years later, much of that infrastructure has splintered.

“I think the public is often eager for the intimacy of getting to know the writer.”

Publicists started noticing the cracks when Snapchat emerged in the mid-2010s. In 2016, when Kathy Daneman was promoting Tony Tulathimutte’s debut novel, Private Citizens, she booked the author on a magazine’s Snapchat channel. Yes, she explained to the novelist, he’d worked on the book for seven years, but now he had less than two minutes to pitch it to readers, and yes, the video would disappear in twenty-four hours. “I felt that this perfectly encapsulated where we were in publishing at that moment,” the publicist says.

These days, “in order to get exposure, you have to make the kinds of content that the platform is prioritizing in a given moment,” Chayka says. On Instagram, that means posting videos. Gone are the days of the tastefully cluttered tableaux of notebooks, pens, and coffee mugs near a book jacket; front-facing videos are currently capturing the most eyeballs. “A nonfiction author at least has the subject matter to talk about,” Chayka says. (Many nonfiction writers now create bite-size videos distilling the ideas of their books, with the goal of becoming thought leaders.) But instead of talking about their books, novelists share unboxing videos when they receive their advance copies, or lifestyle videos about their writing routines, neither of which convey their voice on the page. Making this “content” takes time away from writing, Chayka says: “You’re glamorizing your writer’s residency; you’re not talking about the work itself necessarily.”

BookTok—er, TikTok—is still considered the au courant emergent platform, but unlike Instagram and Twitter before it, publishers can’t figure out how to game the algorithm. “It’s a wonderful tool, but it’s an uncontrollable one,” Lucas says. As opposed to platforms like Twitter and Instagram, on which authors can actively post to establish a following, the runaway hits of BookTok (see: The Song of Achilles) grew from influencer videos.

There is also the challenge of getting seen at all. Across both TikTok and Instagram, “what you see has already been filtered by the platform,” Chayka says. In the physical world, the same is true in retailers like Target and Walmart, where many of the stocked books are already on the New York Times best-seller list or elevated by celebrity book clubs.

“Hopefully you get a shout-out from Isaac Fitzgerald on the Today show,” Daneman says, or a mention on a late-night show like Late Night with Seth Meyers, in addition to a boost from a national retailer’s sales and major media coverage.

“There’s always a large group at the beginning of the race,” Lucas says. “The job is to differentiate yourself and to be seen in this moment.”

In recent months, the literary Internet ignited with heated discussions about the concept of the “literary It girl.” The phrase is often deployed as shorthand for writers like Joan Didion and Zadie Smith, who are respected for their writerly prowess and aesthetic sophistication. Literary It girl status is coveted among debut novelists, and for a while, the phrase seemed to apply to writers who were also social-media personalities.

But I would argue that the proverbial literary It girl status among debuts is reserved for the authors of genuinely anticipated books or those advance copies making waves in the book world several months before publication day. Thanks to his agent’s long-term investment in making his name, Jack Kerouac was a literary It girl long before On the Road hit bookstores.

“Energy tends to attach itself to wherever energy is already attached,” Lucas says. “Fewer debuts have a chance of really breaking through the noise in this climate, because all of the energy attaches itself to the ones that have made it past a certain obstacle.” In some cases, the energy starts building as early as when a project is first announced. Booker Prize finalist Jonathan Escoffery, for example, became a writer to watch when his story “Under the Ackee Tree” won The Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize in 2020. Bonnie Garmus’s Lessons in Chemistry created buzz after it sold for $2 million to Doubleday and became the book of the 2020 Frankfurt Book Fair. (She also debuted later in life than most writers.) Meanwhile, Stephanie Danler’s waitress-turned-novelist backstory was reported in The New York Times—in a piece that also mentioned Emma Cline’s and Imbolo Mbue’s seven-figure advances—almost two years before Sweetbitter launched.

“The job is to differentiate yourself and to be seen in this moment.”

So how do authors create energy around themselves? Establishing a presence in the literary world helps. After roughly three years of publishing the glossy alt-lit publication Forever Magazine and hosting events around New York City, Madeline Cash, twenty-seven, and Anika Jade Levy, twenty-nine, sold their debut novels in quick succession earlier this year—Cash to Jackson Howard at Farrar, Straus and Giroux and Levy to Kendall Storey at Catapult. Both writers—who met in high school in Los Angeles—connected with their editors in person: Cash at a dinner party in Chinatown and Levy at the Storyfort writing conference in Boise, Idaho, where both she and Storey were speaking. Cash’s Lost Lambs, per her editor, was one of the hottest manuscripts at the London Book Fair, where she sold UK rights in thirty-six hours, along with translation rights in four other countries.

Chayka believes that “you need enough people aware of your persona that they want to buy your book, regardless of what the book is,” but editors and publicists agree that a book needs a “there there” to have staying power, and that a persona without a substantial book won’t break out. “You need to create good art and you need to be professionalized,” Lucas says. Naomi Gibbs, executive editor at Pantheon Books, echoes this idea. “It’s fine for an author to be quietly writing on their own,” she says, but “it does mean the lift for a publisher is bigger. So I do think books like that are probably harder to sell as an agent.”

The publicist at the major imprint agrees that there’s an “emperor’s new clothes” quality to promoting books that don’t feel substantial. “If the book is not good, I can’t make something out of nothing,” they say, since time is already spread too thin.

Because staff publicists at publishing houses must split their workload among several authors, there is an expectation that an author will now spend untold hours working as their book’s spokesperson. When Kyle Dillon Hertz published his debut, The Lookback Window, which The New York Times called “gripping and savagely beautiful,” he got the impression that because he “wrote a very gay, very queer, very explicit book,” he says, his publicity team believed that he “would know the people to whom the publicist or marketer should connect.” But he didn’t. “I’m a writer; I’m not a BookTok person,” he adds. “I don’t have that set of knowledge.”

Lately, more writers have been hiring freelance publicists to focus on their books. A literary agent at a talent firm tells me they believe that most of “the top 20 percent—sales- and media-attention-wise—of literary novels of the past two years had external publicists.” Such publicists charge into the mid-five figures for their services, so only writers with significant advances (or the independently wealthy) are able to afford them. The cost is justified, writers believe, because there can be a sense of panic around whether their book is doing “well enough.”

In this precarious publishing climate, the panic is sometimes warranted. The agent at the talent firm describes a “one strike and you’re out” mentality, with some authors getting dropped by their agents if their debut doesn’t sell well. With second novels, the agent explains, those writers are “starting at square one but worse,” because “they’re back to querying and they have the burden of a bad sales track.”

But one positive development amid this sense of precarity is the rise of the literary friendship. “On social media,” Isle McElroy wrote for this magazine in September, “writers are just as likely to hype their peers as they are to self-promote: linking where to buy books, posting photos of readings, and sharing passages from galleys.” There is now an all-ships-rise mentality among authors at every career stage, but particularly among first-time novelists. Now networks of writers are more important than ever.

Community is the single most powerful tool for a debut writer. A writer’s community is where word-of-mouth buzz starts building, and where advocates emerge from surprising places. One of Gibbs’s 2024 debut authors, Gina María Balibrera, was an event coordinator at Literati Bookstore in Ann Arbor, Michigan, for several years. In addition to attending an MFA program and editing a literary magazine, Balibrera “did this work of supporting other writers for a long time,” Gibbs explains. When it was time to ask other writers for blurbs for The Volcano Daughters, Balibrera had friends who were excited to boost the book, but she could also rely on other writers who remembered her from Literati. “There was goodwill built up already,” Gibbs says.

“Community is the right goal,” Chayka says. “Community is very possible outside of online spaces. You can build community in real life.”

Some publishers, too, are building it among their authors. At the end of April, the imprint One World hosted a weeklong residency to foster community among twenty-one of its authors at the upstate New York retreat center Art Omi. “The process of writing is often a solitary process, and it can feel very isolating,” says Nicole Counts, the executive editor who organized the retreat and secured funding from the Hawthornden Foundation. For authors, she adds, community can be a grounding force, and those who feel unmoored might end up quitting the industry altogether. “When you have community,” Counts says, “you have a way forward through the ups and downs.”

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