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Thirty-Six Authors Tell It Like It Is: The Highs, Lows, and Surprises of Being a Debut Author

Flickr Creative Commons: Chris Devers

Special Note:  The piece below was written before COVID-19 began to affect our lives as it now has. I wrote it, sent it off to WU, and turned to other tasks. However, as my fellow debut authors began to post about the cancellation of their launch events—and as the online community began to respond—it became clear to me that I had to write an introduction in light of the unique situation that debut authors (like me) are facing this spring.

In fact, we debs seem to have gone through the classic stages of grief, in an astonishingly compressed period of time. As identified by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in 1969, the stages are: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

The Kubler-Ross model stops at stage five: acceptance. But for us, the spring 2020 cohort, it’s gone a step beyond resignation. Instead, something amazing has happened.

One after another, book bloggers and hosts of Facebook groups for writers have stepped forward and offered to do anything they can to help promote our books. Mini online interviews, social media blasts—whatever they can do to help us compensate for the cancelled in-person events. Their kindness and generosity has been overwhelming.

The debut experience described below remains absolutely valid because it covers so many aspects of the process and applies regardless of publication date. But there’s an additional aspect, unique to those of us launching this spring, that I need to honor as well

INTRODUCTION

 It’s a cliché that becoming a published author is like becoming a parent. The astonishing reality of this new creation, after all the months—or even years—of preparation. The swift change of identity. The joy and the vulnerability.

As a parent by adoption, I’ve always been sensitive to this metaphor, finding it both illuminating and constraining. Unlike some who choose to adopt, I didn’t try every available means to conceive a biological child but switched paths fairly quickly because I believed—and still do—that raising a child was far more important to me than how that child arrived in my arms. Even so, there were plenty of moments, especially in the beginning, when I heard myself grow defensive—“explaining” and justifying my choice, even though no one had asked.

It was a bit like that when I decided—after a single agent query that seemed destined to be the “one-in-a-thousand” exception to all the stories I’d heard, until it wasn’t— to publish with a hybrid press. As with motherhood, I had the means and the temperament to take this path. Bringing my book to life felt more important than how, exactly, it got there. Once out in the world, its fate would depend on its merits and reception, not on its pedigree. Kind of like my kids, now that they’re grown.

My journey has been immensely rewarding, a lot of work and a lot of fun. Still, I couldn’t help wondering if my experience, as I prepared for the launch of my debut novel, was like that of other new authors. Being a former researcher, I did what comes naturally. I asked.

MY RESEARCH

I posed three open-ended questions on several Facebook groups for writers that I belong to, offering the option of responding by email or in a phone call. I didn’t specify genre or path to publication; my only criterion was the recent publication of a first book or its imminent launch in the next few months. I explained that I was looking for themes and discoveries that might be useful for future cohorts. No one would be singled out by name. Rather, I hoped to cull through the stories and identify common experiences, caveats, and discoveries.

My questions were:

I ended up talking, on the phone or by email, with thirty-six people. They had published, or were about to publish, with every kind of press—from The Big Five to tiny “traditional” presses to a large and well-established hybrid press. As it happened, none were self-published.

Of the thirty-six people who responded, thirteen had published within the past twelve months, eight more than a year ago, and fifteen were “almost there,” launching in the next couple of months. Although one of the groups included men as well as women, only one man volunteered; the rest were women. They represented a variety of genres, with the majority publishing women’s fiction. I’ve summarized their responses below, with a few direct quotes as examples.

WHAT I LEARNED

The Best Parts:  There was a clear consensus among the thirty-six authors on the three best parts of the debut experience.

The sense of accomplishment, including the thrill of the object itself—actually holding the physical book in their hands. Several also mentioned the initiation into a new identity, a new way of being, as they passed each milestone: the first image of the cover, the first blurb, the first Amazon review.

The connection with readers, knowing that you had touched someone’s life.

The welcoming and supportive community of authors—the kinship, kindness, generosity, and mutual support; the sense of being part of a sisterhood or tribe.

A note: I located respondents through Facebook groups, so it makes sense that the people I heard from were those for whom community was important. There may be plenty of other debut authors for whom community isn’t so important.

The Tough Parts: The three toughest aspects were also consistent across respondents.

Managing the roller coaster of emotions, including the anxiety, self-doubt, “imposter syndrome,” and fear of not doing enough. Some spoke about the peril of comparing oneself to other debut authors—the pangs of jealousy, and the guilt that followed. Many also expressed how important it was to give themselves permission to have all these feelings.

Having to do the endless marketing, a daunting and unforeseen challenge! Most had not realized how much promotion they would need to do—the time and energy required, the entirely new skill set they had to acquire, and the discomfort with the whole notion of self-promotion.

The pressure to write another book—quickly—and having no time to do that while promoting the first. The demands of promotion took precious time and energy away from working on the next book, which was what so many really wanted to be doing.

 The Surprising Parts overlapped with the great and the difficult.  There were pleasant surprises and unpleasant ones.

Many people were pleasantly surprised by:

The warm, welcoming, supportive community of writers

The care and respect they received from their publisher

The support from friends and family, including reconnecting with people from the past whose genuine excitement they hadn’t expected

Some were unpleasantly surprised by:

How hard it is to sell books (and get people to review them); the overall lack of control

How much it hurt to experience the callousness of people who posted negative (“snarky”) reviews behind the cyber wall

WHAT THEIR EXPERIENCE CAN OFFER US

What I really wanted to know, when I asked these other debut authors, was: Am I “normal?”

Was my own experience typical of anyone going through this intense and identity-changing experience—or was it the reflection of an overly ambitious and anxious personality?  My compulsion to keep “doing things,” as if stopping would mean my book would fail. The seesaw between ecstatic surges of joy when something good happened and despair when it didn’t. The feeling of being in the throes of an addiction.

Was it me, my personal craziness, or was it the debut experience itself?

My conclusion?  A bit of both—because, of course, there’s no single “normal.”

Yet there are patterns and tendencies—in the debut experience, as in all experiences—and it can be an enormous relief to know that others have felt what I’m feeling, gone through the same highs and lows.

As my publication date approaches (less than three weeks from the date of this post), I’m anticipating that I will probably experience much of what my colleagues have expressed.

It helps to know that. It really does.

Over to you: If you’ve already had your debut, what was it like? Which of the points in this essay rang true for you?  Did you experience something different, that wasn’t captured here? If your debut is still ahead, which of the points resonated … terrified … reassured you?

About Barbara Linn Probst [1]

Barbara Linn Probst is a writer, blogger, former teacher and therapist, and “serious amateur” pianist living on an historic dirt road in New York’s Hudson Valley. Her debut novel QUEEN OF THE OWLS launched in April 2020 from She Writes Press--the story of a woman’s search for wholeness framed around the art and life of Georgia O’Keeffe. QUEEN OF THE OWLS has garnered stellar advance praise and will be the May 2020 selection for the Pulpwood Queens, a network of nearly 800 book clubs across the U.S. It was also named one of the most anticipated books of 2020 by Working Mother [2]. Her second novel is slated for publication in April 2021. Before switching to fiction, Barbara published two nonfiction books and more scholarly articles than she cares to remember. She’s proudest of WHEN THE LABELS DON’T FIT (Random House, 2008), a book to help parents raise, understand, and nurture out-of-the-box children. An out-of-the-box child herself, Barbara has a PhD in Clinical Social Work and worked for many years counseling, teaching, doing qualitative research, and advocating for people with mental and emotional challenges.

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