Nearly every professional writer I know has dire things to say about sophomore novels, and for good reason. You don’t have to look very far at both trade and informal reviews to find scathing assessments of this or that writer’s “lackluster sophomore effort” or “disappointing follow up” to their popular debut novel. The second novel can feel doomed before you even write it.
2019 was a special year for me, because it marked the publication of my sophomore novel. More accurately, one of my sophomore novels, because courtesy of the myriad and complicated layers of publishing, I am in the unusual and somewhat unenviable position of having published three debut novels, and three sophomore novels.
My first two novels were self-published under a pen name and, while the first one wasn’t a runaway success, it found its rather obscure niche. Year after year, it continues to sell in modest but reliable numbers. The second one, despite fitting squarely in that obscure niche, doesn’t sell at all and never has.
My next two novels were published by an independent press. The first one did well for a debut novel by an unknown writer from a very small publisher. It got some nice reviews and sold fairly well, all things considered. My second small press book foundered out of the gate. Unread, unreviewed, and generally unloved by readers who liked the book that came before it.
Then in 2016, what was technically my fifth novel was published by a major New York publisher. Because my first two novels under my own name had been with a small press, that first Big 5 book was billed as my “debut” novel. I got a great deal of the attending publicity and hype that comes with a well-received debut. There were times when it felt like publishing had miraculously restored my virginity, or at least made one last valiant effort to present this middle-aged redneck debutante to literary high society.
That third debut succeeded beyond my wildest dreams, but shortly after it made the New York Times bestseller list, I had to get serious about writing my next book. Hopefully my final sophomore novel. It came out last year and has generally been received in true second novel fashion. If first books are like first children, who get elaborate christenings and meticulously curated baby books, then The Reckless Oath We Made is a second child, who got a hurried sprinkling and a My First Year that is full of blank pages and blurry photos. Ah, we wanted to get a picture of the baby’s first steps, but the phone was on the charger.
There’s a common perception that a successful debut will help sell a second novel, but I don’t know any writers who believe that or who have experienced that. Part of the problem is managing expectations, because not every reader is willing to follow a writer to the next thing. I get a surprising (to me) amount of mail asking when I’m going to publish a sequel to All the Ugly and Wonderful Things. The answer is never, but it’s been enlightening to see the degree to which some readers attach to a book and don’t want anything different from an author.
Another element to the second book slump is that unless your debut achieves absolutely earth-shattering success, most readers will not be waiting with bated breath for your next book. Even readers who consider themselves fans and follow you on social media may not notice that second book. Months after the new book came out, I’m still getting messages from readers who say, “I didn’t know you had a new book out!” These are readers who follow me on social media or subscribe to my newsletter. Sometimes it’s janky algorithms that create a hurdle to reaching readers. Sometimes it’s information overload in the internet age–too many emails to read, too many notifications to notice. Other times it’s just that readers have a lot of other things going on. It’s safe to assume that for the vast majority of people who loved my previous novel, my new novel isn’t even on their radar.
If you’re anything like me, and for your sake I hope you aren’t, a flagging second novel can leave you wondering, Where did I go wrong? How did I let my readership down? What do I do to fix this? The truth is a lot more complicated than Oops! I didn’t write the right follow up book, and there’s no benefit to reading negative reviews looking for answers. [Read more…]