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Being a Debut Author Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up To Be

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A survey by The Bookseller, the U.K.’s leading publishing industry magazine, has found that more than half of the authors who responded felt the process of being published for the first time negatively affected their mental health. The results of The Bookseller‘s survey have been widely debated on Twitter since being posted, with many authors, both new and established, agreeing with the results. Others tried to look for probable causes and possible solutions.

A total of 108 people responded to the survey, and while the results cannot be taken as scientific fact, it does seem to be indicative of a wider trend in the publishing industry, especially in the U.K. 54% of the respondents said the process leading up to the publication of their debut novel negatively affected their mental well-being, while only 22% reported having a genuinely positive experience. Of that 54% who had an unfavorable experience, 47% were published by an independent publisher, while 44% were published by one of the so-called Big Four, defined by The Bookseller as Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Pan Macmillan, and Hachette. The remaining 9% described themselves as being published by “other,” in this case meaning either through self-publishing or hybrid publishing.

So what is causing these negative debut experiences? Is it unrealistic expectations? A lack of support and communication? The reality of having your work seen by others sinking in? In all likelihood, it’s a mixture of all of the above.

Writing a novel is an extremely personal endeavor. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing fantasy, horror, romance, a memoir, or literary fiction, that novel is an expression of who you are, of how you see the world and your place within it. Some writers take months, years, and even decades to perfect their manuscripts. Those who decide to pursue a path of traditional publishing over self-publishing are then subjected to what is colloquially known as “the query trenches”—that time when you send out your manuscript and get knocked down again and again, hoping that one literary agent, one independent publisher, or one creative writing competition will see the merit of your work and want to take it forward. It’s a tough, demanding, and dejecting process. And that’s only the beginning.

Querying can take years if you persevere long enough, and may involve multiple manuscripts. And if you’re one of the lucky few out of thousands of other hopeful authors to be selected from the slush pile, the editing and sales process begins all over again. Having a literary agent isn’t a guarantee that the book they signed you for will sell, either. Hollywood’s depiction of the publishing industry is nowhere near accurate (looking at you, Younger, Your Place or Mine, and many, many others).

Book deals are not all that easy to get, and despite the headlines of seven and even eight-figure book deals making the rounds, those make up a minuscule percentage of the total number of books being published every year. Most authors cannot live off the profits of their writing alone. Even so, becoming a debut author is a big moment in any aspiring writer’s life and hopefully, the start of a new chapter.

So for those who manage to make it to the finish line, those who get to hold a copy of their soon-to-be-published work in their hands, publication day should be a moment of total euphoria, of relief, of joy—and yet, clearly, it isn’t. Many of the authors who responded to The Bookseller‘s survey cited self-esteem issues, anxiety, and depression in the lead-up to their official debut publication day. Something, somewhere, isn’t working as it should.

This issue can, of course, stem from a certain level of expectation. The lead-up to your debut being published is a long road, and anticipation and nerves can skyrocket during that time. When the day comes for your book to land in the shops, you may not even find it at your local bookstore. That sense of expectation crashing on publication day likely plays a big part in how authors feel about their debut experiences. Not all debut novels come with massive success stories or well-funded PR campaigns.

Of those authors who mentioned their book launch experience in response to The Bookseller‘s survey, nearly half said they were forced to arrange it themselves. One of the big issues facing authors nowadays is the expectation of self-marketing; launching a BookTok platform, keeping readers updated with newsletters, and remaining relevant on Twitter and Instagram are all part of an author’s job now. For more introverted writers, that process can be terrifying, and for those with no previous marketing experience, it can be like navigating a minefield.

But the biggest problem facing debut authors seems to be a lack of communication on the publisher’s part. Once the book is on the shelves, publishers often move on to the next project, leaving authors to figure out their future for themselves. Debut authors are often in the dark about much of the publishing process. As one survey respondent put it: “There was not a huge amount of support to begin with and it dwindled to no support very quickly after launch. They declined to publish the sequel, although the book was originally listed as the first in a series.”

The issues facing debut authors, then, seem to be more systemic in nature than a problem with any one individual editor or publishing executive. As was widely reported at the time of the Harper Collins Union strike earlier this year, many publishing professionals, especially those in mid- and entry-level jobs, aren’t paid enough in comparison to the work they’re doing. This results in high staff turnover, leaving many authors who were working with dedicated teams suddenly rudderless. As one author mentioned in The Bookseller‘s survey: “Between final submission and publication, almost everyone involved in my book left the imprint, and the new regime didn’t seem interested.”

Authors who aren’t Stephen King, Brandon Sanderson, or Leigh Bardugo have very little power to wield within the industry. While being published is a magnificent feat and should be celebrated, that single moment of celebration shouldn’t be all that writers are offered as compensation. Writing is a passion, yes, but it can also be a lifeline, and authors deserve to know what they’re getting themselves into before reality sinks in.

(via The Bookseller, featured image: Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash)

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El (she/her) has been working as a freelance writer for various entertainment websites for over a year, ever since she successfully completed her Ph.D. in Creative Writing. El's primary focus is television and movie coverage for The Mary Sue, including franchises like Marvel and Pokémon, but she is happy to pitch in with gaming content once in a while if it concerns one of the few video games she actually knows anything about. As much as she enjoys analyzing other people's stories, her biggest dream is to one day publish an original fantasy novel of her own.