Debut Authors’ Struggles

It turns out that the thrill and satisfaction of a rocket launch is rarely replicated in the launch of books by debut authors.The Bookseller, a London-based magazine about the book industry, reports on a survey of debut authors regarding their publishing experience. These findings may strike a chord with debut authors everywhere. More than half of the survey respondents said the ordeal negatively affected their mental health. Less than a quarter described an overall positive experience.

Most of the 108 respondents (61%) wrote adult fiction, and 19% wrote non-fiction. About half used an independent (that is, small) publisher, while almost half (48%) were published by one of the four majors. It seems to have made no difference which type of publisher an author used, as the negative effects on mental health were between 44 and 47% for the two groups. Statistically, the two percentages were probably about equal, especially given the rather small number of authors in the survey.

Perhaps dissatisfied authors were more likely to respond to a survey like this, but at least they also identified specific problems that publishers might be able to address. Chief among them were lack of support, guidance, and “clear and professional communication from their publisher.” Often authors didn’t know whom they should take a problem to. Googling staff directories is hardly ideal. Said one author, “it felt like a parent/child relationship with a lot of gaslighting and fake conversations”; and another, “infantilizing,” “opaque answers wrapped in praise and flattery.”

Still, there were bright spots. Comments from authors who reported a positive experience judged it a “great collaboration” (suggesting effective communication in that instance) or a good relationship (ditto).

About half of the debut authors organized their own launch events, though in one apparently unusual case, the publisher offered to pay part of the cost. Again, authors expected more support—public speaking training perhaps, and more information about events they were booked to speak at.

In many cases, support simply disappeared after publication of the debut or dwindled with each subsequent book. A few authors reported they were dropped without explanation (another example of poor communication). These longer-term problems may be heightened by significant staff turnover at publishing houses. Authors who have good, responsive agents may be able to get help from them on problems of sustainability and continuity too.

All told, not a pretty picture.