June 17th, 2020

The Highs and Lows of a Debut Author: Thirty-Six Voices, Plus One

By Barbara Linn Probst

excited writer

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 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 was like that of other new authors. Being a former researcher, I did what comes naturally. I asked.

My Research

Recently, I posed three open-ended questions on several Facebook groups for writers, 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:

  1. What was/is the best part of being a debut author? 
  2. What was/is the toughest part?
  3. What was/is the most surprising part?

I ended up talking, on the phone or by email with thirty-six people from every stage of publishing, 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. Only one man volunteered; the rest were women.

The responders 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 and a word or two from my own experience.

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.

  • Nothing is more gratifying than to know that something you wrote truly landed with people, that they got what you were trying to say.
  • Knowing I’d touched someone and helped them understand something new.
  • Knowing that something I wrote resonated with another human being.
  • I’ve never been a joiner, so it’s been really surprising to me how important this tribe of writers has become to me.

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

  • The camaraderie of other authors, the deep relationships that have formed.
  • Writing is such a solitary endeavor, so I imagined that authors were all just existing alongside each other without really interacting—and that was so wrong!

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. In my own case, being more solitary, this was less salient than the first two points.

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.

  • The “pinch me!” feeling, followed by the letdown afterward.
  • I had to work really hard to manage my expectations, my anxiety, and the endless compulsion to do more.
  • It’s hard when other people are getting things you didn’t even know you wanted and posting about all the lists they’ve made. It’s okay and I hope even normal to feel a little bit jealous while also being genuinely happy for the person.

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. 

  • It took a lot more time to promote and be responsive on social media than I’d expected. It’s another round-the-clock job that requires attention and follow-up and organization to do it well, even with a publicist.
  • It’s not my personality to say, “Hey look at me, buy my book!” It’s so time-consuming, having to learn about social media and put all that energy into marketing yourself.
  • It’s overwhelming to see what other authors are doing. This whole marketing and promotion thing is so new for me, and my own sense of being a novice/am I doing enough/doing it right led to so much anxiety.

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.

A note: I definitely resonated with the first two points, especially the roller-coaster of emotions! Each bit of “good news” made me soar with elation and, yes, heightened ambition. Each disappointment or Facebook post about someone else’s “good news” made me sink into misery—and then reprimand myself for feeling that way. I kept thinking I ought to be “better than that,” more generous and centered. So that was a struggle for me.  

The Surprising Parts

These parts overlapped 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— how casually people can rip a book or its author to shreds as if there wasn’t an actual human being behind the book.

What Can Their Experience Offer Us?

What I really wanted to know, when I asked these other debut authors about their experience, 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. And survived.

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

Barbara Linn Probst is a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, living on a historic dirt road in New York’s Hudson Valley. Her debut novel, Queen of the Owls (April 2020), is the powerful story of a woman’s search for wholeness, framed around the art and life of iconic American painter Georgia O’Keeffe.

Endorsed by best-selling authors such as Christina Baker Kline and Caroline Leavitt, Queen of the Owls was selected as one of the 20 most anticipated books of 2020 by Working Mother, one of the best Spring fiction books by Parade Magazine, and a debut novel “too good to ignore” by Bustle. It was also featured in lists compiled by Pop Sugar and Entertainment Weekly, among others. It won the bronze medal for popular fiction from the Independent Publishers Association, placed first runner-up in general fiction for the Eric Hoffer Award, and was short-listed for both the First Horizon and the $2500 Grand Prize. Barbara’s book-related article, “Naked: Being Seen is Terrifying but Liberating,” appeared in Ms. Magazine on May 27.

Barbara is also the author of the groundbreaking book on nurturing out-of-the-box children, When The Labels Don't Fit. She has a PhD in clinical social work, blogs for several award-winning sites for writers, and is a serious amateur pianist. Her second book releases in April 2021. To learn more about Barbara and her work,  please see http://www.barbaralinnprobst.com/

An earlier version of this article appeared on Writer Unboxed.

Top Graphic formed by Kris Maze

16 responses to “The Highs and Lows of a Debut Author: Thirty-Six Voices, Plus One”

  1. Jenny Hansen says:

    I really appreciate you giving our unpublished authors a window into the debut process with this series of posts. One of the hardest (and most stressful) parts of traditional publishing is the high level of "unknown."

    • barbaralinnprobst says:

      I feel that way too! It's such a comfort to have some idea of the terrain ahead—and to know, once you're in it, that what you're feeling is "normal." For me personally, the hardest part was accepting my moments of jealousy. But we are all human, and the most exciting time will still have its tough moments. Like becoming a parent, or doing anything for the first time 🙂

    • I couldn't have said it better, Jenny!

  2. ecellenb says:

    I've experienced all the above. Marketing has been the most difficult for me but I am learning, slowly.

    Getting reviews is difficult. Reading this post has reminded me that I have a review to write. I understand both sides.

    The connection with readers and having a "tribe" are important to me as a writer. To know that my books are still be read and loved warms my heart. I am forever indebted to my writing tribe, which fortunately continues to grow. Having a support system is important for everyone in all aspects of life.

    Wonderful post!

    • barbaralinnprobst says:

      I'm so glad this post was validating for you! And yes, you remind us that the reciprocity is important. If I want readers to write online reviews of my book, I have to do that too. One of the parts of launching a book that is the most challenging is asking for (and getting) those blurbs ... and now, to my astonishment, someone has asked me for one! So it's all a web of giving and receiving, as you say 🙂

  3. Kris Maze says:

    Hi Barbara,
    It's good to see thorough insights on debut authors and what they go through. I can relate to the feeling that there should be more I need to do! Book promotion has so many aspects and can take up a lot of time.

    It's also good to see the emotional reward authors felt as well as the support. Building our writing crew is important to debut authors as well.

    Thank you for this timely post!

    • barbaralinnprobst says:

      There are so many lists of "things to do" and no one can do them all! The best advice I received was to focus on the things that I enjoyed doing, the things that suited me, instead of worrying about what others were doing. That really helped to keep me sane. Also, to know that if I batted 50% on the idea-to-fruition ratio, I was doing well 🙂

  4. I can relate to so many aspects of my fellow authors' experience, which has helped to create a wonderful bond between us, even if we haven't met each other in real life. As for those snarky reviews - I've learned from other writers that a thick skin is essential is this business, and we don't have to subject ourselves to that negative energy!

  5. barbaralinnprobst says:

    Agreed! My favorite snarky review was the one that said: "This book has too much about how people think and feel." I guess I didn't have enough car chases for her taste 🙂 There will never be a book that every single person likes, so yes, thick skin. The challenge is to have skin that useful feedback can penetrate, but that's during the writing process, not so much after publication. The best thing, I'm finding, is to turn my focus to the next book ....

  6. John Peragine says:

    While I am not a debut author per say, I am a debut author of middle grade fiction. I am going through all of the things above- and it is long nights and much hand wringing. This article provides me hope it will be okay in the end!

    • barbaralinnprobst says:

      Interesting point! I had published two nonfiction books earlier in my eclectic career, yet this felt like a brand-new experience because I didn't have a track record as a novelist and my other books had clear practical uses (filled a unique need) whereas novels aren't like that . I'm intrigued by your phrase "it will be okay in the end." Meaning: you will survive! A qualitative outcome, regardless of the number of sales, reviews, dollars, or readers 🙂

  7. colleen says:

    Cool survey, Barbara! Neat to see how similar we writers are. We're not alone after all! :O)

    • barbaralinnprobst says:

      Colleen, exactly! I find that to be such a comfort! It doesn't seem to matter what genre we write in or what our background is ...although, as I mentioned, this does not represent men so it would be very interesting to see a similar survey that focused on male debut authors 🙂

  8. dholcomb1 says:

    Having to start over again has been the hardest part. From the ground up, not just writing another book, but after several were published.

    denise

    • barbaralinnprobst says:

      It almost sounds as if you're saying that it's a "debut" each time for you —or was there a long break, a shift in genres, or something that made it feel like "starting over again?" In a way, one starts from the very beginning each time, because the book is different and the context in which it's being launched is different, and perhaps one is different as a human being, at a different point in one's life. The sense of entering an enormous unknown country is likely to be tempered by having some experience under your belt, but i think that few authors would take the process for granted, no matter how many books they've published 🙂

  9. Most of what was said here resonated with me, especially the section on marketing. Having to learn about establishing an author platform, the vagaries of social media, still have me chewing my nails five years down the line!
    Thank you for making me feel 'normal'.

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