I started to review for a mystery fiction website a few months ago, and when I was checking out this month’s list of books on offer, something struck me. All but one of the books I’ve reviewed so far have been debuts – and I wouldn’t cite the one that wasn’t as the best of the bunch.
Twenty-some years ago I set up an editorial consultancy with the intention of helping unpublished writers move towards the point at which they might become debut authors. Ten years ago I set up a small publishing house with the express purpose of giving debut crime fiction authors a springboard. Now I’m extolling the virtues, because mostly that’s what they make me want to do, of debut authors on the web. It seems to be a habit I can’t kick!
Not that I’m complaining. It means I’ve read a lot of debut fiction over the years, and a surprisingly high proportion of it has been remarkable. I’ve just finished the fifth novel by a writer for who, wearing my editorial consultant hat, I predicted success several years before her first went to an auction involving four major publishing houses and made number one in the bestseller lists. Several of the authors I published are still going strong with larger publishers; one in particular is also on his fifth, and the fourth was shortlisted for a major award last year.
I claim no credit; I was just there when it all began for them.
These days, of course, the discerning reader has to take care. Amazon has ensured that there’s now a high chance debut could mean self-published, and though some self-published books attain the heights of quality, not all do; statistically there’s still a higher chance of that if a rigorous selection process has taken place. And no, I’m not going to apologize for that opinion, though in the interests of avoiding litigation I should make it clear that it’s mine, and only an opinion.
Actually, that opinion doesn’t really matter; since I don’t read eBooks, my chances of coming across self-published debuts are pretty small. They’re not hard to spot in print; the copyright info page usually says something like Published by Appletree Cottage Books, which doesn’t exist on Google. So I can avoid them if I choose to. Maybe I miss out occasionally, but I’ll take that risk.
Which brings us back to that rigorous selection process. In company with every unpublished novelist I’ve ever encountered, I used to harangue publishers (not to their faces; that’s a self-destruct button) for their lack of perception when they spent their resources on yet another a celebrity biog, instead of on my debut work of indescribable genius. (Another entirely subjective opinion, you understand.) Then I crossed to the other side; I became that publisher, and made a vital discovery: publishing is a business, and in order to stay in business, a business has to make money. At least enough to cover its operating costs, and preferably enough to pay for an occasional vacation and Sunday lunch somewhere nice in the country; job satisfaction is good, but sometimes a person needs a little more out of life. And the bigger the business, the bigger the infrastructure it has to support before anyone gets a vacation or lunch. And celebrity biogs sell better than debut crime fiction. Go figure.
And in case there’s anyone reading this who wasn’t around last time I quoted the following true but little-known (and even less believed) statistic: on average, publishers are likely to make no more than seven per cent profit on any book; most debuts are lucky to break even, and more often than not make a loss. Which brings us back to that rigorous selection process. The book trade has always been a jungle, with thousands of books vying for attention; these days that jungle is positively... amazonian. In order to succeed, a book has to stand head-high above the competition. A debut, without the author’s reputation and track record to hold it up, has to stand head and shoulders high. So it has to be really special.
Yeah, yeah, I know what you’re going to say: if publishers marketed the debut fiction... And I’m not disagreeing. The system’s not perfect; that’s why so many people are resorting to the Amazon eBook model. (Though don’t forget that Amazon is a business too, and a very big one.) But even that isn’t infallible; for every E L James there are thousands, which sink without a trace.
But for the moment, I’m more than happy to trust other people’s judgement, and read debuts which have been through a tough selection process which I’m now all too familiar with from the other side. Every novelist’s career has to begin with a single novel; with proper nurturing, who knows where it may lead?