You only have one chance to be a debut author. Debuts are special in the world of publishing. While the experience of having gone through the publishing process can make you wiser--and therefore theoretically better at it--there are reasons to try to get it right the first time.

In publishing, your “track”--your past sales record--is everything. When I worked at HarperCollins, we had weekly meetings where we picked apart the sales history of every author on that week’s New York Times bestseller list. It was normal to hear things like, “Debbie Macomber’s track is up 10% from her previous book last year.” We watched sales as if they were price fluctuations in blue chip stocks. These fluctuations represented investments gone sour, opportunities to poach a best-selling author who might not be pleased with their current house, and changing trends in consumer tastes. In an industry where there’s very little real science to determine what books will succeed, the information we did have was dissected and rehashed constantly.

Of course, it goes without saying that you want your sales track to always trend upwards. Publishers will pay more for your books and bookstores will look to your track to guide their future purchases. 

If you only have one book in you, say a memoir, then your track is less important. You’ll never be more than a one hit wonder, which will be less valuable to agents as well as publishing houses. If your memoir is of some spectacular event and only you can write it (think Sully Sullenberger), then that’s a different story. That’s like winning some kind of cosmic lottery. (You get to live AND write a massively best-selling book!)

The reason that debut authors are different is because they have no track; they are blank slates and therefore full of possibilities. Some mainstream reviewers only review debut authors. Bookstores love to host the first event for a debut author--the closest you can come to a sure thing for selling books. If your friends and family don’t come out and support you by buying your book, who will?

So, even though you may have assurances from your publisher that they are putting huge resources into promoting your debut, you need to make sure that everything that can be done is being done. I worked with a debut author who supplemented her publisher’s efforts by buying some online ads in key outlets with her own money. She let the publisher know that she was determined to make her book work and didn’t want money to be an obstacle. It was all about putting her best foot forward.

When you’re self-publishing, it’s a little more daunting because you’re already investing so much into what you’re doing. But I would say that whatever you are investing in creating your book, you should probably invest at least an equal amount in marketing it. Whether you spend that money on mailing out free copies to online reviewers, on traveling to events where you have a dedicated audience, buying Facebook ads, or even hiring a publicist, as with anything in life, you have to give action to get action. And your debut is the best time to be proactive about building a career that will carry you forward.

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Comment by Jan Moran on March 26, 2014 at 3:13pm

Thank you, Gretchen, I'm on it! Very generous of you to share all of this!

Comment by Leslie Johansen Nack on March 26, 2014 at 12:54pm

Thanks for the information. Very enlightening!

Comment by Gretchen Crary on March 26, 2014 at 7:10am

All good questions! For Teresa, all authors should sign up for Amazon Author Central.  I have a post about it on my blog here: http://februarymedia.net/for-authors/  Author Central pulls your Nielson Bookscan data for you.  Bookscan covers about 60-70% of the market so you can get a good idea of your track there.

For Jan, St. Martin's is famous for buying a lot of books and putting them out in the market with minimal marketing and publicity support. But are lucky to now have the advance time to start setting things up on your own. Make sure they will do a generous quantity of galleys for advance reader giveaways. Take an ad out on Goodreads to promote a giveaway there. Go personally to all your local bookstores and introduce yourself and give them an advance copy. Build up your Facebook friends to as big a number as you can get and then migrate your page to a fan page.  Do Facebook ads.  Make sure that your books are sent to the trade magazines early enough for review (4 months at least) and make sure your publicist follows up with each trade until they get an answer.  These are just some of the most important boxes to check.  But go to my blog where you can find more information that might be helpful.  http://februarymedia.net/for-authors/

Comment by Jan Moran on March 25, 2014 at 2:57pm
Good advice, Gretchen! I'm making my historical fiction debut with St. Martin's Press in January, 2014, so I'm in the midst of deciding what to do and where to best spend my marketing budget. Have my author site and am focusing on building my reader email list, but still deciding on marketing plan tactics. I'll check out debut novel reviewers--thanks for the tip. Any other new specifics that you like?
Comment by T. K. Thorne on March 25, 2014 at 2:03pm

Hi Gretchen,

Thanks for posting this.  Where would you recommend an author go to find out their track?  I have published my own book and another one was published traditionally. 

Thanks!

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