How the Debut Authors of 2020 Are Coping

Posted by Cybil on October 12, 2020
By Adrienne Johnson
Goodreads Contributor 

David Heska Wanbli Weiden knew just what he’d be doing as the August launch of his debut novel, Winter Counts, was approaching.
He’d gotten a sabbatical from his day job as a professor of Native American studies and political science—three months to go out and do research with pay. “I’d never had one in my life,” he says. Luckily, it was going to coincide with the book launch, so he figured he’d take a month off. “I already had events scheduled around the country, so yeah, I had an idea of launch parties, friends, drinks, and traveling, and happy readers and all that.”
But then the pandemic started, and that all came tumbling down. “My sabbatical was canceled and, of course, all events were as well.”
If writing a book can be considered a labor of love, then certainly the launch is a kind of reward for all that work. But for the 2020 cohort of debut authors, releasing their works was made significantly more complicated by the coronavirus. These new voices had to navigate the excitement of sharing their stories—some long coming, all deeply felt—during a time of uncertainty and tragedy seemingly ripped from the pages of science fiction. 
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Or maybe there’s been more of a speculative fiction vibe.

That’s the feel Elisabeth Thomas created for her debut novel, Catherine House, about the eerie happenings at an exclusive college, which in these times, she says, made her book feel a little too realistic.

“It was like, ‘Oh man, I’m promoting this book, and all of a sudden, it is really topical and I do not want it to be.’ I wanted it to be dystopian, but now we’re living in the dystopia.”
Thomas started her book in 2014 and sold it in 2018, so her May publishing date was about two years in the making. In March, the native New Yorker was experiencing the surging contagion and the city’s lockdown from her Brooklyn apartment.

“I was thinking of everything and nothing,” she says. “It was just one of those moments in history when you're like, ‘Oh, this is going to be something I’m going to remember, and you know, tell my kids about.' The only time I remember feeling like that was September 11th. It had that same feeling but obviously in a much slower way, because September 11th, it just happened. It was a bang. But this, it was like just the slow creeping realization like, ‘Oh, this is really, really bad.’ ”
She thought about the terror of how many people were getting sick, she thought about her grandmother in New York and her grandparents in Virginia, she thought about her mother and her brother. And then she thought, Oh my God, I have a book coming out.
“I’ve always wanted to be a novelist,” Thomas says. “So, having it come out was in some ways…it was meant to be a joyous thing, and in some ways, it was joyous. But it was just a lot of mixed emotions.”

What helped in managing those emotions, she says, was her ability to compartmentalize and the fact that she couldn’t go into her day job workplace. “If I hadn’t been busy with the things I had to do to promote the book, I think I would have gone crazy. I think that it helped me to think, instead of just reading the news over and over. Instead I would say, ‘OK, let me answer these questions that someone sent to me,’ or something like that, and remember that life is going to go on in whatever strange way.”
Certainly, debut authors pre-pandemic sought multiple ways to get their works noticed, but the lack of in-person events lent an urgency to those efforts. Indeed, says Eliza Rosenberry, senior publicity manager at William Morrow & Dey Street Books, that pivot was the biggest adjustment. Virtual events offered the opportunity for the debut authors—many of whom may not have had a national tour scheduled—to be anywhere and everywhere.

“From New York, Elisabeth was able to participate in virtual book clubs and events with bookstores across the country,” says Rosenberry.

Those book clubs, in particular, are key, says Lydia Hirt, director of marketing and partnerships for Viking, Riverhead, and Penguin Books.
“Book clubs are continuing to grow in popularity during these times, and whether that’s a book club with a known group of people that meet virtually or an Instagram book club,” Hirt says. “We’ve always tried to work with book clubs, but it seems to kind of have another moment in this time of the pandemic because people are reading more.”
C. Pam Zhang was due to go on an 18-city tour for her debut novel, How Much of These Hills Is Gold. Although that didn’t happen, her work was chosen as the inaugural book club pick for Goop, Gwyneth Paltrow’s influential lifestyle brand. As someone not used to being in the public eye, Zhang says not going on the tour actually brought a sense of relief. And she valued the access virtual events allow.

“It’s no longer relegated to only people who live in certain big cities, metropolitan areas, and that is actually a pretty wonderful thing,” she says. “I know that for myself, I’ve enjoyed, as an audience member, tuning into author conversations and turning my camera off, but listening to them while I cook dinner and so on, and so I think there’s a sense perhaps of literary participation being more part of the fabric of everyday life, having it be less of a formality and less of a spectacle.”

She notes, too, that virtual events require a different perspective when it comes to reach. “You can have this Instagram Live Chat with a really passionate reader and blogger on a Saturday morning and have 25 people listen and have that be a really nice thing. I think there is something really lovely about that.”
Still, for some, those Zoom events can be hard. Zaina Arafat, author of You Exist Too Much published in June, found herself without a permanent home as the pandemic hit. She was set to sign a new lease on April 1 but ended up at her mother’s home in Washington, D.C., from March until May; in May she was able to stay at the home of a friend, who with his family fled to another state. She was alone.
“My plan was to start my life over, get my new apartment, move on, and socialize basically because I had a book coming out,” she says. “After work, I was going to go out every night and sort of see everyone and ride the wave of that excitement. But then there was no wave to ride.”
So, she dug in. “I remember thinking, ‘I have to do everything I can do for this book,’ she says. “I accepted every invitation, every Q&A, and I wrote a couple of essays around the book and published them around the time the book came out—everything that one could do while still also supporting themselves by not losing their job, I guess.
“I really loved my book launch because it was just such a good conversation with my conversation partner, and just so many people were at the event and I loved that. But afterwards, you just end the Zoom and then you’re suddenly alone again.”
Getting through that time required, she says, going with the flow. “Once I accepted the pandemic and that life was never going to be the same, and the way I envisioned the book launching was going to be very different…once I just sort of accepted that, I was able to really lock into it, but until then it was a lot of anxiety for everybody.”
That shift into acceptance and then action helped Aiden Thomas as well. His YA book, Cemetery Boys, was scheduled to come out in early June but got pushed back to September because of the pandemic.
“By the time that they made that decision, I was already full throttle,” he says. “Here I am hard-core promo-ing, and then it’s like, ‘Actually, you need to be doing this for three more months.’ So I had to come up with some creative solutions and pretty quickly.”
He thought about what he really liked as a reader, then commissioned his cover artist to do character art images to share on his social media. “I think that that’s been a really cool way to be able to reach out to readers and get them excited about the book through seeing characters, through me talking about characters,” he says. “I feel like a lot of authors are hesitant to talk about their characters and talk about the plot of their book, maybe because they don’t want spoilers or any other thing, but I’m like, ‘Yeah, let me tell you everything. Not spoilers, of course, but let me tell you about them, so that you’re really excited before the book even comes out, so that you feel like you kind of know who these guys are before the book’s even on shelves.’ ”
Thomas, whose book debuted at number eight on The New York Times’ bestseller list and is longlisted for a National Book Award, says he has more ideas planned for the next couple of months to keep the momentum going.
With his plans wrecked by March, Weiden says he was “devastated,” and he was under no illusions that there would be live events by August. “I pivoted on my strategy fairly quickly,” he says. After conferring with his publicist, they developed a strategy of getting some essays out. A Lakota Indian from the Sicangu branch, Weiden went back to his reservation and wrote a piece about what it’s like to be a Native in the time of a pandemic. “We pitched it everywhere, and it was rejected every single place, so my depression was worsening.”
Then, in July, the Supreme Court announced its historic decision in the McGirt v. Oklahoma case, ruling that 19 million acres composing 47 percent of Oklahoma is still Native land. The issues involved not only Weiden’s field of study but also the theme of his book. He knew he had to write about it. “I brewed a cup of coffee. I stayed up all night, and I wrote a 1,500-word essay, sent it off to my publicist, and said, ‘Look, let’s give it a shot. Let’s send it to The New York Times.’ To my surprise, they took it.”
That really got the ball rolling, he says. “I started appearing on all sorts of lists of most anticipated books; I think I was on three dozen. Oprah Magazine chose me as one of the top books of the summer. I was in there and Time.... You name it, and I was on it. That was great.”
In three weeks, he says, the book sold more than 25,000 copies. It was also chosen as the September pick by the Book of the Month Club. “I’m feeling that the book did as well as it could have in terms of sales and attention,” he says.
So, yes, there are happy endings. And there have been losses and gains. Yet, Arafat says, it’s important to her to see the bigger picture. “Sometimes people will say to me like, Oh, you were robbed of the debut experience and all that. And I’m like, yeah, there are people dying. This is nothing compared to that. You feel grateful for what you have and what you’re able to do. Thank God for Zoom, even though it’s draining.”
Zhang says there’s a lingering surrealness around her book launch. “I actually haven’t seen [my book] in a bookstore yet. Because as an author the book lives for so many years in your mind before it becomes public, I felt that without seeing it in the public, without meeting readers, it was hard to figure out when that line had been crossed from prepublication to publication, and in some sense I suppose I’m still waiting for that.”
That’s not all that’s lingering, she says. She has a day job, and originally her plan was to take two months off for her tour, and when those two months were done, she’d go back to her ordinary life. Instead, “I’m still doing events, and I have more events; I have a set plan as far as February. So, it feels a little bit like I’m not able to get off the publicity train in both a good and a bad way. I think that that transition would have been much clearer previously.”
One unexpected pleasure, Weiden says, is members of the 2020 debut author cohort have found a way to bond. “We have a Facebook group; it’s sort of a closed group,” he says. “There are two or 300 of us, and we have just become really close. We complain, we congratulate, we commiserate, and we just created a real strong supportive group, especially after the pandemic hit.”
For her part, Thomas says she will have her dream launch, by hook or by crook. “I feel like it takes a long time to write a book, and I really want to dance about it. So, at some point I will be throwing a party. I don’t know when, because I want everyone to be safe, but it’s going to happen.”

Want to add some 2020 debuts to your Want to Read shelf? Check out these articles for more ideas on what to read next:

Support First-Time Authors with 51 Debut Novels to Read Now
44 Must-Read Recent YA Debuts
30 Summer Debuts You May Have Missed

Comments Showing 1-34 of 34 (34 new)

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message 1: by [deleted user] (new)

Helen and the Grandbees by Alex Morrall is a brilliant debut novel. Its about race, mental health, domestic violence, very topical but well written.

message 2: by rafia (new)

rafia ✿ random comment but maybe add more hijabis in your illustrations, Goodreads? would mean the world

message 3: by Alison (new)

Alison Elizabeth Definitely in the mood for speculative fiction like the aforementioned Catherine House- must get this next! Also has a gothic feel, which is great for being cooped up during a pandemic.

message 4: by Bridget (new)

Bridget Portmann I used the pandemic as a time to finish my debut book and the focus I needed to write really helped me to overcome the difficulties
of a completely different way of life. I lost my job, had to move countries and now live thousands of miles from my partner. Writing helped me deal with this and I like to think the uplifting spirit in my book is something people need right now. Northbound: Tales from the Continental Divide Trail

message 5: by T.A. (new)

T.A. Willberg Oh, I relate to this quite a bit! My debut (MARION LANE & THE MIDNIGHT MURDER) is coming out in December and with everything else going on in the world, it feels...odd? On a positive note, however, I've used lockdown to finish the sequel and it's been such a brilliant escape from reality. I hope it will be for readers, too.

message 6: by Wendy (new)

Wendy Charlton Real resonance in this article for me. I published my debut novel Keeping Secrets a week ago and whilst I have done the digital promotion it has been tinged with a little sadness that the planned launch and subsequent promotional events could not happen. Wendy Charlton

message 7: by Kimberly (new)

Kimberly Mooney The Recital: A sonata of broken hearts, blended family, and pinot grigio

I spent the time as well finishing my debut book. During a pandemic when the world was hurting, little did I know that our marriage/blended family was healing.

If you are separating, single parenting, or in a blended situation, this might be the book you've been looking for. You see, I ended up writing the book I needed desperately. #grace#forgiveness#courage#happy

Take care.

message 8: by Edward (last edited Oct 13, 2020 06:02AM) (new)

Edward Green Meredith's Journey Begins

It's been hard at times, though being in the bizarre twilight zone of 2020 helped with finishing and then doing the post edit work, on my first book - so there has at least been that.

message 9: by Elli (new)

Elli rafia wrote: "random comment but maybe add more hijabis in your illustrations, Goodreads? would mean the world"
Honestly, I would love that! Representation is very important.

message 10: by Lynda (new)

Lynda Filler rafia wrote: "random comment but maybe add more hijabis in your illustrations, Goodreads? would mean the world" agreed. When I wrote CAFE CONFIDENTIAL my purpose was to expose my readership to more cultures. The biggest surprise for me as a solo female traveler was the Muslim culture. And here I am, a Canadian woman, currently living in Turkey! #weareallone Diversity is the answer to everything.

message 11: by Vid (new)

Vid Todovic 👎

message 12: by Shea (new)

Shea Proulx My kid's book, ABC Monstrosity was published this year. V was always for "virus" but I didn't think that would be the theme of its debut year.

message 13: by Rihanna (new)

Rihanna Wow that's nice🙏awesome

message 14: by Joanna (new)

Joanna Heywood I published my debut novella, (Grit and Silver, about three women in Peru) this month. Yes the face to face promoting and dropping into bookshops will be harder, but there is so much of a world going on online these days I think I will be kept very busy! I went to an online book Festival which was actually fun despite the zoom overload! Wishing all new authors out there the best of luck

message 15: by Lee (new)

Lee Ahd Check out my poems and short stories.

message 16: by Mary (new)

Mary Clancy Honestly, writing the book is the easy part. Marketing the book is stressful. Especially in 2020 when a physical launch is out of the question. When a review is posted there’s joy and patience is definitely a virtue. If you like historical fiction have a look at ‘The Blue Washing Bag’ I hope you like it. Thanks. ✍🏻

message 17: by Carol (new)

Carol Mottershead Please nominate me 'Joan-Put on a happy face' by Carol M Mottershead for the Best Debut Novel 2020 at

message 18: by Douglas (new)

Douglas Berry I wrote my first childrens book years ago, but never had it published. I never missed a day of work during this past year and used the government relief money and work bonuses to pay for my book to be published. I put GOD first and prayed for my book to be blessed, and now seeing the reviews and the smiles on childrens faces...its been a very positive experience!!!!

message 19: by Penny (new)

Penny My Perfect Sister by Penny Batchelor My debut novel My Perfect Sister was published during UK lockdown in June. It was very tricky publishing when bookshops were shut because they were considered 'non-essential'. Thankfully I had a zoom launch and embraced social media, coming together with other authors in the same boat to form the Diary of a Debut Festival. There's more info on me and my domestic noir novel at - plus you can sign up for my author newsletter. Twitter: @penny_author Facebook: pennyauthor Insta: pennybatchelorauthor

message 20: by Bruce (new)

Bruce David Weiden's "Winter Counts" is a GREAT book!

message 21: by Lynda (new)

Lynda Schwalm Read Erin Ruddy's debut novel, Tell Me My Name. You won't be able to put it down!

message 22: by Ellen (new)

Ellen Leary Are you missing Broadway? My debut novel, THE UNDERSTUDY,
will take you back there! From my own experiences as an actress in New York in the 1970's, I have written a true-to-life adventure of what it is like to be behind the scenes, as well as up front in the lights of a Broadway play. Too bad it had to debut when no bookstores were open despite fabulous reviews. Sigh.
Ellen Tovatt Leary/Users/ellenleary 1/Desktop/9781601823441.jpg

message 23: by Alice (new)

Alice Early Thanks for posting this. So much of it resonates. My debut novel, THE MOON ALWAYS RISING, came out in April during lockdown. Though readers report loving it and say it gave them a welcome respite from the cares of our daily lives and a getaway to a tropical setting, it continues to be a huge challenge to reach potential readers.
Alice C. Early/The Moon Always Rising/

message 24: by Ellen (new)

Ellen Leary Alice wrote: "Thanks for posting this. So much of it resonates. My debut novel, THE MOON ALWAYS RISING, came out in April during lockdown. Though readers report loving it and say it gave them a welcome respite f..."

Hi Alice! Thanks for responding. I have checked out your book and plan to order it!

message 25: by Michael (new)

Michael Sullenger Memoirs and Political Observations of a Midwestern W.A.S.P.: A View from Flyover Country

When I debut my book in January of 2020 I had no idea what to expect. Writing the book was a labor of love and (I felt) was divinely influenced. I had hoped people would find it interesting as we were in an heated political season. Other than friends and family it doesn't appear there was any interest. I wanted to share my Christian beliefs regarding why a person cannot be a true Christian and support/vote for Democrats. Their platform is utterly anathema to biblical teachings and the Ten Commandments. Those who did read the book came away with a clearer understanding of this premise. The memoirs portion establishes my background and credibility for the comments posed in the book.

message 26: by Alice (new)

Alice Early Ellen wrote: "Alice wrote: "Thanks for posting this. So much of it resonates. My debut novel, THE MOON ALWAYS RISING, came out in April during lockdown. Though readers report loving it and say it gave them a wel..."

Alice wrote: "Thanks for posting this. So much of it resonates. My debut novel, THE MOON ALWAYS RISING, came out in April during lockdown. Though readers report loving it and say it gave them a welcome respite f..."

Ellen, I hope you enjoy MOON. I'm ordering UNDERSTUDY and look forward to it! Thanks so much for your support.

message 27: by H.R. (new)

H.R. Kemp As a debut author who released my novel in March this year, I can totally relate to this article. Here in Australia, the lead up for me also involved coping with my family being caught up in the fires. It's been difficult year, trying to find ways to launch and promote my book.

message 28: by Kirsteeen (new)

Kirsteeen Stewart Thank you for raising this. At the age of 78 I launched my debut novel Break These Chains as Kirsteen Stewart in May at the height of the lock down. Launch party at Daunts Marylebone High st cancelled but my children, stepchildren and 19 grandchildren and step grand children raised a glass on zoom. My story of 1965 in London, the dark side, the dilemmas, the betrayals of family values as well as the glamour and glitter. A escape from lockdown.

message 29: by Lucy (new)

Lucy Lyons Well done to David and Elizabeth for finding support for their new books when Lockdown hit. It has been hard not being able to give talks to local groups during Lockdown because that is a way I wanted to get news out about my new novel which is a saga beginning in the present, going back over 100 years then coming back to the present. It is about business, obsession and love, called Kavanagh Hall by Alice Eves. More people are reading so if we can just let them find our books !! 📘📖😊

message 30: by Kirsteeen (new)

Kirsteeen Stewart So agree with Lucy's last sentence. Any ideas?

message 31: by Edward (new)

Edward Green Kirsteeen wrote: "So agree with Lucy's last sentence. Any ideas?"

The most frustrating of things - signings are out so building your author page and blogs here - getting to know other writers and reading and reviewing each others works should help - build your FB and other social media profiles - I'm serialising some short stories and posting them in the hope of picking up readers that way too.

I'm also looking at putting audio versions of first chapters and introductory passages up

message 32: by Lucy (new)

Lucy Lyons Thanks for suggestions Edward and Carol. Good luck too, Kirsteen, Your own large family seem to be a good support for your writing and in their own way can help to be your marketing people. Fingers crossed when the New Year arrives that our sales increase - if not before. :-)

message 33: by Kirsteeen (new)

Kirsteeen Stewart What about a virtual festival for debut writers publishing in lock down year? Would a successful writer sponsor it do you think?

message 34: by JasmineHolland (new)

JasmineHolland Thanks for the good literary case. I recently read an article on leadership qualities and I realized that this is a life dualism. I used the case writing service to compare two stories. I was interested in this story and I want to get feedback on leadership qualities in large groups. It could be a university or college.

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