How the Debut Authors of 2020 Are Coping
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.
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...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
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