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03 March 2014 @ 02:04 pm
Unknown first novels and the myth of the big debut  
I was recently talking to a new writer in that scary, hopeful place of awaiting publication of their first book, and at some point in our conversation, they said to me:

"If you look at careers that crash and burn you can often trace it to a first book that failed to do well."

And I was all, what? Umm, no.

Never mind the absolutism of "crash and burn" as the opposite of runaway success--I know at least as many prominent working writers whose first book wasn't noticed much at all when it came out, maybe isn't known even now. I mean, how many urban fantasy fans have heard of Nightseer? How many lovers of children's books know Kenny's Window? How many epic fantasy readers have read Dying of the Light? And how many of those of you who do know these books discovered them before you discovered these writers' better known works and went looking to see what else they'd done?

Yet the myth of big-debut-or-nothing remains, and has grown alongside an increasing emphasis on first novels that can easily become one more tool writers at all stages of their careers use to beat themselves up with. So in the interest of providing a little balance, I've decided we need a list of little-known first works by now-bestselling and award-winning writers. Because it's lovely when your first book comes out to great fanfare, but it's not some sort of automatic death knell when it doesn't.

Here's the start of that my list. This is just a starting point, so I hope you'll help me expand it by mentioning other first books by now-bestselling or award-winning writers either in comments here or under the hashtag #unknownfirsts on twitter.

The Big U, Neal Stephenson
Burgoo Stew, Susan Patron
Conan the Invincible, Robert Jordan (who also wrote The Fallon Blood a couple years earlier under a pseud)
Duran Duran: The First Four Years, Neil Gaiman
Dying of the Light, George R. R. Martin
Fire Proof (The Mystery Files of Shelby Woo #11), Suzanne Collins
First Light, Rebecca Stead
The Foolish Giant, Bruce Coville
The Gremlins, Roald Dahl
Just Morgan, Susan Beth Pfeffer
Kenny's Window, Maurice Sendak (his work as an illustrator goes back further)
The Lightning Time, Gregory Maguire
Nightseer, Laurell K. Hamilton
Outlaws of Sherwood Forest (Choose Your Own Adventure #47), Ellen Kushner
Pilgrims and Other Stories, Elizabeth Gilbert
Pirates in Petticoats, Jane Yolen
Restoree, Anne McCaffrey
The Small Rain, Madeleine L'Engle

There are many, many ways to build a career, and having a bestseller or award-winner right out of the gate is only one of them.

There's also the fact that one can have a viable career without ever publishing a high-profile book, not to mention the whole business how careers aren't things that are unequivocally made and just as unequivocally kept in the first place--but that second, I think, is a whole other discussion. (If you need reminders that it's true, though, the ongoing Writing for the Long Haul series is a good place to start.)

Mirrored from Janni Lee Simner / Desert Dispatches.

Elizabeth McCoyarchangelbeth on March 3rd, 2014 09:29 pm (UTC)
*waves a hand* Me! Me! I read Nightseer! But yeah, I read it after I knew the more popular one.

Off the top of my not-enough-sleep brain, I cannot think of other first-one-sank famous authors. Hmph. Though some of that may be my unawareness of books that'd "sunk" at first; if LKH'd ever gone back to the Nightseer world, I'd not have realized it was an "unimpressive" first novel. (I liked it, really; it had some funny bits.)
Janni Lee Simner: arctic foxjanni on March 3rd, 2014 09:31 pm (UTC)
I actually knew Nightseer back before Guilty Pleasures sold, but it's the only one ... the others on the list (so far) I only found out about through other works, too.
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Janni Lee Simner: arctic foxjanni on March 4th, 2014 04:20 pm (UTC)
Oh, Elizabeth Gilbert is another possible good one for the list--thanks.

I think the fact that first books often aren't our best known books is in itself evidence that our first book doesn't have to make a splash in order for us to go on to have a career.

Self-publishing's emphasis on quantity I think has its own strengths and weaknesses.
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Janni Lee Simner: arctic foxjanni on March 4th, 2014 04:35 pm (UTC)
It looks like her first book was a bestseller in its own right? But it's so hard to tell after the fact ... it's the same problem as whether to include Suzanne Collins' first novel.
movingfingermovingfinger on March 4th, 2014 12:46 am (UTC)
The Big U was not unnoticed when it came out, and it and Zodiac spent some years as cultishly loved books, much sought after. The author's dislike has done more to trash its reputation than its inherent quality.
Janni Lee Simner: arctic foxjanni on March 4th, 2014 12:56 am (UTC)
When it first first came out, we found it in the remainder bin on campus. Not that lots of books don't get remaindered, but it definitely seemed like no one had ever heard of it. That may have changed once his later but not yet best known books came out, admittedly.

We didn't know about the author's dislike--or, really, the author himself--until years and years later.
movingfinger: Indicomovingfinger on March 4th, 2014 08:05 am (UTC)
Likely the difference is down to my having been in roughly the epicenter of interest in the early books. They were locally well known.

The debut novel marketing in publishing is a facet of the publishing paradox, perhaps: they want splashy, distinctive new voice, but they want to buy books like the books that are already selling, to the point where everyone knows stories about distinctive, sui generis writers who could not sell their first book easily because it was too distinctive. It is not the author's fault, but if a first book is over-marketed, over-hyped, and I am disappointed by it, I am indeed not likely to pick up the second and third (especially true in trilogies, of course). And I read reviews to help me find books! But the reviewers often over-praise as well, maybe out of a misguided wish to be courteous.
Janni Lee Simner: arctic foxjanni on March 4th, 2014 04:23 pm (UTC)
They were definitely pretty obscure down in St. Louis at the time ... not that I had an Internet connection yet to have any idea how they were doing elsewhere. Everything was more local then.

"Different but not too different" is an ongoing issue, I think. (As is the overbuying in popular subgenres that leads to their becoming glutted that leads to everyone wanting suddenly nothing at all in those genres.)

I do feel like a culture of "if you can't say something nice, don't say anything" has been growing around reviews, though perhaps less so in the trade publications than on the net at large. But I do consider the whole business of many reviewers only talking about books they love problematic--which is a whole other discussion.

Edited at 2014-03-04 04:24 pm (UTC)
BookWenchqueenbookwench on March 4th, 2014 03:10 am (UTC)
I wouldn't call Gregor the Overlander unknown--the whole series has had a pretty steady popularity with middle grade fantasy readers (from this librarian's perspective) though of course it wasn't the runaway success of The Hunger Games.

Restoree by Anne McCaffrey?
Janni Lee Simner: arctic foxjanni on March 4th, 2014 04:25 pm (UTC)
You know, I debated about Gregor the Overlander ... because it's not on the level of Hunger Games, but I was hearing talk of it too within kidlit communities, just not outside of them. It's evidence you don't need to make a huge splash out of the gate, but not evidence of making not splash at all.

And oh, yes, Restoree! I hunted that down after discovering McCaffrey's dragon books and couldn't get through it at all.

Edited at 2014-03-04 04:29 pm (UTC)
Miriam3rdragon on March 4th, 2014 07:46 pm (UTC)
Restoree was her first book? No wonder it was kind of horrifying. (Things I stumbled across in my dad's pile of sf paperbacks.)
some guy named Larrylnhammer on March 4th, 2014 11:35 pm (UTC)
Janni Lee Simner: arctic foxjanni on March 4th, 2014 04:37 pm (UTC)
Oh, wait, I think this came before Gregor the Overlander anyway. To be fair, she was working on the show as a TV writer as well, but still.
BookWenchqueenbookwench on March 5th, 2014 04:21 am (UTC)
That is some quality unearthing there! And you're totally right about Gregor kind of being a borderline case.

Wasn't Lloyd Alexander's first book (Time Cat?) not super well known until he had success with later stuff?
Debbie N.wild_irises on March 4th, 2014 03:57 pm (UTC)
Never forget Operation Ares by Gene Wolfe, a book I call the "editor's challenge." I don't think it's possible to read it, even now, and see the author's quality in the book.

I also think the early LeGuin (I believe City of Illusions was first and I don't have time to look it up now) fits this bill.

Interesting topic!
Catsupertailz on March 4th, 2014 05:40 pm (UTC)
On the other hand, now I really really want to read Pirates in Petticoats:)
Miriam3rdragon on March 4th, 2014 07:47 pm (UTC)
Me too!
crookedfeetcrookedfeet on March 4th, 2014 09:15 pm (UTC)
High Hunt by David Eddings.Originally published in 1973 and pretty much sank without a trace.
Comrade Cat: who-doctor valiantly tries make sense ofcomrade_cat on March 5th, 2014 12:29 pm (UTC)
I actually like The Lightning Time and am reading The Small Rain. The Dying of the Light didn't do anything for me at all though.

I am much amused at Neil Gaiman's book.
Danny Adamsmadwriter on March 5th, 2014 06:50 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I definitely think that idea is also less true now in the e-book age where you're granted more time to let the books bloom and prosper.

Granted I have known one fairly well-known SF short story author whose first novel with Major Publisher crashed and they dropped him; another friend got dropped two books in with a Major Publisher. But the latter is now finishing the trilogy with a smaller publisher even though Major Publisher still owns Books 1 and 2...and one really can't argue with the list you provided, either!