First Time Writers: Why They Rock!

by Erin Brown

Illustration by Jennifer Paros - Copyright 2009

Illustration by Jennifer Paros - Copyright 2009

Oh, how I love working with debut authors. The excitement, the thrills! As an editor, it’s such a pleasure to be a part of the process—from reading a fresh voice to that first phone call telling the author that you want to see their name in lights; to sending the debut copy, hot off the press, to the author, who is waiting anxiously at his or her mailbox like an expectant parent. Editors love taking first timers through the ins and outs of the publishing experience, and good editors don’t even mind the endless questions about how it all works! There’s something magical about the experience of discovering a new author that can’t even be matched by hitting the bestseller list with a tried and true writer. There’s a fresh, magical quality, and a certain pride instilled in the whole debut process that can’t be found anywhere else in our editorial world.

On the business side, it’s a lot easier to buy a first novel because all you have to do is make everyone at the house fall in love with the writing. Pass around the pages, keep everyone up at night weeping or laughing over this incredible find, and ta da! A sale is made. When an editor buys a debut novel, we don’t have to kill ourselves trying to convince a fanatical sales team to overlook the author’s previous book’s unremarkable sales track. (Yes, this often happens; it’s reality. A wonderful gem gets out there and [thud!] does nothing. Even with fantastic reviews, sometimes that debut goes nowhere.) But let’s look at the other scenario. Heartsick by Chelsea Cain was a wonderful case in point at St. Martin’s Press when I worked there. It’s a wonderful thriller that was so well written and fresh that the entire company bent over backwards to make it work. Sales, art, publicity, marketing, editorial—everyone was on board and determined to create a success story. If a debut affects people like this, the odds are good that the book will make a splash. And it did! With incredible critical acclaim, it was a New York Times bestseller in both hardcover and paperback, a New York Times Book Review “Editor’s Choice,” an Amazon “Mystery/Thriller of the Year,” a Booksense 76 pick, one of Stephen King’s Top Ten Books of the Year (2008) in Entertainment Weekly,  was a featured alternate for Book of the Month Club, Literary Guild, Doubleday Book Club, and Mystery Guild, was translated into more than twenty languages, and has been optioned for film (script in development). Whew—how’s that for a debut success story? 

I remember my first debut buy, ages ago. It was a mystery—a cozy, to be exact. It featured a sassy heroine (I know, shocking, huh?) who had laugh-out-loud lines and a supporting cast that was so colorful it would make a rainbow seem black and white. The author, who I am still in touch with almost ten years later, had been toiling away for decades, trying to find her perfect “voice.” She had two grown sons who still lived at home, a mostly-grown husband, and an undying desire to be published. In her late forties, she never came close to giving up, although she had come to an acceptance that it might not happen before her pension kicked in. Well, it did, and there was no better feeling than being the editor to make her dream come true. Once she came down off the ceiling after I let her know I wanted to buy and publish her chick lit mystery (back when that type of thing was flying off the shelves), we set up a day to meet. The following month, she hopped on the train and headed to the Big Apple, ready to meet me. Now, I do not think I’m all that and a bag of chips, but for an author, I can see how meeting an actual editor, much less one that will be publishing your first book!!!! can be a once-in-a-lifetime thrill. Again, it’s not me, per se, although I am quite awesome, it’s simply the culmination of a decades-long dream. Her smile and shaky handshake when we met almost made me weep. This is why I got into publishing.

The only sweeter moment is when you send that first copy of the book to the author. I always sent it Fed Ex, next a.m. delivery, so it would be in pristine condition and arrive at the earliest possible moment. I would look at my watch at about 9:59 (if Fed-Ex was due to arrive no later than 10:00) and wait patiently for the phone to ring. At about 10:03, at the latest, the phone would light up and on the other end was my first-time author, usually speaking in tongues: “ohmygoditlookssogoodican’tbelieveitiamlookingatmy-bookanditwillbeinstoresnextweek....” (quick breath) “...andiknowisawthecoverbeforeandiknewthisdaywouldcomebuti-can’tbelieveit’shereandwon’tthatguywhodidn’taskmeoutinhighschool-betotally-jealousandthankyou!!!”  

It’s the best phone call an editor can get. Sometimes there are tears, but mostly laughter, sometimes a few screams (for instance, an irate author who noticed that the lavender on the cover is not the exact shade she approved. We curse you, lavender-freak-woman!) Then the author immediately asks for an extra one hundred copies to hand out to everyone she knows. At this point, I have to remind her that she only gets twenty copies and she’ll have to buy the rest at the author discount (bubble burst). But besides that reality, it’s a wonderful moment to be a part of and as editors, we live for those days.  

Now please stop reading this article and get back to writing. Because it’s not about you, it’s about making an editor happy and excited again by discovering new talent. So support the editors of the world by writing a fantastic debut novel—remember, there’s nothing more pathetic than a listless editor. Give us something to get out of bed for and put the pen to paper, people, so that you, too, can experience that groundbreaking moment when the FedEx man comes roaring up your driveway. Even Mark Twain got a few butterflies when that first copy of The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County arrived by next-day riverboat.

Erin Brown worked as an editor in New York City for over eight years. She recently left Manhattan to start her own freelance editorial business. To learn more about Erin, visit her website at

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