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a:Twenty Authors Talk About the Second Time Around Part One: The External Experience

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Barbara ProbstLike firstborn children, debut novels get a lot of attention. I’m a firstborn myself, as well as the first grandchild in a cohort of twelve, and I’ve always liked the role.

But what about second novels? I’d heard about the “sophomore slump”—the letdown and diminished interest, from friends as well as the media, in a second book. I’d also heard that a second book is easier because the process isn’t quite so unknown; experience can bring clarity, confidence, and manageable emotions.

Both descriptions of the sophomore novel made sense to me. Since I was about to launch my own second novel, I was curious to know what others had to say—writers who had “gone before” and could reflect back on what it was like. I reached out—on writers’ groups I belong to, and also privately to authors I knew—and asked three questions:

  • How was launching the second book different for you, externally?  That is, did you approach it differently in terms of promotion, strategy, finances?
  • How was it different for you, internally?  That is, were there differences in your expectations, attitude, emotions, personal experience?
  • Were there ways in which the two experiences were similar?

I ended up talking with twenty people, some on the phone and some through email. I didn’t explicitly try to find people representing all the paths to publishing, but it turned out that I did. The authors who talked to me included those who were self-published; those who had published through small, hybrid, and mid-size houses; and those who were published under an imprint of one of the Big Five. All were women, and all were novelists—not because I refused to talk with men, but because these were the people in my networks who responded to my query.

I wish I had space to quote everyone in detail! Since I don’t, I’ve tried to identify common themes, with examples, that may be useful to others who will follow in their footsteps. We all want to know: Is my experience similar to what others have experienced? Is what I’m feeling “normal?”

“Normal” is never one thing, of course; it’s always a range. My hope is that other sophomore novelists, including me, will take heart and find direction in the experience of those who’ve been through this already. Because I collected so much data, I will be sharing it over two posts, with the second post to follow next month. Today’s post will focus on the first question—how the authors’ external choices and experiences differed in the second book. Next month’s post will focus on the second question—the internal experience—as well as the similarities.

I’ve summarized what these twenty respondents (named at the end of this post) told me about their experience into five broad themes.

The qualitative difference between knowing nothing about what to expect, and knowing a little

The first time was a time of trial-and-error and “learning on the fly.” Two people even called a “trial by fire.”

It’s one thing to be told what to expect when one has a book out in the world and another to walk through the paces yourself.

With the first book, I had no idea what to expect.  I approached the first as a test run. I didn’t know what I was doing and figured it out as I went.

By the second time, respondents felt that they had “learned a thing or two” about book promotion, and understood what they were undertaking. They might still be uncomfortable, nervous, or averse to some of the aspects, but they had a much clearer sense of what they were getting into.

The ability to make more strategic choices about time, energy, and money

Experience brought the ability to make better choices—that is, choices that suited them better in terms of time, temperament, budget, and goals. What was “better” for one person might not be “better” for another, of course. Genre, audience, region, comfort with social media, and a host of other factors went into the equation. The aim, they agreed, was to get savvier with each book in determining which aspects of marketing and promotion warranted an author’s time and energy, and which were best left to the publicity team or other paid professionals.

I knew what worked and didn’t work from the first go, so I have been able to approach it accordingly.

I had more information, and therefore could make more informed strategic decisions every step of the way. This gave me a lot more confidence toward my marketing.

Specific decisions about what to take on myself, what to outsource, what to “pass” on, were all easier the second time because I was much more familiar with the how-to part of the process.

Clarity about choices included financial choices. Based on their first experience, some decided to forgo paid promotions that hadn’t yielded very much result, or to do things themselves that they had outsourced the first time.

I spent less money on publicity the second time, because I’d made connections in the industry, and learned what efforts yielded cost effective results and what didn’t.

I hired the same publicist, but I avoided some of the promotions she encourages because I didn’t think they’d been cost-effective the first time around.

I also invested less money in promoting the second book because I’d gone through the learning and there were things I could do myself now.

In contrast, there were others who elected to spend more the second time.

I did hire an outside publicist for this book which is a bigger financial investment, but something I was prepared to do in order to give the book the most chance at success.

Although my own sophomore book hasn’t launched yet, as I move toward launch date, I can already see that my choices are different this time. For example, I’m spending less on publicity and more on marketing—that is, I’m doing several paid promotions that I didn’t do last time and have hired a virtual assistant who is creating animated and musical Instagram posts that I could never have done myself. We’ll see how effective they are, of course! But my aim is to try some new approaches that can reach readers directly, rather than relying so much on a publicist to get attention from the media. As the saying goes: “marketing is bought and paid for, publicity is sought and prayed for.”

The importance of timing

The timing of a second book’s release made a difference, too. For some authors, there was pressure—whether for personal reasons or because of a schedule mandated by a two-book deal—to get a second book out quickly.

There’s an expression: “You never have as much time to write a novel as you do the first time around.” I certainly felt that time pressure to finish the second one while the modest commercial success of my debut was still fresh in readers’ minds.

When there wasn’t much time between the two books, the author’s energy was split, partly focused on continuing to promote the first book, and partly on researching, writing, editing, and launching the second—a bit like having a second child while the first is still in diapers or not walking independently.

Another big difference, with the second book, was that I had to divert part of my time and energy and attention to things I still needed to do for the first book, so I couldn’t give it one hundred percent the way I had the first time.

The quick release of a second book, without the opportunity to wrap-up and reflect back on the experience of the first, was good for maintaining momentum, but at the cost of time to process and ponder.

I wrote and delivered my complete sophomore novel manuscript to my editor before my first book was even released. There was definitely the weight of expectations in writing a novel on deadline for the first time. And I didn’t have the full external experience of publishing my debut coloring my experience with the second, since the processes overlapped so heavily.

Some doors open, some doors close

For some, whose second book was issued by a bigger press, expectations were higher—although not necessarily realistic.

My second book was my first with a big publisher, so my expectation was that I would have more help with the marketing/promotion side of things. In the end, there wasn’t much of a marketing strategy, so I ended up relying on my own network, the way I had with the first book.

Sometimes, moving from un-agented to agented, or from small to large press, really did make a difference.

With my second book, I now had an agent and a new publisher so a lot of doors opened up for me, bigger doors, that had not been open to me the first time.

For those who did not change publishers, the landscape could still be quite different for a second book.

I went back to a lot of the same people and places. Sometimes it was easier and they were eager to promote the second book because they already knew me. In other cases, I discovered, belatedly, that they didn’t want to cover the same person twice. Certain things are possible once and once only, so I wished I’d used them more strategically.

This was true on a personal level, too. Friends and family understood that the debut experience was special, as a “crossing over into a new identity” or the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. That level of enthusiasm and support didn’t necessarily carry over for a second book.

The people I knew were excited and supportive of my debut. Not so much so for my second book. Many didn’t come to my events or read or recommend it, as they had for the first one.

With the more secure identity as a “career author” that a second book could bring, there was also the realization that one had to climb the staircase anew, each time. Well-established authors with multiple books might have a ready-made audience for a new release, but not a sophomore author.

Awareness of the “long game”

With the second book, this became clear in a way that it simple wasn’t, or couldn’t be, with the first. People began to understand what it really takes to build an author platform—how to be more systematic and proactive, use social media more effectively, build and sustain relationships with readers, long before publication date.

This time, I had a marketing plan and robust social media platforms. I’ve learned that you need to start marketing months (and even years) before you plan on releasing a book.

I approached the end product more systematically. I reached out to early reviewers, entered contests, booked a blog tour, had a book signing, interviews, created book trailers, held giveaways, grew a social media presence.

I felt much stronger with my sophomore title, because I had an established readership, branded social media, a growing newsletter, and existing relationships with local booksellers. I was no longer starting from scratch.

Experience over more than one book helped people understand that “being an author” requires an ongoing investment of time, effort and money. It also requires the willingness to expose oneself, to reveal, to be present.

It took me a while to realize that people want to be with me on the journey. I’ve learned that creating a brand is more important than marketing your book. You need readers loyal to you as an author and as a human being.

Many people write one book; for them, it’s about the book. Others aim to write many books; for them, it’s about the identity and the brand—that is, the author herself. We know the difference between a new book by Kate Quinn and a new book by Jodi Picoult.

The most profound transformation, with a sophomore novel, was from the book to the brand. We’ll talk about that in next month’s post! 

Thanks to the authors who shared their experience with me:  Heather Bell Adams, Johnnie Bernard, Kerry McPherson Chaput, Kristin Larson Contino, Lindsey Rogers Cook, Jill Coupe, Claire Fullerton, Jill G. Hall, Amy Impellizzeri, Anita Kushwaha, Nanette Littlestone, Lisa Braver Moss, Nicole Persun, Kate Jessica Raphael, Kathleen M. Rogers, Linda Rosen, Barbara Stark-Nemon, Jessica Strawser, Linda Ulleseit, and Kimberly Packard Walton

Now, over to you: If you’re an author, what was your sophomore experience like? Did you see yourself in any of the reflections above? As a reader, how did you learn about an author’s second book?  Was it because you’d read her first book or was this your first encounter with that author?  


About Barbara Linn Probst

Barbara’s (she/her) debut novel QUEEN OF THE OWLS (April 2020) was a medalist in popular fiction from the Independent Publishers Association, first runner-up for the Eric Hoffer Award, and short-listed for the $2500 Grand Prize. Her second novel THE SOUND BETWEEN THE NOTES launches in April 2021. Before switching to fiction, Barbara published a book for parents of quirky kids and more scholarly articles than she cares to remember. She has a PhD in Clinical Social Work and has been a therapist, teacher, researcher, and advocate. When not writing, she’s a serious amateur pianist. Learn more on her website.


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