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Twenty Authors Talk About the Second Time Around Part Two: The Internal Experience


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Barbara ProbstThis is a continuation of my report on the experience of launching a second novel.  If you missed the first part, no worries! You can read it here.  To recap:

Everyone loves a debut. A new star bursts on the scene, with a world of possibilities still ahead. A friend publishes her first book and has her dream come true. The second book? Not so much.

I’d heard about the “sophomore slump”—the letdown and lack of media interest in a second novel. I’d also heard that a second book is easier because the process isn’t 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 book, I was curious to know what others had to say—writers who had “gone before me” and could reflect back on what it was like. I reached out to authors I knew whose second books had come out fairly recently and asked three questions:

  • How was the second book different for you, externally?  That is, did you approach it differently in terms of promotion, strategy, finances, and so on?
  • 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, representing a wide spectrum of publishing paths. Because I collected so much data, it made sense to share it over two posts. Last month’s post focused on the first question—how the authors’ external choices and experiences differed in the second book—that is, how they focused their time and spent their money, what they did themselves and what they outsourced.

Today’s post focuses on the second question—what it felt like, internally. Here is what these twenty people had to say about what it was like the second time around: differences in self-confidence, self-care, expectations, fear of disappointment, and other aspects of the emotional experience.

A more secure identity as a writer  

When I was a college professor, I taught a course on dissertation design to PhD students. What I remember most about that course wasn’t on the syllabus; it was the “identity work” that the students had to undertake—the empowering-but-scary transition from the identity as a learner (a consumer of knowledge) to the identity as a scholar (a creator of knowledge).

Writing one’s first book reminds me of that. It’s a transition to a new identity, from writer (a person who writes) to author (a person whose writing is public). “Owning” that identity is both thrilling and frightening. As one person put it:

On the first go-around, I didn’t think I deserved to take up space in the writing world. Who was I to think I could publish a book? I was so afraid to say, I AM A WRITER. This time, I’m done with imposter syndrome. I have a small but loyal following and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I deserve that space!

Crossing that threshold, in itself, can be just as important as how many copies the book sold, how many accolades or reviews it receives. As several people put it: “I was just happy to be published; it was a lifelong dream come true.”

Along with that thrill, for many, came a sense of anxiety and vulnerability. The second time around, in contrast, brought greater confidence and relaxation. It was less intense, less seismic. For those of us who are parents, it’s a bit like the arrival of a second child.

The first time around I didn’t know what to expect, so I was extremely nervous about everything from the launch to trade reviews to what my family would think. It was all so new and exciting, but also terrifying, and that was hard to manage at times.

Knowing what to expect—at least in general—helped to mitigate the emotional roller-coaster of launching a book, and to keep it from hijacking one’s entire sense of self-worth.

Overall, the process was a lot less painful. I’m not sure if I’d say the process was less emotional, but perhaps less tied to my general self-worth and self-esteem.

I did have more confidence the second time, since I had been through it and knew it was possible, knew there were readers out there. It was also a better book.

With greater self-confidence came a willingness to take more risks, not only in aspects of marketing like public speaking, but in the writing itself.

Overall, I had much more confidence with the second one, which allowed me to take some risks.  I knew, now, that I had it in me to write and publish a book.  And then with the second one, I knew I wasn’t just a “one book wonder.”

With my second novel, I felt more confident to take on a story that had been in the back of my mind for over a decade. I definitely took more risks with that novel.

Different expectations

For some, expectations were more realistic and grounded, the second time around; they understood the landscape better and were able to right-size their hopes and expectations. For others, expectations were higher—leading to fear that those expectations wouldn’t be met.

Sometimes it was the fear of disappointing people who had liked the first book.

I had a strong debut, and I really wanted my sophomore title to impress my readers and stand out from the first book. I wanted to give them something fresh and new but still on brand.

I was slightly more nervous about the second novel. People had been so kind about my first—perhaps in part because it was a debut—and I didn’t want to disappoint them. When I confessed to my mentor my I feared no one would like it as much as the first she assured that was common and known as the second book syndrome.  What a relief to learn I wasn’t the only one who felt that way!

It was more nerve-wracking for me because I didn’t want to spoil what I’d achieved with the first book or disappoint my readers. It’s like having a really great first date and wanting so badly to have the second date go well, too.

At other times, it was the fear of feeling let-down after a debut that went well or received special attention that was unlikely to be duplicated.

The first time, it was so exciting to have my dream come true. But with the second one, I couldn’t help comparing and worrying because I knew that debut novels get more attention.

Because the first book was so well-received, I felt really anxious that the second one  wouldn’t do as well.

Some people had higher expectations for their second book— which turned out to be unrealistic.

I had inflated expectations this second time that turned out to be way too high. I thought I’d “arrived,” and ended up being very disappointed because there’s so much that you just can’t control.

Some of my confidence was misplaced, because the first book did better than I’d expected so I assumed that the second one would be even better, and it didn’t work out that way.

A shift to a larger publishing house for a second book—with more resources and higher stakes—could also lead to elevated expectations. When the bar is higher, even if it’s a self-imposed bar, it takes more to feel “good enough,” let alone “better.”

I had higher expectations with my second book, simply because it was with a big pub and I was hopeful for the dream experience all us authors yearn for. In the end, it wasn’t the dream experience, but more of a stepping stone that’s helped me further my career and broaden my readership.

With my own sophomore novel launching in (gulp) three short weeks, I’m definitely feeling that fear, the dread that no one will care or want to read the new book—even though, ironically, it’s a more accessible and suspenseful story.  It’s hard not to toggle incessantly between the expectation of disappointment and a secret yearning to be proven wrong. What’s helping (a lot) is that it doesn’t feel as if my identity is at stake; I’ve already earned the identity of an author. It reminds me of when I adopted my second child. The first time was terrifying because I knew the birth mother could change her mind at any time; the second time I was much more relaxed and confident—although, naturally, my second child was a far more difficult baby!

A better understanding of the need for self-care

Several people noted that they had learned important lessons about self-care from the first experience. That included management of time, energy, emotions, and overall perspective, as well as setting healthy boundaries and making sure to keep a balance in one’s life.

I knew from my first book that I had to unplug for the latter half of the day. I scheduled as much as I could ahead of time and gave myself the space to just enjoy the accomplishment without obsessing over numbers and notifications. I think authors get really caught up in the hubbub, and it can kill the fun.

For those whose second book came out soon after the first, with little time to refuel and focus on other aspects of life, self-care could be especially challenging.

It also depends on how long between the two books, whether you have a break from the nonstop marketing. I didn’t, so I was really tired of it, and I just couldn’t sustain the promotion in that hyped-up, fervent, focused way.  I was tired of pitching all the time—all my relationships seemed so calculated, having to sell myself all the time, sustaining that high-energy extroverted persona.

“Knowing more” doesn’t necessarily mean “feeling less”

As one person put it:  “You have a better idea of what to expect, but you still have all the butterflies, all the nerves.” Knowing what’s in store, intellectually, doesn’t necessarily mean that one is less nervous or that the unrelenting pressure, stress, vulnerability, or lack of control are any easier.

With my debut, I felt like I was paving a new path; with my sophomore novel, I felt like I was traveling familiar ground and filling in pot holes. But the excitement, the anxiety, the imposter syndrome, the thrill—that was all the same.

The joys and fears of releasing a book fall heavy on you, regardless of the experience you have. It’s a lesson in vulnerability every time you share a piece of yourself. I don’t think that will ever change.

Yet each person I spoke with was clear: no matter what, it was worthwhile.

I know there will be punches to the gut, but that’s the risk of being an artist or a creator. I’ve accepted that now as part of this wild and amazing journey.

The sense of purpose and personal fulfillment that comes from following one’s passion is both humbling and gratifying, and the common thread of my experience with both my first and second book has everything to do with my abiding gratitude to readers.

There is a commitment to the art, the path. Even if it doesn’t get easier—or, in fact, if there are new challenges, with more at stake—no one expressed any regret. The love of writing is what keeps us going—as we keep moving, onward to our third and fourth books! 

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, did anything above especially resonate with you, or was your experience very different? As a reader, how did you feel when you opened the sophomore novel of an author whose debut you had loved?

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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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