What is a debut novel?: Thoughts on the Morris Award

I love the Morris Award. I love everything it stands for. This is an award that, without doubt, changes the lives of the authors who are finalists and who are winners. The award’s entire purpose is to highlight not just outstanding debut novels that showcase strong writing and appeal to teen readers, but also writers who have work that is exciting and who have the capacity of deliver even more outstanding work down the road. These are books and authors that show potential. The rationale, listed under the policies of the Morris Committee, states: “We believe it is valuable to use the strength of our organization’s reputation and expertise to widely publicize and forthrightly honor these “first-time” books and their authors.”

Before proceeding, let me state this discussion is not at all about the hard work done by the committee or by the hard work done by any authors under discussion. Likewise, it is not a means of discounting the books discussed nor undermining their strengths. In other words, this has nothing to do with the books or those involved in decision making for this year’s short list. Rather, this is a post I hope generates some discussion. You should also make sure you check out Liz’s take on this topic because she and I have been discussing it at length. 

The Morris Awards have a short and, I think, fairly clear policy. The award and the finalists are to be books by first-time authors who have not published in the past. This means that authors who have written for the adult market or the children’s market and are making their first foray into YA are not eligible. It means authors who published under a pseudonym in the past but are now using their first names are not eligible. It means authors who may have worked with a ghost writer who has published in the past are not eligible. 

Rather than delineate all of the things that don’t define first-time author, I’ll go ahead and copy the eligibility criteria from the Morris site: 

  1. The award and honor book winner(s) must be authors of original young adult works of fiction in any genre, nonfiction, poetry, a short story collection, or graphic work.
  2. The award winner(s) must not have previously published a book for any audience. Books previously published in another country, however, may be considered if an American edition has been published during the period of eligibility.
  3. Works of joint authorship are eligible, but only if all contributors meet all other criteria. For example, graphic works created by an author and an illustrator are eligible, but only if both contributors have never published before.
  4. Books must have been published between January 1 and December 31 of the year preceding announcement of the award.
  5. Edited works and anthologies are not eligible.
  6. The short list may consist of up to five titles.
  7. The award may be given posthumously provided the other criteria are met.
  8. The winner and short-listed book authors are encouraged to attend an award ceremony following the announcement of the award at ALA’s Midwinter Meeting.
  9. If during a specific year, no title is deemed sufficiently meritorious, no award will be given that year.
  10. The chair, with assistance from designated YALSA staff, is responsible for verifying the eligibility of all nominated titles.
  11. To be eligible, a title must have been designated by its publisher as being either a young adult book or one published for the age range that YALSA defines as “young adult,” i.e., 12 through 18. Books published for adults or for younger children are not eligible.
  12. To be eligible, a title must be widely available in the US to libraries and teens.
  13. Titles that are self-published, published only in eBook format, and/or published from a publisher outside of the US will not be considered eligible until the first year the book is available in print through a US publishing house.

Looking at this year’s finalists, we see a little bit of everything. Laura Buzo’s Love and Other Perishable Items was eligible because, despite being published outside of the US prior to 2012, it didn’t make a US debut until this year. After the Snow is Crockett’s first and only book, as is Barnaby’s Wonder Show and Emily Danforth’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post (though interesting to note — a draft of Cameron Post was published as Danforth’s PhD dissertation). 

However — and this is something I didn’t realize back when I was making Morris predictions earlier this yearSeraphina is not Rachel Hartman’s first published book.

It’s not a secret anyone is keeping. Hartman talks about her self-published comic Amy Unbounded in her blog, and she even got a nice review of it in Publishers Weekly. She received a Xeric Foundation Grant to support the endeavor, and she got a nice write up on Strange Horizons, as well. 

There is a fascinating discussion over on the Someday My Printz Will Come blog in the comments about what this self-published title means in terms of Hartman’s book being eligible for this year’s Morris. Now that the short list is out there (and early, I may add — the Morris policy states that the finalists are announced on the second Monday in December, but they were announced on Thursday, December 6, which is the first Thursday in December), we know that the self-published title didn’t impact Seraphina‘s eligibility. 

Rereading the policy, it’s the last item on the list, #13, that seems to be where there is acknowledgement of the impact of self-published titles. Self-published books or those only available as eBooks are not eligible until the first year the book is available in print through a US house (note that rule #13 was implemented this year, per the President’s Report, which begs the question of why no one noticed this or why it wasn’t further discussed in March). Though it is not spelled out, but by the logic of the way rule #13 is written, it would be a Catch-22 for Amy Unbounded to be what disqualifies Seraphina from being eligible. Since Amy Unbounded wasn’t itself eligible under the rules, then it wasn’t a first book. Had it been published through a standard publisher, it would have been what kept Seraphina from becoming eligible.

Again, this post is not a discussion of Seraphina‘s merits or the committee’s decision to make it a finalist. In fact, I thought this was a non-surprise title, since it garnered so many positive and starred reviews. Rather, this is meant to question what a first novel really and truly is, and whether or not a self-published title is or is not a novel.

I’m not convinced that self-publishing a book is not, in fact, publishing a title. An author does it for any number of reasons: they can’t find a traditional outlet, they prefer not to go through a traditional outlet, and so on and so forth. It doesn’t really matter why they chose not to go that route. What it comes down to is wanting to put a book out there and share their works. For some, there is a lot of time and money involved in self-publishing (via hiring an editor, copy editor, designers, and so forth) and for others, it’s a one-person show. 

By putting a self-published book out there, aren’t the authors who choose to do that publishing a book? They are, in some capacity, not only growing a readership but they’re hoping to bring in some sort of income from it (even if it’s minuscule). How does their choice to self-publish diminish the fact that they published a book? Whatever method people chose to publish, they’re still publishing and developing a product available for reader consumption. A book is a book, whatever format it takes to get to that point. 

This leads me then to wonder why it is that self-published books are excluded as “previously published books for any audience.” If that’s the case, I’d accept it much better if the eligibility rules addressed this straight up, rather than dancing around it a little bit. Is there something sticky in stating bluntly that self-published books are not previously published books? That the “self” status in front of “published” disqualifies it or makes it less legitimate? 

Part of why I’m thinking about this is that it makes me wonder, then, why new ventures from authors who published for other audiences are disqualified from the Morris. Why is it that someone who has only published for adults and then chooses to try out a YA title disqualified? Or someone who has had their first book published as middle grade then chooses to try out YA in their next book? Sometimes, the audience of a particular book isn’t determined by the author but rather the publisher. Another thought: what about books that are published for a highly specific, non-fiction market? Liz herself is a co-author on Pop Goes the Library — a guide for librarians and the use of pop culture. If she were to write a novel, why would that prior non-fiction title (with a small, specialized audience) disqualify her as a new voice in YA fiction? It was published through a professional press, rather than a big publisher. It was not self-published, but it would still count as a first book by technicality. 

Sure these examples make the playing field much broader and doesn’t necessarily represent new voices on a grand scale. But how does a first-time traditionally-published book represent a new voice any differently if the book’s author has self-published in the past? There’s little argument it means a potentially bigger readership, potentially stronger editing, and potentially stronger marketing, but those are not at all guarantees. Look at the number of recently acquired self-published titles or fan fiction titles that went straight from where they were to press with little hand from anyone in the middle. 

Many of us who love the Morris have been wondering about the implications of self-publishing, and this year’s finalists definitely answer the question for us. But it does raise more questions about what a first novel truly is, and what self-publishing is or is not. 

From my perspective, a published book is a published book, whether it’s through traditional means or self-publishing means. 

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  1. says

    just looking at #2 – The award winner(s) must not have previously published a book for any audience – would seem to make Seraphina ineligible. Since a self-published book is still a book. The same rule/policy makes Cameron eligible since it was a paper instead of a book. It would be interesting to hear what the chair was thinking when determining eligibility.

    • says

      I'm much less inclined to see a dissertation as publication. That would then disqualify a LOT of people from ever being eligible for this award (think of MFA students, for one).

      That said, I am still trying to wrap my mind around #2 and #13 together, and what the true statement of what self-publishing is or is not is here.

    • says

      To be honest, I feel weird about the dissertation as well. I am not exactly sure how it worked in the author's school, but some of the dissertations do end up bound and a part of a school's library. So, if it's the same story (though only a draft), it, in theory, could have had an audience already.

    • says

      My leniency on that is because a dissertation/creative project could be a requirement of graduation, and I have a hard time justifying graduation requirements as disqualification for an award outside of the school's system. I see your argument, though!

  2. Sandy Carlson says

    If self-published books are not eligble to win the award, then neither can they render an author's later work ineligible. Rule #13 is clear on this, and the committee was correct to rule that Seraphina is eligible. Good call.

    • says

      I wouldn't say it's clear — it's not. This requires interpretation and understanding intent on the part of the policy writer in their wording. That's how I'm READING it, but it's not clear.

      I'm not saying Seraphina is a bad call! I am saying instead that this makes some interesting discussion on what is or is not a "first book."

  3. says

    I am inclined to agree with you, Kelly, on this, a self-published book is a book to me.

    This part of your post – "rule #13 was implemented this year, per the President's Report, which begs the question of why no one noticed this or why it wasn't further discussed in March" lead me to believe that most likely Morris' rules will continue evolving and will be adjusted as the self-pub market continues developing. I won't be surprised if this rule is bent once a truly great self-pubbed YA book catches the committee's attention, and I believe this day will come.

    • says

      I am with you. This is only the 4th year of the Morris, so they're still figuring out how this works. I think this year's short list tells us a LOT about the meaning of debut novel and how self-publishing plays into it. I would love to be a fly on the wall during these discussions because they're huge ones.

      It'll be interesting if a great self-published novel catches their attention, but according to #13, it's not going to happen. BUT there is the possibility — the President's Report states they'll reevaluate this rule in the coming year (which is a good thing, not a bad thing).

  4. says

    I think that they're defining published as something different than simply putting something that they wrote out for the world to see/buy – which is, let's be fair, the definition of self-published. It's not always good and it's hard to determine how to find the gems in the layers of crap that cover that particular outlet. It doesn't count because nobody's vetted it prior; it's not 'official,' so to speak. It's almost the same way that somebody's YouTube channel isn't eligible for the same awards that television shows are available for – you can reach the same audience, but if it hasn't been vetted, how are you to know? It's the same media, but the medium is what counts.

    • says

      I don't see YouTube as the equivalent to self-publishing, though. That'd also be saying, in theory, that blogging is the same as self-publishing and therefore would discredit a future book (it doesn't and shouldn't).

      I know their reasons have to do with verification of pub date, but I still stand firmly that a self-published book is a published book. How you do the publishing — as publishing — is publishing.

  5. says

    I have no stakes in The Morris (twice published traditionally, in print, in the U.S.A.) but like you I'm baffled by this. A few years ago vanity and self-publishing was outside the fold, but now? My guess is that the current reality has not been integrated into the mindset/rules of the ALA.

  6. says

    All this discussion skirts the question on WHY debut authors are so lauded in the first place. In YA especially this phenomena verges on a cult. There are any number of private cabals made up of debut authors all publishing in a given year, there are awards, like this one, for debut authors, there are awards specifically for authors under 35, or authors under 25 or last but certainly not least a virtual frenzy of enthusiasm about TEEN authors. There are panels at conferences for debut and/or "young" authors. All well and good, but where are the awards and recognition for debut authors OVER 35, 40, 50 or even 60? Where is the sophomore club for second time authors? Because these don't exist I am led to believe that "debut" and "young" awards etc are recognizing the marketability of this label rather than any intrinsic quality to the work. Some debuts are amazing; some may even be the best books that year. But why give an award to a book that is maybe only the 20th or 50th best book that year simply because all the other books were written by someone with more experience?
    Some might argue that debut and young awards give a needed push to authors just starting out. I snort with laughter about this. In what universe does an attractive young college kid need more of a push than a 45 year woman with three kids of her own? Or a man who has spent his youth supporting a family or in a profession or trade. DRACULA was published when Bram Stoker was 50 (freakin' DRACULA, people). THE HUNGER GAMES was Suzanne Collins's sixth book. Her first was published when she was over forty. Katherine Applegate wrote a bunch of not-literary series and franchise books (a BIG bunch) before knocking all of our socks off with HOME OF THE BRAVE and THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN. She's a spritely 56 years old.
    I admit I've a vested interest. I'm 45, my next book, my first literary work, is also my third publication for young readers. Neither of the first two were ever destined to set the world on fire, one a novelization of a kids movie and the other part of a series. Not every author bursts onto the scene. It would be nice if there was some recognition for authors who take another path. Yes, there are the Printz and the Newbery, but debut authors are eligible (and frequently win) those.
    I'm not surprised the Morris is only four years old. The growth of YA as a market and the cult of debut/youth authors have happened side by side.

    • says

      Debuts are lauded because they're debuts. The entire purpose of this award is to use the power of the association — librarians, teachers, and other youth advocates — to help support new voices.

      I think it's troubling to see debuts who work together to support one another as cabals or cults. Certainly, things are different now as a debut than they were years ago, but that's thanks to social media. It's not anything secret or underhanded. I don't know if they have it any easier now than they did in the past, even with social media, and I think part of that has to do with how big the market really is.

      For what it's worth, a debut is a debut, whether the author is 16, 35, or 75. So there IS an award for them. It's call the Morris.

      Also, the Morris doesn't necessarily recognize THE BEST, but rather, The Most Promising.

    • says

      Let me clarify my last statement there. I mean that the Morris award doesn't necessarily recognize the most flawless book, the most perfect book, but rather a book that showcases a very promising voice.

    • says

      My point is that "new voices" are sometimes previously published voices. "Most promising" doesn't have to mean never published before. Many authors make a mundane living as authors with series, franchise, ghost writing or in TV, magazines, non fiction etc before launching their "voice". There is literally no reason why a publisher should plug a great debut more than another great book by a more experienced but perhaps still relatively unknown author. Yet they do. Because the press loves the idea of them, especially if they're young. This is just a fashion. And there is no reason why librarians, teachers and other youth advocates should be more interested in a debut author than any other author with a great and original book. Yet they are. This taps into the idealized myth of either the gifted young writer straight out of school or the mature person who secretly taps out a work of genius in the wee hours while by day a lawyer or doctor and such. What it completely ignores is the not very glamorous life of the career working writer who finally is able to find the time and the money to concentrate on their own "voice". I guess because it's not very glamorous.

    • says

      Non-debuts are eligible for so many awards. I don't see why their having one additional possibility all for themselves is so problematic. I don't think there is an idealization of age nor is there anything undercutting the work of ANY author.

      I don't know ANY professional — librarian, teacher, or otherwise — who thinks of the writer lifestyle as glamorous. I mean, we do pretty unglamorous work ourselves, despite the way we're depicted sometimes.

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