A couple of years ago, Rachel Hartman was a Morris Award finalist, and she went on to win the award in early 2013. The Morris award, for those unfamiliar, is given annually by the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA), which is a division of the American Library Association (ALA). The award, which started in 2009, honors “a debut book published by a first-time author writing for teens and celebrating impressive new voices in young adult literature” (from the award’s webpage).
When Hartman’s novel was named on the short list, I wrote about how it raised some questions about what the word “debut” really means. Hartman had self-published a book a couple years prior, meaning that in the purest sense of the word, Seraphina wasn’t really a debut novel. For the purposes of the Morris, that self-published book didn’t infringe on the eligibility of Hartman’s novel being recognized. Since self-publishing is still relatively new — relative the key word there — these sorts of technicalities were still being considered when it came to award eligibility, and now it’s made much clearer in the official policies for the Morris. A debut novel is the first book by an author that’s been available in print or made available through a US publishing house.
Over the last few years, it’s impossible not to take note of how the word “debut” has been applied liberally to books in the YA world. It’s become a marketing tool, as a way to sell a book to an audience. In many ways, this makes sense: it can be hard for a new author to gain any sort of traction in a market where there are huge, well-known names that are exceptionally popular, that dominate bestseller lists, that are seen in airport bookstores and on big displays in bookshops, and which show up in co-ops in online retail spaces. To be a new author without a huge, guaranteed audience is to look at the bottom of a huge mountain without much climbing gear and with little or no experience.
But it’s also an opportunity.
That label of debut has become currency in a way. In many ways, it’s a sort of salve to those readers who are tired of the same old same old in YA. This debut novel is a new opportunity, a change from everything that’s already out there. Rather than debut being a thing that maybe you shouldn’t know about a book, it’s instead become a means of promoting the book. It’s not a pejorative term; it’s the exact opposite.
I’m a sucker for debut novels personally. I love seeing someone’s first story on the page. I love thinking about what and how that story did and did not succeed, and if it’s been a good reading experience, I look forward to seeing what their sophomore and subsequent efforts will look like. There are authors who I feel I’ve been reading their entire careers, and there’s something exceptionally fun about watching them go from debuts to seasoned authors. To see how their styles have grown, how their ability to weave a story has become more masterful, to see themes and trends that emerge, whether they’re intentional or not (some authors write certain things in all their books even they’re unaware of it — I’ve noticed, for example, an author who always wove hand or finger imagery into her work and another who always seemed to have something with mothers in hers, even if the mother wasn’t the thrust of the story). The label “debut” to me is exciting — that’s part of why I keep track of them each month. It’s a way for me to keep track of these new voices and make note of what I should be picking up.
“Debut” has become a full-force marketing tool, and the ways in which the word has become stretched makes it near meaningless for me anymore when I see it in a catalog description or an author bio. What should mean first novel — the first book that author has ever written — has instead morphed into something more meaningless. “Debut” has been frequently put in front of the words “young adult novel” in recent years, which means that no, the book isn’t actually the author’s first, but it is his or her first novel written for young adults (and whatever that means, too, since “for young adults” is essentially meaningless as well — young adult may be a category of books, but did that author whose book is being marketed as young adult really write for that audience or did that decision get made on another level?).
In some ways, the word feels apologetic when applied like that. We’ve all read the villainization and the apologia for young adult fiction too many times for me to reiterate here.
In other ways, it feels like it’s a too-easy way to garner some buzz for the book. The author’s written other books, but this one, it’s different because it’s a YA book. They’ve done exceptionally well in other areas, so this debut into a new category of fiction is exciting since it’s their first.
The story — what the book is about — can get lost in those conversations. The story is, of course, what most readers care about. Sure, they’ll care about Big Name authors making a YA foray, but that’s double edged: sometimes that YA foray can be met with scoffs by readers who are devoted to a particular author.
Sometimes, an author changes his or her name when writing that debut young adult novel. Perhaps they’ve published prolifically within a genre and now that they have a YA story in mind, they want to build a new brand around it. That’s the case in one “debut young adult novel” that will be out later this year.
Or perhaps they did write a young adult novel but they published it under a pseudonym and now they’re publishing their “debut young adult novel” under their real name. That’s the case in one or two “debut young adult novels” I’ve seen pop up in recent years, too. Do those who have written young adult novels initially who go on to publish an adult novel have their books sold as “debut adult novels?” I’m not sure I’ve seen that. Then again, I’ve seen that sort of move happen less frequently than I have seen adult novelists becoming young adult novelists (by choice or by luck).
In one case this year, I’ve seen a novel marketed as a “young adult debut thriller,” published with the author’s initials as the first name, rather than her full name. This not only redefined what debut meant by including the word “thriller,” but it also served the purpose of looking like an actual debut novel because the author’s name changed. So while she may be trying to build a different brand around a new writing style — one the fans she’s already grown may not necessarily be into (think Nora Roberts / J. D. Robb) — the marketing of the book pulls a sleight of hand, making it look like something that it’s really not.
I’ve been tricked before, and that leaves a sour taste in my mouth. “Debut” to me means one thing, and it means only one thing. But do I maybe care too much about the purity of the word? Then again, I wonder why it’s necessary to use unless there’s a meaning behind it.
For me, the word “debut” doesn’t skew the reading experience unless it’s been qualified. Then I judge it a little tougher. I want to know why it was important enough for that word to be a selling point or a feature, over what other things could have been played up instead. There’s a story to the story, rather than a story of the story.
So why all of the insistence on the word “debut” if it’s being used with a load of qualifiers? Does the word really move copies of the book? Does the word “debut” offer a certain leeway with readers? What about with reviewers?
What makes “debut” a word with such sex appeal and do readers — those without any interest or knowledge of the bigger book world — even care?