Debut Year Comes to an End
Updated: Jan 26
I was going to let all the highs and lows of 2022 slide away as the calendar page turned, but then I saw that fellow 2022 debut author and smashing success Chelsea Abdullah shared a reflection post about her debut year and all she learned... So I was like, yeah I should do that, too.
I mean, can you blame me? She is who I want to be as like, a novelist, let alone as a fellow debut.
But in all honesty, after long months of slogging away at my sophomore book, A BOTANIST'S GUIDE TO FLOWERS AND FATALITY, finishing a completely different manuscript, and beginning work on Saffron #3, I really haven't felt like a debut author in months. The excitement and anxiety of my first-ever book launch feel a long way off, which is perhaps the best angle at which to come at a reflection of a wild roller-coaster ride of an experience.
I decided to write this as a timeline of sorts because I've had a lot of questions about how exactly the process of publishing works, so this is what happened for me and my books. Note: by January 2022, I'd finished edits on A BOTANIST'S GUIDE TO PARTIES AND POISONS, my debut novel, and it was up on NetGalley and in the hands of reviewers and authors, and I'd just finished the first draft of A BOTANIST'S GUIDE TO FLOWERS AND FATALITY, the second book in the Saffron Everleigh series that comes out June 2023.
So, what actually happened during my debut year of 2022, and more importantly, what did I learn about being a debut author?
I had only one confirmed thing to write down in my fresh 2022 planner: my book was coming out. I felt unsettled that I knew so little of what that would mean and emailed the very kind people at my publisher about what to expect way too often. At this point, PARTIES AND POISONS had been on NetGalley since September, trade reviews hadn't come in yet, and I was starting to receive emails from my publisher with blurbs from fellow mystery writers. P&P was starting to show up on 2022's book lists, which I read with equal parts glee and disappointment. I hunted them down and took it hard when my book wasn't on them. I did find it on lists for historical mysteries and mysteries in general, though, which was exciting and I tried to celebrate each time I saw it.
What I learned: Don't be bummed if your book isn't on a list. Thousands of books come out every year! It's hard to stand out, but easier if you have more of a niche genre, like historical mystery.
I spent a lot of this month working on editing NIGHTS OF NAEL, my high fantasy-court intrigue-adventure-romance-drama. As you can see from that description, it is very different from the Saffron Everleigh mysteries and a nice change after finishing the first draft of FLOWERS AND FATALITY.
What I learned: Working on other projects is necessary for feeling productive and not hyperfixating on everything surrounding the book that's actually coming out. It could be the sequel or an entirely different project, but doing something is essential.
I also received my ARCs! I definitely wasn't sure what to expect in terms of emotion, so I guess I wasn't surprised that I wasn't like, tearing up and screaming and carrying them around with me everywhere I went. That's just not me. However- it was, truthfully, thrilling. But I'm very glad I took lots of pictures and videos, not just for The Content, but to look back on and remember what it was like. I find it is a lot more emotional to look back on it than it was in the moment.
What I learned: Don't burden yourself with expectations of how you're going to feel. This is life-changing-dream-fulfilling stuff but that doesn't mean you'll feel it in the moment, and that's OK. Also, make sure to look cute when you open your box o' books.
I'd wondered when, even if, I would get hit in the feels with my debut book, and this is when it happened: listening to the audiobook narrator audition clips. It was so fun.
I don't know what it was about hearing someone take what I created and make it their own, but I loved every moment of it.
What I learned: I highly recommend asking your publisher/audiobook producers to be involved in choosing the narrator. Also, it is amazing to experience someone synthesizing your creation with their own creativity.
Speaking of feels: the Kirkus review came out. I was in the middle of Barnes and Noble chasing my son when I got the email. I stopped moving and breathing. I let my son get way too far away from me as I forced myself to take a deep breath before reading it. It was a nice review, not a glowing review, and I was immediately distraught. I processed it, told all my friends and family about it, got their thoughts, and distracted myself so I would stop overthinking.
What I learned: Yes, it's Kirkus and it is a big deal, but the world keeps spinning. Life goes on, whether a review is gushing or gory.
I got feedback for A BOTANIST'S GUIDE TO FLOWERS AND FATALITY from my friends and parents and though they had nice things to say and some great suggestions, I was really worried it would suck. I hadn't felt like that the year before- that the manuscript was horrible and I might be better off rewriting it- so I was pretty freaked out. I'd spent four years (off and on) working on PARTIES AND POISONS, and now I had less than a year to whip F&F into shape. It felt impossible. But, reader, it totally was. More on that later.
What I learned: Sophomore books suck. I knew that well before March, but it's something all debut authors must must know before they start wondering if they ever would ever write decently again. You've learned a lot. You've published or almost published one book already. You do know how to write, but second books are hard, particularly second books in a series. I might write an entirely separate post on this because it's worth discussing further!
Ashley Weaver, one of my favorite historical mystery authors and one whose books really recaptured my interest in reading as an adult, blurbed my book. I got teary when I saw it. Her words are now on the cover of my books. I'll go back and reread her comments, just to relive that moment of "Wow, this person who writes characters so enticing and amusing wrote this about my book." I do that with all the incredibly kind and generous words of the handful of my fellow authors who blurbed PARTIES AND POISONS any time I feel bad about myself and my abilities... basically whenever I sat down to work on FLOWERS AND FATALITY.
What I learned: The support of the writing community, published or not, is amazing. Lean into it, and never be afraid to reach out and ask for advice or help.
Around this time my editor started talking about Saffron #3. What ideas I had, what a third book could be like. We went back and forth on two different ideas: one I'd had from the already existing third draft which would need to be rewritten just like I'd rewritten the other two books, or a completely new idea I had like the week before and created a loose premise for. We went with the already formed idea, and a few weeks later I was offered a contract for Saffron #3.
I like to joke that my parents, who live abroad, are my good luck charms when it comes to publishing news. They were staying with me when I got the contract in my inbox, almost a month before P&P even came out. This was met with Much Excitement, but perhaps even more chagrin because I wasn't sure if I should be using it as an opportunity to get an agent. I was thrilled and confused and doesn't that just about sum up what I was feeling constantly at this time!
What I learned: Have ideas ready for other books, either in the same series or for other books you'd like to write or are already working on. Have a blurb prepared at least, and a synopsis and some sample pages ready to share at best. Also- don't stall on signing contracts. I did, unsure about the agent thing, and it was stupid. Do your due diligence, but don't leave it hanging. The stress is not worth it!
My book tour was announced after months of coordinating with my publisher, bookstores, and online folks. It was so so exciting to see all those events fill up my calendar! I said yes to almost every single one. As a former teacher, I'm used to speaking in front of others, but I was nervous all the same. I started practicing answering questions, like explaining my inspiration and process. This probably made me look like a crazy person as I muttered to myself in the car, shower, and while I pulled weeds in my garden, but it helped me be prepared and feel prepared.
What I learned: Talking to yourself pays off. Practice talking about your book and anticipating the questions people might ask you if you're planning to do promotional events.
I got my official, real-life hardback copies of the book. They were gorgeous. I didn't cry, but I did get a little teary, running my fingers over the text- in particular the acknowledgments and dedication. I immediately began plotting flatlays for Instagram and giveaways. I also realized that other people were making some incredible content of their own featuring my book, so I was more than happy to share their creations along with my own. It was around this time that I started hating making reels. I spent probably three hours making a really simple reel and felt for the first time that static-brain frustration that now accompanies me each time I sit down to make one. Social media is a gift and a curse, I tell you.
What I learned: Let yourself feel your feelings, about the big things and the small things. Also, give yourself grace to not obsess over whether or not your promoting your book enough online. Chances are whatever you do will not lead to more sales, just more visibility. Do your best, but don't lose sleep (or your patience) over it. Lean on celebrating the work of others whenever you can!
I listened to the audiobook of PARTIES
AND POISONS and it was magical. But I also kind of hated it. As I was listening, I kept hearing things I wished I could change in my writing. At this point, I was nearly done with the second draft of FLOWERS AND FATALITY, so my editing brain was in full force. Just nine months after finishing P&P, I felt like I'd grown a lot as a writer and wished I could like polish it one more time.
What I learned: Your book is out of your hands after a certain point, and that has to be OK. Let it go. You'll always be learning and growing and your work will show that progress. Focus on making your next the absolute best it can be, knowing you'll no doubt feel the same half a year later.
I did a great big giveaway! It was fun to put together the boxes with special bookmarks, notebooks, candles, and even tea! It cost a lot of money, time, and effort, but I'd dreamed of doing big giveaways with goodies like that, so I'm glad I took the time and money to do it.
What I learned: You get out of it what you put in, meaning, if you enjoy doing things like social media, commissioning art, etc, then you'll probably love doing stuff like giveaways. If that's not you, or if you don't have the funds, then just stick to giving away a few copies of the books with bookmarks or bookplates rather than the whole deal.
Debut month came up on me QUICK, but that first week of June took forever. Luckily, that first week started with PARTIES AND POISONS being chosen as an Amazon Editor's Pick for best mystery, so that was... Wow. I remember being really amazed by that. Definitely had a little imposter syndrome creep up on me.
Now for the truth of what actually happened on the day of PARTIES AND POISONS's release. I've waited until now to spill the whole truth, mostly because I was a little embarrassed by how it all went down and how upset I was, but this is truth-telling time for all the other debut babies who might read this...
My best friend came into town (days before she was moving across the country!) and I told her that I'd been working to manage my expectations by having only one: that I would see my book on shelves on debut day.
Erin was amazing. She metaphorically (and maybe also literally) held my hand as we walked into Barnes and Noble minutes after they opened so we could see my book. We walked in with giant grins and literal giggling... and found PARTIES AND POISONS wasn't on the shelves. Or in stock. Or even ordered to the store. Or any other Barnes and Noble within 100 miles of my city.
I was... very upset by this. We rallied and drove to forty-five minutes to one of the stores where I was having an event in the next few days, confident that they would have the books on shelves. They didn't. Their shipment was set to arrive the next day.
By this point, I was very close to being crushed. All I'd wanted was to see my books on shelves and I just... couldn't. It was horrible. I felt embarrassed that I'd dragged my friend (and my three-year-old, who generously didn't put up a fuss as we carted him all over DFW) to two bookstores, neither of which had my book. And look, I knew my book wasn't a big deal. It wasn't blowing up best-seller lists or anything, but I thought that it would at least be in bookstores. Luckily, Erin and the rest of my family, including my brother who flew in for another event, made sure I didn't lose it. With humor and tacos and flowers and cake, they celebrated my book's release and made sure I had a great time at the launch party.
What I learned: Don't count on your book being in bookstores. If you want to see it on debut day, make sure your local bookshop has it in stock, or ask someone else to check for you. Don't set yourself up for disappointment by expecting to see it on display tables or even on shelves! There are a lot of reasons it might not be there, and your emotions will likely be high enough without an unexpected disappointment on a day meant for celebrating.
The rest of my debut day and week and month was actually more or less what I expected. I was thrilled with the reader response that I got when I visited bookstores. I loved getting to share my thoughts, my process, my inspiration, and hints about the next book. I did online events with some incredible authors, including Katharine Schellman, another author who blurbed me and whose books are now favorites. I panicked about what I would wear, bought way too many clothes, and sweated through my shirt at least twice. I was both over- and underwhelmed by my family and friends, but most people were amazing and I felt very loved.
I had one event where no one but my friend showed up but ended up having an amazing conversation with the event coordinator who actually inspired a character in Saffron #3. I had one event where I was asked to bring my own author copies of my book because the shop owner didn't order enough on time. I had awkward moments where I felt like I was babbling to a room of people who couldn't care less. I had moments where I felt like my words flowed perfectly to an audience who totally got me. I likely spent way more money than I made by doing all the events that I did, including travel expenses and time, but I had so much fun that I didn't care.
What I learned: Book tours can be amazing if you remember that the goal is to meet readers, even if it's just one or two. Online events can be a great way to meet readers, but also other authors! Bring lots of pens, bookmarks, sticky notes, and possibly even your own books?
This is also when one of the craziest things to ever happen to me occurred: an agent reached out to me asking if I was looking for representation. At the time, I'd been planning to query another project in the winter and was already dreading it. We started talking. Suffice it to say, I was completely shocked, pleased, and a little awed by my good fortune. We'll see how that worked out...
By the end of June, I was exhausted and somehow managed not to get sick. But did I slow down?
No. I did not. Immediately after wrapping up my book tour, I announced that I'd be self-publishing BLOOD PRINT, the first in the Blood Magic trilogy. I set a date, did a cover reveal, hired a copyeditor and a formatter, and got beta readers going on the third book I finished earlier in the year. I did this at the same time I was finishing another round of edits of FLOWERS AND FATALITY.
People talk about the post-debut slump or blues or whatever, and I didn't have that because I didn't let myself have the time. It was a good and bad thing. Honestly, I really wanted to capitalize on whatever modicum of success of PARTIES AND POISONS had generated. I felt like this was my shot, this was my chance to make this career work.
Looking back, I want to roll my eyes at myself... but I also still feel that way. I want to do more, write more, publish more. I can't blame Past Kate for wanting to work her ass off to accomplish that. For me, the month following my debut did not make me less anxious for success, but I used that motivation to work harder, not refresh the bestseller lists or my Amazon ranking (though I did do that a fair bit, too).
What I learned: If you're going not going to give yourself a break after your book comes out, at least make it productive and enjoyable.
The agent who reached out to me turned out to be Liz, my current agent. I signed with her after a few very informative and exciting conversations and immediately hopped into still more work. She put BLOOD PRINT on submission, and my plans for self-publishing were paused pending the results.
I announced signing with Liz and my contract for the third Saffron Everleigh mystery back to back, and it was a relief to get those pieces of news out there. It was surprisingly uncomfortable sitting on publishing news, and I relish that I get the privilege of that discomfort.
What I learned: The gory details are not always necessary. Celebrating your wins (or mourning your losses) doesn't have to include all the crazy stories about how you got there (she writes knowing full well this year's reflection is going to be SO LONG and detailed).
I took a social media break to focus on FLOWERS AND FATALITY, but also because there was a lot of chaos and sadness in my personal life in August. Truthfully, I was a mess. I clung to my work to keep my head above water. I pushed back the deadline for F&F, worried I wouldn't be able to make meet it, and kept plodding along while trying to take care of myself and my family.
The hard times didn't disappear in September, but things started to get better, slowly.
I've been using my IG feed to help myself remember everything that happened to write this, and it's astonishing to me how normal I seem in my posts from this time. No hint of what went on behind the camera. I started working on promotional graphics and posts for the cover reveal of FLOWERS AND FATALITY, and I took a video of myself with a bunch of flowers I'd bought to film stuff. I made a reel the next week, and I looked great. You'd never know that I cried unloading the washing machine, or that I did nothing but lay on the couch and reread my comfort books for days at a time.
What I learned, or rather, something we all know but could always be reminded of: Even those who seem to have it all: success with their debut, a beautiful family, a put-together life, might... not. Don't compare yourself, your book, your success, your life to anyone else, because you never know what others are dealing with, what they're hiding.
Another learning that might come off callous given the vulnerability, but it's good advice regardless: Prepare as many graphics/images/videos/announcements as you can ahead of time. If you know your book will go on sale on X date, make the graphic and plan the post as soon as you hear about it so you aren't scrambling to announce it the day of. This gives you time to make something good and proofread it ahead of time.
I visited ,a local book club after they read my book, and it was wonderful. Connecting with readers always brings I smile to my face. Another thing I did in September that truly lifted my spirits was annotating a copy of PARTIES AND POISONS. It was fun to remember all the silly things, the inspiration for certain bits of dialogue or scenes and which lines made it all the way from the first draft to the final copy, knowing I would share these little secrets with others.
What I learned: Write stuff down, because you'll forget all the fun stuff about brainstorming and drafting. And it helps to remember things about Book 1 when you're in the middle of finalizing Book 2 and starting to write Book 3 while you're still supposed to be promoting newly pubbed Book 1.
As FLOWERS AND FATALITY got closer and closer to the copyeditor's desk, I picked up another half-drafted manuscript: Project Sleeping Beauty. Totally different from Saffron and a great way to refresh myself after months of slogging through edits.
I also attended the DFW Writers' Conference and had a BLAST. I went the previous year online, and I was so glad to be able to go in person this year. It reminded me of the fun I had on tour, connecting with people by talking books. It was exhausting, and I was SO peopled out by the end, but I loved meeting local writers and making some connections that I'm still enjoying today.
What I learned: Conferences are amazing and we should all try to go to them so we can geek out about our favorite books together and learn things!
I also traveled to London this month. In my mind, this was a research trip. I made sure to spend time in all the places I wrote about, like University College London, but still came home wishing I had another week or two there to just soak in the city. My favorite place by far was Kew Gardens, a massive botanical garden that would have Saffron in vapors, and I fully plan on sending her on an adventure there soon. I was also there with my family, which was both really fun and very healing after so horrible a time in the prior weeks.
What I learned: Going to the places you write about can be one of the most fulfilling experiences of your writerly life. But maybe I'll be writing a little closer to home in the future so I can do it more often...
By this time, I'd honestly stopped thinking about PARTIES AND POISONS. I was busy with so many other things, like cover reveal for FLOWERS AND FATALITY. I asked a handful of friends and IG buddies to contribute. It helped ease my stress to know my posts were not the only means of getting the word out about my next book.
What I learned: Other people make wonderful things and you shouldn't be shy to ask them to make things for you.
F&F also went up on NetGalley to receive advanced reviews from readers. I read each and every NetGalley review of PARTIES AND POISONS last year, and while it was helpful to see what specifically people liked or didn't like, it was also depressing as hell. After a certain point, anything less than a glowing 5-star review wasn't enough. I got really anxious this time around that I wouldn't be able to stay away and would get depressed right when I really needed a boost to finish Book 2. I asked my best friend to read the reviews and summarize them for me so I didn't get gut-punched every time I checked like I did last time. It's been incredibly effective, plus I get her hilarious commentary on every negative review.
I learned this lesson last year, but it bears repeating: Don't read your reviews. If you can't bear not knowing, asking someone else to read them and pass on helpful/exciting comments can be a great way to get your fix.
Turning in edits for FLOWERS AND FATALITY was ongoing, meaning I traded copyedits for pass pages and did several rounds of those. It takes forever and gets really tedious, but it was also around this time that I started feeling like the book was actually good. It took me a really long time to love this book, but I finally came to feel really proud of it and myself.
The crazy Twitter meltdown drove me to explore other social media options and while it was cool for a minute to experiment, it was also exhausting, especially after doing so much on IG and in my newsletter in the last few months.
What I learned: Don't spread yourself too thin on socials. Use them in the way that makes you happy and brings you results!
Thanksgiving gave me the chance to really actually take a break for almost a week. I set myself up with a bunch of books on my brother's couch and let my brain slow down. It worked... even if I ended up solving a historical fact problem I'd been having for Saffron #3 for months. The break was revitalizing for my creativity and editorial brain. I struggle to force myself into breaks and always find myself feeling more anxious about getting back to work than relaxed. Thanksgiving was the first time I wanted to take a break, and it made all the difference.
What I learned: Taking a break is great, but don't beat yourself up if you have trouble relaxing and letting go of ideas, deadlines, etc. Find a time between projects and give yourself fun things to do, like reading a book you've been looking forward to, binge-watching a TV series, planning time with friends or family, etc.
December turned out way busier than I anticipated. I finalized pass pages for FLOWERS AND FATALITY and the paperback edition of PARTIES AND POISONS. I created advertisements for P&P that sucked up a ton of my time but ended up actually selling books over the holidays. P&P was also chosen for several Amazon promotions, which was exciting, and I didn't have to do anything to make that happen, which was amazing!
What I learned: The learning curve for advertising across platforms is steep and there are a lot of rules for what you can and can't use. Do your research beforehand and be prepared to dedicate hours to their creation and implementation, or hire it out so you don't have to do it yourself. Even so, be prepared for them to not be effective. Experiment and learn!
I also went on a mini book tour to Wichita, my hometown, and Oklahoma City. The results were mixed, but again, speaking with readers is my happy place. I went into them expecting to buy a lot of books for myself at the bookshops, so I had a great time. (I bought five books, a mug, a t-shirt, some stickers... so I had a really great time!)
All this activity really helped me keep my mind off the dreaded season of end-of-the-year lists. It's stressful to wonder and worry about, so I just... haven't looked at them.
What I learned, or rather, relearned from the very beginning of the year: Your book may or may not be on lists, but the readers who will love it will find it eventually.
I dragged myself to the finish line of Project Sleeping Beauty and sent it off to my agent and my beta readers. Since I ended 2021 by finishing FLOWERS AND FATALITIES, it felt really, really good to finish a manuscript this year. I tried hard to protect my writing time, and honestly, I'm pretty impressed I managed to write 60% of a new book considering how much other stuff I was doing, like graphic design, writing newsletters and managing my subscriber list, creating content for IG and other socials, and promoting my book.
What I learned: You are a writer, so you need to be making time for writing, no matter what else you have to do. 80% of what you feel you need to do is optional. Writing material is not.
One final thing happened at the end of this year that I feel is the perfect way to finish off this reflection: I got really excited about writing Saffron #3. Like, daydreaming snippets of dialogue, wanting to make moodboards, wanting to spend hours researching people and places. It was really... exciting. It felt at once like getting a bright, shiny new idea, while at the same time being really familiar and safe since it's the third in a series. I let myself follow that excitement and do that research, make those moodboards. I started writing scenes, and it feels really good. It's reminding me why I love this through all the ups and downs and chaos of learning new knowledge and skills. I'm so glad to be feeling this way at the conclusion of this crazy year, like all the work I'm doing is fulfilling my potential even as it challenges me.
What I learned: Writing and publishing are strange, mercurial processes... but I think I love them.
If you made it all the way to the end of this reflection, I so appreciate your time and hope you got something helpful out of it. If you've been with me on this journey, thanks for being there. I have felt your love and support and I hope you know what it means to me not to go it alone through the ups and downs of this year and beyond.
Please leave any questions you might have below in the comments, or feel free to reach out in an email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or on socials, @authorkkhavari.
Happy New Year... and I'll see you on the other side!