Deb Futter on the Rewards of Publishing Debut Authors

The senior vice president and co-publisher of Celadon Books outlines the risks and rewards of working with first-time authors and their debut novels.

By: Deb Futter, as told to Stephen Lovely

Deb Futter is Senior Vice President and Co-Publisher of Celadon Books, an imprint of Macmillan Publishers. Following a remarkable career as an executive with Grand Central Publishing, Futter has taken on a role with Celadon that returns her to a smaller and more carefully curated list that includes, as always, first-timers. When asked why debut authors are worth publishing, Futter shared her thoughts on the challenges and the rewards of publishing debuts – and explained why the latter outweighs the former.

Acquiring any book is a thrill. Finding a manuscript you really love, landing it, and bringing it to publication – it’s a discovery, then a competition, then a collaboration. But there is nothing quite as exhilarating as receiving a first novel as a submission and falling in love with it. Authors dream of being published, and when you’re reading a singular manuscript, you get to watch them earn that through their writing. You are able to fulfill the author’s dream and start their published career.

And when you acquire a debut book, you become a part of the next stage of that dream. You start fantasizing along with the author: looking forward to editing and publication, thinking about the success the book could have commercially and critically, and thinking about the long career that could be getting its start with this first book. It’s the beginning of a partnership – one hopes a lifelong partnership – between you, the publisher, and that first-time author.

There’s no baggage. You don’t have to worry about past sales figures, reviews of prior work, or any other disappointments. Those sorts of things can weigh on you with an established author, but with a debut, they’re just not there. Everything is fresh, and everything is ahead of you. It’s undiluted hope.

Of course, it’s not easy to turn that hope into reality. There are a lot of structural challenges to deal with when you’re publishing a debut novel. Most first-time novelists don’t really have a platform to help promote their own book: The fans and social media followers aren’t there yet, because they haven’t yet read that first book. It takes a lot of luck, and it also takes a really strong book.

I’m not just saying that to sing the praises of the great debut books I’ve worked on – you really do need a very strong book to succeed with a debut, because you have to rely quite a bit on good reviews to generate buzz and open doors to other forms of publicity.

I have worked on many, many first novels. I worked with debut authors from the very start of my career: Two of my early acquisitions, White Palace by Glenn Savan and Somewhere Off the Coast of Maine by Ann Hood, were first novels. Both of those were the kind of strong books it takes to create a successful debut. They both generated great reviews early on, beat the odds, and became bestsellers. White Palace was even made into a movie – Susan Sarandon and James Spader starred in it.

I also acquired Christina Schwarz’s wonderful debut novel Drowning Ruth. That, too, beat the odds, and Oprah made it one of her Oprah Book Club picks back in the day of her daily television talk show.

It doesn’t always go that well, obviously, but I’ve been lucky to work on some really exciting debuts. And when you take it all together, the joys of publishing debut novels outweigh the challenges. There is no sweeter success than seeing a first novel flourish.

I was overjoyed that my first acquisition at Celadon Books was a debut novel: Cape May by Chip Cheek. Kicking things off with a debut novel made me feel like I was returning to my roots as a champion of first-timers. I felt that discovery, excitement, and hope again from the very first sentence: “The beaches were empty, the stores were closed, and after sunset, all the houses on New Hampshire Avenue stood dark.”

The tone, the content, everything I love about Cape May – it was all in that sentence. I acquired the book less than 24 hours of reading it, and it’s being published on the first Celadon list. To me, that first sentence is emblematic of what it’s like to publishing debut authors: It’s something that’s rewarding in and of itself, but it’s also a trailhead, a place to ponder all of the good things that may wait further on. 

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