your first book is less important than you realize

Here’s a public service announcement: your first book does not have to be your best book. And, as a corollary: if you’re not a best selling author by 30, you probably should not give up.

I feel like I’m screaming into the void when I tell people that it’s okay that they’re 27 and not yet a best-selling author. They assume that since they haven’t started (or haven’t yet published), they’re already too late. I can’t convince them otherwise–they won’t hear it.

And the people who are in the middle of writing their first book treat it like some sort of proving ground. “This book will tell me if I should continue writing,” they say. Their writing career hinges on its subsequent success or failure.

And so you put a tremendous amount of pressure on yourself to produce a seminal first novel. Each word holds the power to launch you towards success or demonstrate your failure. You’ve never written anything before, but you expect your first book to be the Lord of the Rings. Or, more realistically, The Lightning Thief. Or The Road.

And yes, sometimes this does happen. Sometimes people are 19. Or they’re 22. And they write something killer, something genre-defining. Something transcendent. (Or something like Eragon, which is none of these things, but also hugely popular.)

But how fair is it for you to compare yourself to the top .001% of the novel-writing bell curve? Do you expect a thirteen-year-old first baseman in Little League to have the stats of Albert Pujols? Of course not. That’s ridiculous. But that’s the same thing you’re doing when you look at your first book and expect it to be the best.

If you’re like me, though, you look at these Cinderella stories and say to yourself, “Well, if they can do this, why not me?” And while I certainly condone reaching for the stars, this mindset breaks down when you turn that hopeful optimism around to torture yourself. If you’re squeaking out a word at a time against a backdrop of existential despair, this approach is probably not working for you. It certainly doesn’t work for me.

What does work, though, is math.

I pulled 11 books off my shelf, each by a different author, and each something that would be well-recognized within its genre, if not a best-seller. (Obviously, this isn’t science here. I’m just trying to illustrate a point.)

And, my friends, the point is this: the average age of these authors in the year of their first “famous” book’s publication was 41 years. The youngest was 27 (Stephen King), but the oldest was 62, and the median age was 44. Writing is not like professional sports. If you do want to write the next Lord of the Rings, you’ve probably still got a couple of decades to make that happen.

And even more pertinent to note is that, in the majority of cases, the most recognizable book by an author is not their first book. Mostly, it’s not even their second book. Madeline L’Engle had several books written and published before A Wrinkle in Time, and even that book took two years of querying to get a publisher to accept it. Pullman had written many children’s books before His Dark Materials. And Stephen King, while young, wrote extensively as a child, which means he had been writing seriously for nearly twenty years when Carrie was released.

So. Next time you’re wandering through your local brick and mortar bookstore and feeling the despair, stop and remember this post. You still have time.

And please, if you think that tying your success as a writer to your first published (or self-published) book is a good idea, think again. My bookshelf would look very different if it were not for a great many authors who had the audacity to keep writing after their first book was released to little acclaim. Once you’ve finished your first book, there is only one thing to do–write the second.

Commit to your success. Believe you have something to contribute. And keep writing.

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