Traditional Publishing

Why Are Debut Novels Failing to Launch? – Thursday May 30, 2024

For first-time writers, it’s harder than ever to break out. That poses an existential crisis for publishing—and disturbing limits on your access to exciting new voices.

On the Road was not Jack Kerouac’s first novel, but you’d be forgiven for thinking as much.

Though 1957’s On the Road is widely considered to be Kerouac’s “debut,” the author’s first novel, The Town and the City, was in fact published in 1950. By all measures, it flopped. Between that book and the launch of On the Road, Kerouac started working with the literary agent Sterling Lord, who believed he could be the voice of his generation and laid the groundwork for his public reception as such. What, exactly, did Sterling Lord do to prime Kerouac’s audience? From 1953 to 1957, he leveraged his own professional connections to place excerpts of On the Road in magazines like The Paris Review and New World Writing, building hype for the young novelist’s next bookThis is common practice today, but in the fifties, it was a novel solution to the name-recognition problem faced by unknown writers.

After a few years of seeing Kerouac’s byline in print, the thinking went, readers would pay attention when they recognized his name on the cover of On the Road. It was one of the first literary “debuts” of its kind, explains Temple University professor Laura McGrath, author of the forthcoming book Middlemen: Literary Agents and the Making of Contemporary American Literature. McGrath argues that Sterling Lord created the blueprint for the literary “debut” phenomenon we still see today.

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