Debut No More: Why the Second Book Hits Different

Read on for an excerpt from Cambion’s Blood!

My debut year has come and gone. In a way, it’s nice to be able to say that. There’s so much expectation and pressure wrapped up in first-time authorship.

I wrote here extensively about my debut experience. It was a wild year of ups and downs, lessons big and small, triumphs and disappointments. But in the end, it was just the beginning.

As of this week, I’m an author with a backlist and a series. My second book in the Cambion series, Cambion’s Blood, comes out tomorrow. And I find myself thinking about what it means that I’m not a debut author anymore.

There are some things about releasing a second book that I thought would feel different than the first, which in fact do not. It’s still more work, more time and more emotional energy than I planned for. On the other hand, there are some unexpected things that feel very different.

Today, I want to talk about the experience of leaving debut year behind. If the above all sounds tedious to you, just scroll to the end, where I’ll share a little sneak peek from the book itself!

I’m rethinking the mystique of debut status.

As I started working on this post, I fell into relating book debuts to virginity and brides. A maiden no more, I found myself writing. The bloom is off the rose, the honeymoon period is over. I’m no longer a blushing ingenue, no longer breathlessly hoping to be chosen as the belle of the ball.

I deleted this language because it plays into our culture’s gross, misogynist, sex-negative overvaluation of virginity. But as I thought more about it, I realized it’s probably not an accident. There’s something twisted in the over-emphasis on debut novelists in this industry too.

Zoe Deschanel says "I hope you like feminist rants cause that's kinda my thing."
Yeah I went there.

It commodifies inexperience. It even focuses on youth and beauty, with conventionally attractive authors (young, white, thin…) more likely to get picked to represent the face of a publisher’s lead titles. It (falsely) suggests that we have just one chance to get it right and make it big.

Likewise, the implication hangs over one’s head like the sword of Damocles that if your debut doesn’t sell like hotcakes your career is over. As though no one will want a used author. What’s the disgusting purity culture analogy—like a tissue someone sneezed in or a worn-down pencil? Yeah, eff that.

Your first time doesn’t define you.

It’s the same shit, isn’t it? The way we hold up debuts as the be all and end all of a career, of a creative life, is so much like purity culture. This industry is addicted to novelty but it doesn’t value it in a way that nurtures diversity or discoverability of rising artists. It’s simply hungry for new talent to exploit.

Emma Mackey as Maeve Wiley of Sex Education flips off the camera
Maeve Wiley said it best.

I reject that. It’s nonsense. It’s toxic, it fosters professional jealousy (we can’t ALL be the hot young thing of the moment), and it erases the experience of midlist and indie authors.

Your first time is just your first, no more, no less. It doesn’t have to mean everything. It doesn’t have to mean anything at all.

It probably will mean something in the moment. It will probably mean something else as you move past it. Much of that meaning will be in the lessons you learned, during and after, what you want more of, what you never want to do again.

I never really expected to hit it big with my first book. That’s not how indie works, not unless you’re extremely lucky. My goal has always been to build a backlist, write what I want, continue to grow, and build readership over time.

Success with my first book in this realm meant finding my audience, the readers who got what I was trying to do and appreciated that. Success with the second book means keeping them and hopefully gaining a few more readers. Sounds simple, right?

It’s not easy to avoid the sophomore slump.

Even if your debut lists, even if you are the next big thing—maybe especially if you are,—the entire process of releasing your second book can feel fraught. They call it the sophomore slump, the second book blues. It’s the curse of the sequel, powered by the weight of everyone’s expectations, primarily one’s own.

It’s the aftermath of the debut that crowds the heart and head—not all the time, but mostly. It’s then when we writers take stock: we stumbled or we didn’t; we were seen or we were not; we were loved, we were not loved, we were neglected; our emails were answered or they were ignored. 

Beth Kephart, “How to Kick the Next Book Blues

In my case, the sophomore slump feels more like a slog. I mitigated those second book blues to some extent by having the second book in my series already in zero draft form when I sold the first book. Now it’s just a matter of following through and getting her out the door and out of the nest.

A flying purple cartoon unicorn says "fly my pretties! Go and destroy all you see!" as she tosses magical books toward the viewer.
Off you go book babies!

I’ve been warned that second books in a series rarely do as well as the first, so I’m trying to manage my expectations. It helps that the first book didn’t go big enough to set up any unattainable bars now. But that doesn’t mean I’m not still worried that it won’t live up to my debut.

I’m still scared.

Book releases bring the Sunday scaries. This hasn’t changed and I’m annoyed about it. It would be nice to be able to say goodbye to this experience in particular. Alas.

I’m still scared no one will read it. I think this is the writer’s most enduring nightmare. To put all that time, sweat, tears, blood into writing and refining it, only to see it sink like a stone beneath the smooth surface of the river site? Oof.

I’m also still equally scared that “everyone” (whoever that is) will read it and hate it. This is true even though it’s also true that if everyone hate-read it I’d be laughing my way to the bank! I should be so lucky.

An animated woman with pointed ears, long chestnut hair, pale skin, and sharp canines says "I want to hate it properly."
That’s all I ask.

All attention is good attention in capitalism. So if you want to hate-read my books on TikTok or whatever, go for it, I guess. Just please don’t tell me about it, for I am not so hardened and jaded as a sophomore writer as to be inured to criticism. No, I am just as tender in my heart parts as ever, more’s the pity.

To not be read, or to be read but not understood: these two authorial dreads go together like peanut butter and jelly. (The fear of being read, understood, and duly scorned is like the pickle on the side, an unnecessary and unexpected extra that mostly adds insult to injury.) I’m not sure I’ll ever grow out of these fears.

For better or worse, it’s less of a big deal.

As is her way, my therapist called me out again last week. I mentioned offhand on my way to rant about something else that my next book was coming out soon, and she stopped me. She gently reminded me that I should acknowledge this as an accomplishment.

A white woman with shoulder length blond hair and pink lipstick says "Oh I'm currently in deep denial that that's happening."
What book release?!

And here I thought I would slip that one past her! Just kidding, because the truth is, it had not occurred to me to treat it as a big deal. That’s a change from last time around, when my looming book launch felt pretty stressful. This time it didn’t even rate in my Top Three Stressors of the week.

For authors working on their next book after their debut, I recommend Michael Mammay’s blog post on the differences between releasing his debut and his third book. I really appreciate how Mike’s blogs share his honest realism about the realities of publishing and working in the midlist. I think it’s much more relevant to most of us than the experience of the overnight sensations.

It’s like finishing your second year of college. It’s an accomplishment and you’re happy about it, but it’s not graduation. With this release, there have been books before it, and there will be books after it.

Michael Mammay, “Thoughts on the Release of COLONYSIDE”

That’s basically how I feel about it. No one throws you a party for finishing your sophomore year. You throw your own party and drink to being done and then you start again in a couple of months’ time.

Or if you’re me you refuse to have any parties and instead hole yourself up in your room playing Civilization 6 or my new obsession, Kingdoms and Castles, for several weeks on end. I’m an introvert and can’t really drink anymore anyway. We all have our own ways of celebrating.

A beautiful femme person with a blond undercut pompadour (Miley Cyrus) says "At the end of the day the person who has to be happy is me."
Probably my biggest carry-over lesson from debut year.

The second book does in fact sell the first book.

I was told this was true, but I’m surprised at how true it is! I’ve had a number of folks mention to me in the last couple of weeks that they just bought my first book and are excited to catch up. It’s nice to know that after being out in the world for eight months, people are still discovering my work.

I’ll say this did catch me off guard at first. It tickles me a bit, as if folks were waiting to see if I really meant it when I said there would be a second book, if I would really follow through. It’s fair, I guess. Not to name any names, Mr. Martin, but we’ve all been burned before.

It also demonstrates that it isn’t all about the debut numbers. Readership grows over time. I hope even more will take a chance on Lily Knight as Cambion’s Law goes on sale this week.

Look! She has a trade quote now!!!

I’m still not 100% satisfied.

I’m proud of Cambion’s Blood. I think it’s better than my first book. I worked hard to make it the best I could, and like my debut, my heart and soul is hidden in its pages.

Like my first novel, this is an escapist entertainment. It’s about demons and supernatural murders and bloodthirsty goddesses. But as with the rest of my work, its core theme centers on the experience of survivors, the ways formal justice falls short of its ideals, and right action in an unjust world.

Never let it be said that I don’t have a brand.

There’s an underlying current of rage in this book that after the week we’ve had, feels more apropos than ever. When I wrote it, I felt like it took some bigger risks than my last one, but now I wish I’d gone harder still and taken more risks.

You live, you learn, you write the next book. And the next. And the next.

Off screen: "What is your thing, then?"
Emma Mackey, rolling her eyes and smiling: "Complex female characters"
What she said.

You keep trying to get it right, the thing you want to say. Then, by the time you have it written down and ready to go live, what you want to say has changed. That’s the writing life.

With all that said, here’s a short sneak peek that takes a stab at it.

An Excerpt From Cambion’s Blood

I swung open the glass door of the clinic’s office entrance and propped it ajar with my hip. Safe Haven crowned the top of one of San Francisco’s breakneck hills and its porch faced downhill. The bristling, cramped, exuberant peninsula sparkled before me under a slow-breaking wave of evening fog that curled in from the ocean and swallowed the distant span of the Golden Gate Bridge.

One high heel inside, one braced on the weathered slats of the patio, I waited on the threshold. The clinic’s rules required us to use the buddy system while locking up at night, and Rae McGuire, the advocacy director, had run back inside to do one last thing, as usual.

A sudden clamor of harsh cries broke out from the eaves. I craned my neck and squinted up through the twilight. A cloud of black birds swirled into the air from the building’s gables, their windswept calls conveying some avian dispute I couldn’t comprehend. Others winged up the hill to join the bickering flock. They gathered here each night at sunset in unnerving numbers, clustering along the roof line until some unknown signal flung them back into the sky in a swirling mob.

“Damn birds.” I ducked back under the overhang and shielded my head with my purse in case one of them decided to take a dump on me. That would be just my luck. “Can’t you go flock somewhere else?”

“It’s called a murder.” Rae’s quiet, husky voice behind me made me jump.

I spun. “What?

With her array of prominent body piercings and her bright scarlet hair swept back in a long, thick French braid to expose a sharp-angled undercut, Rae McGuire looked more like a punk rocker than the director of the city’s biggest nonprofit survivors’ shelter. Her desiderata bristled with enough sharp spikes to put my teenage goth phase to shame and shimmered with the copper-bright scent of new pennies.

She stepped out onto the porch, a tall, imposing, gray-eyed figure in a black denim jacket, torn jeans, and clunky steel-toed boots. “The crows.” A slight smile quirked her lips. “When they flock like that, it’s called a murder.”


“They have complex social structures, and they’re quite smart.” She turned to lock the door, her heavy braid dropping forward over her shoulder and shadowing her face. “If a human hurts one of their own, the rest of them never forget the culprit’s face.”

I shivered, though the chill of San Francisco’s fogbound evening couldn’t touch me. “I didn’t know you were a bird expert.”

“Once upon a time,” Rae said, straightening, “I wanted to be a wildlife biologist.” In the fading light, my night vision revealed her wry expression, and my demon side sensed the energetic pulse of the rest of the story, a weight she chose to hold back.

“Can I ask you something?”


“I threw my application in the ring for the clinic attorney job last month.” Her eyebrows went up, and I rushed through the rest of my rehearsed speech. “I haven’t heard anything yet. Do you—”

“I have a question for you, Lily.” Rae’s desiderata shifted, became a fog-piercing searchlight bearing down on me. “You were a prosecutor. What would you do if you knew someone had committed a crime, and no one would do anything about it?”

“I—” What was this, some kind of test? The scent of ozone clogged my nose, the air charged as if with an oncoming storm. “Do you mean in a legal sense?”

“Legally. Morally. Whatever.” She shrugged. “You’re the lawyer. I’m just a layperson. I’m wondering what you would do.”

“I’d advise you—advise anyone—to report the crime to the authorities.” But I faltered under her keen gaze. I hadn’t gone to the police last fall. I didn’t trust them to help me. In the end, I’d made my own justice, but I couldn’t make my own peace.

“But if you have no evidence, the authorities won’t believe you. They’ll say there’s nothing they can do.”

I frowned, catching her drift. Safe Haven’s clients came to us with cases like that all the time, like the college student who wept in our meeting room earlier that day because her university found no credible evidence of her assault. Not so long ago, I prosecuted cases like that. But even then, I couldn’t do much to hold abusers accountable if the cops didn’t take a report.

“If the crime is ongoing, document everything,” I said. “Build a case so strong they have to charge it. Get a restraining order, find other victims. Bad behavior is rarely a one-and-done. It’s usually a pattern.”

“Right,” Rae said. “They get away with it and then they escalate. That’s the cost. It could be someone’s life.”

Ariel had escalated, and I would kick myself for the rest of my life for not recognizing his patterns. He’d fooled me, and people had died because of it. Danny would have died if I hadn’t brought her back.

But I couldn’t bring the rest of them back.

Erin Fulmer, Cambion’s Blood

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