Four Debut Authors Share Their Publishing Journey, Writing Advice, and More

A collage of the covers included in this article

Debut novels are a fantastic way for readers to discover a new author at the very start of their career. Plus, there’s something exciting about knowing that a book is the culmination of years of big dreams and hard work. 2021 is packed with incredible debut authors, and here I’ve asked four with upcoming releases to share their publishing journey, the inspiration behind their book, and ways readers can help authors during this time.

Zakiya Dalila Harris, author of The Other Black Girl

© Nicole Mondestin Photography

Arriving on shelves June 1, The Other Black Girl follows editorial assistant Nella Rogers, who begins receiving threatening notes telling her to quit her job after her company hires a woman named Hazel.


What has your publishing journey been like?

I worked in publishing for a few years before writing The Other Black Girl, so I’d already seen a lot of what happens behind the scenes of publishing a book. However, a few weeks after selling my debut novel, the world shut down due to the pandemic, and I had to completely reimagine what being a soon-to-be-published author would look like for me.

But my initial uncertainty quickly drifted away and now, all I can say is that my publishing journey has been delightful—and on so many levels. Being indoors has meant engaging on social media a lot more, and I’ve found an amazing literary community online that I’m not sure I would have found otherwise. My publisher, Atria Books, has hit it out of the park with every aspect of publishing my book, from securing Temi Coker’s gorgeous artwork for the cover to getting this book into countless peoples’ hands. And I’ve already gotten to speak to early readers about how the book hit them, which is a pretty incredible feeling.


What’s the most helpful writing advice you’ve ever received? And what was the least?

Write every day. It’s a muscle that always needs to be worked, so it’s good to do it consistently, even when you’re too busy to do more than ten minutes in a day.

The least helpful writing advice I received came from a creative writing professor who, on the first or second day of class, made a long list on the board of all the things we shouldn’t write. Looking back, I don’t think it’s good to dictate to any young person what not to write, especially when they’re young and just beginning to find their voice. I was around eighteen at the time and I remember feeling so discouraged by it.


What was the inspiration for your novel?

My biggest inspiration for The Other Black Girl came from my own experience as a young Black editorial assistant. I was always acutely aware of how white the publishing industry was and how so many people seemed either too complacent, or too willfully ignorant, to see a problem with that. 

At the same time, though, I really enjoyed working in editorial. I cherished the idea of ascending the ladder to become the Black female editor that didn’t exist at my imprint. So I had these two very conflicting ideas in my head, and I really wanted to explore how they coexisted. How do you turn off the part of your brain that knows the system is generally rigged against people who look like you while simultaneously wanting to succeed within it?

The genre elements of the novel also came to me naturally. I’ve always loved sci-fi and horror and stories about backstabbing women, so when the original seed for this idea came to me—two Black women meet in an overwhelming white workplace, and something is “off” about one of them—I knew that there would be some kind of mysterious, otherworldly force at play. 


What can readers do to help support debuts in 2021?

Pre-order from indies! Pre-order from indies! Pre-order from indies! If you don’t see the book at your local indie bookstore, put in a request. And if you don’t see it at your local library, put in a request there, too.


Do you have any virtual events or activities that readers can attend to support your book’s launch? If readers want to pre-order your book, is there a particular indie bookstore you hope they’ll consider?

I don’t have any virtual events announced just yet, but I encourage readers to sign up for my mailing list for updates and our tour announcement! And I recommend readers pre-order my book from Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn, or Harriet’s Bookshop in Philadelphia. 


What 2021 debut novels are you most excited about?

Wild Women and the Blues by Denny S. Bryce, In Every Mirror She’s Black by Lola Akinmade Åkerström, The Atmospherians by Alex McElroy, Animal by Lisa Taddeo, and All Her Little Secrets by Wanda M. Morris.

Shelley Parker-Chan, author of She Who Became the Sun

© Harvard Wang

Get your fantasy fix on July 20. Set in 1300s China, this historical fantasy novel features a girl who assumes her brother’s identity after he dies and, along with it, the greatness he was destined for.

What has your publishing journey been like?

It’s been long! I’m glad I started out as a complete naïf with no idea that I’d picked a ‘high degree of difficulty’ book to try as my first ever attempt at original fiction. I should have tried a couple of practice books before swinging for the fences. When you spend years laboring away at a single project, you start to feel a lot of pressure to succeed in getting it published. It isn’t super healthy considering there are so many factors outside your control as to whether it will sell. The one good thing about taking so long with She Who Became the Sun was that as I wrote, I saw the market diversifying in ways that would make it easier to sell. When I first started writing, there were so few Asian-authored epic fantasies, and none of them were queer. Now we have a wealth of choice. I couldn’t be happier to see it.

What’s the most helpful writing advice you’ve ever received? And what was the least?

The most helpful advice came from an experienced author friend who urged our writing group to write the stories we genuinely loved to read. Not the stories most valued by the market, or that might receive critical acclaim, or that would lead to us being taken seriously by this or that person. It takes too long to write a book to do it from a place of cynicism. Be specific and be true when you write. You might appeal to fewer people overall, but the readers who see what you’re doing won’t just like your work, they’ll love it.

The least helpful for me has been the idea of fast drafting. I know some writers swear by it. But it just doesn’t work for me. I end up with unsalvageable garbage, and I always have to throw it out and start over, slowly.

What was the inspiration for your novel?

Many years ago while living in Asia, I became obsessed with Chinese and Korean historical TV dramas. The emotional intensity, the sweeping visuals, the epic suffering and sacrifice, and impossible love! It all resonated with me on a deep cultural level. I wanted to write a book that felt like those dramas. But at the same time, I wanted to make it critical—about gender, about Confucian patriarchal values. So when I read about the 14th-century peasant monk who became the Hongwu Emperor—the tyrannical founder of the Ming dynasty, and one of the towering patriarchs of Chinese history—I knew his was the story I wanted to subvert.

What can readers do to help support debuts in 2021?

Since the pandemic put a stop to bookstore browsing, and readers can’t find great new books serendipitously, word of mouth matters more than ever. Tell friends about what you loved, leave reviews. Start a virtual book club. Make a TikTok!

Do you have any virtual events or activities that readers can attend to support your book’s launch? If readers want to pre-order your book, is there a particular indie bookstore you hope they’ll consider?

I’ll be doing some virtual panels in June and July, so keep an eye out for me and my not-quite-Hemsworth Aussie accent. The UK online indie The Broken Binding is doing signed pre-orders if you want the handsome UK edition of She Who Became the Sun. In the US, I have a soft spot for the SFF-loving booksellers at Porter Square Books, A Room of One’s Own, and Left Bank Books

What 2021 debut novels are you most excited about?

Ava Reid’s The Wolf and the Woodsman blew me away with its emotional intensity, blood-soaked aesthetic, and chewy examinations of Jewish identity and European ethnic nationalism. Nghi Vo’s novel debut The Chosen and the Beautiful is a queer Gatsby retelling with prose that will cut you open. Freya Marske’s impeccably upholstered fantasy romance A Marvellous Light is a delight. And my personal most-anticipated is Lee Mandelo’s Southern gothic with street racing, Summer Sons.

Jonny Garza Villa, author of Fifteen Hundred Miles from the Sun

On shelves June 8, this YA debut introduces readers to Julián Luna, whose plans for lying low until after graduation are changed in an instant when he accidentally outs himself on Twitter.

What has your publishing journey been like?

I’m one of those weird cases where this journey has actually been going at, like, a consistent hundred miles an hour. For reference, the initial draft of Fifteen Hundred Miles from the Sun was written November 2018, I got an agent in September 2019, announced my book deal in April 2020, and, a year later, I’m answering this question.

It’s also felt so awfully intimate, I think, specifically because so much of this journey has been during a pandemic, in quarantine. Intimate in that the most exciting parts of my life are emails about edits from my editor and phone calls with my agent. Intimate in my relationship with my laptop and Zoom and the virtual reality of the world right now (and hopefully long after, in partnership with in-person events), and in the relationships I’ve formed with other authors I now call friends specifically since I announced my book deal and in quarantine. And intimate in how I think social media has become an even larger tool in lieu of the inability to go to conferences and bookstores and festivals and as a mode of reaching potential readers; how I can think off the top of my head of specific readers who’ve just been so supportive and how I hope I make them really proud with this book.


What’s the most helpful writing advice you’ve ever received? And what was the least?

Most helpful: Don’t focus on trying to prove to readers how clever I am; just write the story. That point where I allowed myself to take a breath and relax my shoulders and write the book I wanted to write was such a turning point for creating something that read well, that had a voice that didn’t sound like a 43-year-old mom, and really helped me enjoy writing.

Least helpful: Write every day. Just do you. At a point, I was working two jobs and was only able to commit the day and a half I had free to writing. All of our journeys and lives are different. Do what works for you and always keep in mind how many spoons you’ve got at a given time.


What was the inspiration for your novel?

Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda was a huge inspiration for Fifteen Hundred Miles from the Sun, including the question of how Simon Spier’s journey might have been different if his life was similar to mine. What would his story look like if he was a Chicano teenager living in South Texas, raised in a Catholic, conservative, machismo household? 


What can readers do to help support debuts in 2021?

Show love. Shout about those books you’re excited about—especially BIPOC books and even more so queer books written by BIPOC authors. Talk about them on Twitter and Instagram and TikTok. Recommend them to someone in your life who you think might love them. Tell that author that you’re excited about their book because (personally speaking) we love the validation and want to celebrate these books with you, especially while we’re still in a space where we can’t in person. Request them at your libraries. And, if you have the financial means, preorder them.


Do you have any virtual events or activities that readers can attend to support your book’s launch? If readers want to pre-order your book, is there a particular indie bookstore you hope they’ll consider?

I will be posting information on virtual events for the Fifteen Hundred Miles from the Sun book launch on my website as we get closer to June, so be sure to check out for all that information.

I’m also doing a preorder and library request campaign for some character cards and book plates. Readers can find those forms to get all that cute stuff on my Twitter account, @jonnyescribe. And, as always, would love for you to support whatever indie bookstore is your preference or online at Bookshop.


What 2021 debut novels are you most excited about?

Let me see if I can keep it to a minimum! Fat Chance, Charlie Vega by Crystal Maldonado, Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet by Laekan Zea Kemp, Meet Cute Diary by Emery Lee, You’ve Reached Sam by Dustin Thao, and The Taking of Jake Livingston by Ryan Douglass.

Thien-Kim Lam, author of Happy Endings

Happy Endings, on shelves May 18, is a second chance romance featuring two exes who combine their passions (soul food and sex toys) to create a unique pop-up shop.


What has your publishing journey been like?

Surreal and exciting! Before I began writing Happy Endings, I scrapped 20,000 words of a different book. (Yes, it’s as painful as it sounds.) Writing Happy Endings took me longer than I would’ve liked because I second-guessed what parts of my Vietnamese American experience to include in it.

When I pitched my Happy Endings to Avon’s #OwnVoices open submissions call, I had hope but no expectations. I figure if I didn’t have any expectations, I wouldn’t be disappointed. It was a shock to receive THE CALL. 

I’m grateful to have my agent and the supportive team at Avon who have worked hard to help me bring Trixie and Andre’s story into the world.

What’s the most helpful writing advice you’ve ever received? And what was the least?

Like most authors, I’ve read and received tons of writing advice. Two pieces stood out during my journey with Happy Endings. 

First: Thinking about your book is a vital part of the writing process. I learned this from Becca Syme, who is an author and the founder of Better-Faster Academy. I need to figure out what I want a scene to do or what needs to happen before I can put words onto paper. 

The second bit of advice comes from my editor Erika Tsang: trust myself. I tend to overthink more than I’d like. Learning to trust my instincts is an ongoing process.

What was the inspiration for your novel?

It was the fusion of all the things I enjoy in romances: food, sexual empowerment, and a tight knit group of girlfriends. As the founder of Bawdy Bookworms, I wanted to write about a group of women entrepreneurs who empower women’s sexuality. Making Trixie a sex toy sales woman was the easiest choice since I’d have less research to do. 

More importantly, I wanted to write a romance between an Asian woman and a Black man where race was not their main conflict. It’s important for me to normalize happy endings for interracial couples.

What can readers do to help support debuts in 2021?

Besides buying and reading our books, readers can help spread the word. Tell a friend (or ten). Recommend our books to your library and/or book clubs.

Do you have any virtual events or activities that readers can attend to support your book’s launch? If readers want to pre-order your book, is there a particular indie bookstore you hope they’ll consider?

I’m excited that neighborhood indie, Loyalty Bookstore, is hosting the virtual launch party for Happy Endings. Lyssa Kay Adams, author of the Bromance Book Club series, will join me to help celebrate. Once the event registration and pre-order is available I’ll be sharing it on my social media channels, and it will be on the Loyalty Bookstore event calendar.

In addition to the launch party, I have several upcoming events. Readers can visit my website for details on how they can participate.


What 2021 debut novels are you most excited about?

I’ve added so many to my TBR, but there are a few that are on the top of my list. In no particular order, they are:

The Donut Trap by Julie Tieu: I’m a sucker for foodie romances. A second chance romance set in a donut shop? Give me a baker’s dozen!

A Lowcountry Bride by Preslaysa Williams: I don’t sew anymore, but I still enjoy reading about wedding dress designers like Maya. As someone born and raised in the South, I can’t resist a romance set there.

Arsenic and Adobo by Mia P. Manansala: I’m slowly getting back into cozy mysteries. This culinary cozy is sure to make me crave Filipino food and I’m here for it.

Things We Lost to the Water by Eric Nguyen: I haven’t seen many novels about the Vietnamese American experience in my birth state, especially ones that center on a queer character. Louisiana has left an indelible mark on me, and I have no doubt this book will, too.

Kelly Gallucci

Kelly Gallucci is the Executive Editor of We Are Bookish, where she oversees the editorial content, offers book recommendations, and interviews authors and NetGalley members. When she's not working, Kelly can be found color coordinating her bookshelves, eating Chipotle, and watching way too many baking shows.

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