Now that the whirling debut dust has settled, Deputy Editor Françoise Price invites Melissa Welliver to talk about one thing she's learnt since becoming a published author.

When I was thinking back on the last year in preparation to write this article, one thing sprang to mind: that my debut year didn’t last for 12 months, but more like six. And it didn’t happen once, but three times (don’t worry, I’ll explain everything!).


In March of this year, roughly six months after my 2021 debut novel came out, I received the sad news that Agora Books, my lovely small publisher, would not be going forward with any new books and they effectively had to close their doors. For a trilogy like The Undying Tower, that meant one thing: the sequels wouldn’t be published. Or rather, it wouldn’t be published in the way I imagined when I signed my contract back in 2020.


The Undying Tower with merchandise and award, Write Blend’s YA Book of the Year 2022


Because of this, the thing I wanted to focus on as something I’ve learned about debut year is the definition of the word. As outlined in the Oxford English Dictionary, “debut” in this instance means “a person's first appearance or performance in a particular capacity or role”. This was most certainly true with The Undying Tower. It was my first book released for public consumption, with a stunning cover and enthusiastic team behind it. That said, it was far from what I imagined or indeed what is considered a “traditional deal”. There were no print runs but rather, a focussed digital marketing campaign and print-on-demand copies available as and when sales might occur. I didn’t take an advance, but instead took a higher percentage of royalties.


I did temper my expectations. I knew the book would never be a bestseller on week one. It probably wouldn’t be on a Waterstones front table. But boy, did the bookshops surprise and astound me with their support and generosity. I made sure to reach out early to indies and several jumped onto my pre-order campaign, which included a bookmark and signed bookplate for readers. I even had three or four Waterstones stock the book, a grand feat for even more established publishers. And Agora were incredibly receptive to all my marketing ideas, from joining in with Book Fairies campaigns to designing badges for giveaways.


A find for someone on The Undying Tower’s Book Fairies campaign. 
[Picture credit:]

Which, inevitably, made it all the sadder when Agora had to deliver the hard news that it could not finish the trilogy with me. They were a fabulous and fierce small publisher, and I didn’t know how I’d continue the series without them. They reverted the rights to me, and helped me set up the book for self-publishing across Amazon and IngramSpark. They organised rights from my cover designer and offered to run a round of edits on the next book, when I’m able to get that off the ground. But self-publishing was daunting, and as any querying writer knows, being back on your own with your manuscript is scary.

So I began my second debut of the last 12 months: I debuted as a self-published writer. I was in the incredibly lucky situation that most of the hard work (and indeed, expensive work) had been done for me. I had a finished, beautiful book in my hands, I had all the digital files, and all I had to do was hit one button and it was ready to send out into the world. And even with that, it hasn’t been easy. I’ve had to tango with events orders; the meaning of firm sales versus sale or return; IngramSpark international formatting; the cost of paper rising. It’s been a steep learning curve, but one that has given me a better understanding of the industry as a result, and I wouldn’t change it for the world. I even won a reader-voted award from bookshop Write Blend Books over the summer (pictured). The Undying Tower is still out there, still finding new readers, and I’ll be working on bringing the sequel to the masses as soon as I can.


Signing books for No Limits Festival, run by supportive indie bookshop Rabbit Hole Brigg


Remember I said I debuted three times this year? Well, I have some other news to reveal! During 2021, what was set to be my debut year, I sold a standalone novel to Chicken House Books. My Love Life and the Apocalypse is a post-apocalyptic rom-com with all the darkness and speculative storylines of The Undying Tower, but with a dollop more humour and romance. I wrote the book during lockdown, long before I found out that Agora wanted to acquire The Undying Tower, and so I was in the unusual situation of being on sub with two books at the same time, as myself and my agent were unsure after nearly 12 months that the first book would sell (note to self: try not to go on sub again during a pandemic). 

Chicken House were offering what is more commonly referred to as a “traditional deal” – an advance, print runs, and world rights to hopefully sell in translation. It was all very different to what I had experienced before, and so when that book was announced later in 2022, it became the third way in which I debuted: this time, as a hybrid author. I have my self-published trilogy, and in April 2023, My Love Life and the Apocalypse will release for my fourth type of debut, this time being billed as my “international debut”.


My Love Life and the Apocalypse, a graphic of all my favourite parts of the book


So, what did I learn about the definition of debut these last 12 months? I could see this as “The year I failed to debut”, but I prefer to think of it as “The year I debuted – three times”. It may not always be the beginning you imagined, but it isn’t the end either. Publishing is a long road with more than a few p(l)ot-holes, roadworks, and wrong turns along the way. It will never be what you imagined it to be, but if you leave yourself open to opportunity, it could be even better.

 *Header image: Shannon Ell; all other images: courtesy of Melissa Welliver


Melissa Welliver lives in High Peak with her doodle dogs, Maude and Zelda. She writes books about how The End of the World is not the end of the world. She is a hybrid author with self-published and traditionally published books. Her international debut, My Love Life and the Apocalypse, will be out with Chicken House in April 2023 and is available for pre-order now.
Twitter: @Melliver 


Shannon Ell is a non-binary illustrator, animator and designer based in Edinburgh.
Instagram: @shannon.illustrates


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