BETTERING ANY success in life can be a daunting task. Not least for novelists, who have to tackle the infamous “difficult second novel”. Harper Lee, who died in 2016, took 55 years to release a follow up to her classic of 1960, “To Kill A Mockingbird”. Viet Thanh Nguyen, an American novelist, says the high expectations and busy schedule following the success of his Pulitzer prize-winning debut, “The Sympathizer”, in 2015 has meant that his second book, published earlier this year, was more challenging than the first.
But why do authors, in particular, supposedly struggle so much with follow-ups? Perhaps it is because novelists feel that they should stay faithful to what readers liked about their first book, all the while still writing something that is, well, novel. But data from Goodreads, a book-review website, appear to challenge this accepted wisdom. The average rating for a first book from the top 1,000 authors by reviews on the website is 3.87 out of five. The second book, however, performs a smudge better at 3.90 out of 5. Could the notion of the difficult second book be more fiction than reality?
Not necessarily. These headline ratings may well be biased. The group of people who have read and gone on to rate a debut novel may be different to the group who have done so with the second novel. People who enjoyed an author’s first book and submitted a review are surely more likely to read and rate a second novel from the same author. Indeed, Goodreads’ data show that about one-third of people who rated an author’s first book five stars out of five went on to read the second offering. By contrast just 8% of those who gave the book a rating of three stars or fewer read the follow-up. Readers of an author’s second book are therefore more likely to enjoy that novelist’s writing, which may push up the average rating of an author’s second book relative to the first one.
To adjust for these biases The Economist has analysed 1.8m reviews for 1,116 authors on Goodreads and controlled the scores for whether readers had rated both first and second novels, or just one of the two. We find that the notion of the difficult second novel is, in truth, more fact than fiction. Among reviewers who have read both of an author’s books, the average rating (weighted by number of reviews) of the first book is 4.17. The average rating for the second novel falls to 4.03. In many people’s eyes, it would still be a decent page-turner.
Exceptions do exist to the curse of the second novel. Of the 1,100 authors in our data, one-third managed to churn out a second book that was rated more highly by loyal readers than the first. Nick Hornby, a British author, bettered his 1995 debut novel “High Fidelity”, rated 3.59, with “About A Boy”, released in 1998. The latter has a rating of 4.33 among readers who have read both books. But spare a thought for Harper Lee’s follow up “Go Set A Watchman”. It suffered the second-highest ratings drop among all the novels in our data. It secured a score of just 3.22, a 30% decline from “To Kill a Mockingbird”. Put it down to writer’s block.