Rachel Montgomery, MLS, Collection Development Librarian
Years and years ago, back in January 2020, I decided to write an end-of-the-year article about the top adult fiction debut titles of 2020. Debut fiction is one of the harder areas for which to make selections, particularly for libraries with smaller budgets. Who do you take a chance on? Who is going to be a big hit? Who will your patrons clamor for? How do you even find interesting debuts in a mass of new adult fiction titles? I’m still going to write the article I planned (this is me writing the article), but it’s been a strange year, with libraries being closed, unable to receive new books and publishing dates pushed back or even cancelled due to the pandemic. Not to mention the 2020 debut authors went through, with no in-person events and a complete restructuring of their publicity campaigns. So here’s your chance to hear about the biggest debuts of the year and grab a few titles you may have missed.
You can find our 50 Most Popular Adult Fiction Debut Titles of 2020 in our Curated Complimentary lists in the Virtual Book Display collection, or you can head there directly by clicking here. I learned some interesting things while looking over the list. First, women wrote the majority of titles and BIPOC wrote almost half. There was also a large selection of international authors. Several books were selected by celebrity and media bookclubs, including Reese’s Book Club, Read with Jenna, and GMA Book Club. Several books have already been longlisted or shortlisted for the Booker Prize and National Book Award Finalists.
Here are a few standouts:
I had the opportunity to see Megha Majumdar speak at a 2020 PLA breakfast hosted by Penguin Random House. Majumdar, born in Kolkata and educated at Harvard and Johns Hopkins, spoke so eloquently about her debut novel, A Burning, and extremism in India that it brought tears to my eyes. In this story, a train attack in India leaves 104 people dead, and a young Muslim woman’s careless Facebook comment about the event leads to her arrest with an accusation of terrorism. Lovely, a trans woman with dreams of becoming a Bollywood star, could provide the alibi Jivan needs, but at great cost. A Burning was longlisted for the 2020 National Book Award and is a Read with Jenna Bookclub selection.
Real Life by Brandon Taylor takes place during the last weekend of summer. Wallace is a gay African American biochemistry student from Alabama, studying at an unnamed Midwestern university. His estranged father recently passed away and he just lost weeks’ worth of data for his experiment, but he agrees to go out with “friends” from his program, after which he starts a volatile affair with his straight classmate. Real Life is a coming-of-age story that looks at racism, homophobia, and abuse. It’s a finalist for the 2020 Booker Prize and a selection for the New York Times Editors’ Choice.
Author Abi Daré grew up in Nigeria, the setting for her debut title, The Girl with the Louding Voice. Adunni is a 14-year-old girl determined to get an education, but her father sells her into a marriage with a much older man. She runs away to the city, only to end up enslaved to a wealthy family, but she never gives up on her dreams. Described as both heartbreaking and inspiring, The Girl with the Louding Voice is a Read with Jenna bookclub selection and was shortlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize.
Are you looking for something that’s less literary and more genre? One to Watch by Kate Stayman-London is a great choice for fans of The Bachelor franchise. A plus-sized blogger posts about the lack of body diversity on a popular dating show, which goes viral, and the show asks her to appear on the next season. Are your True Crime aficionados asking for more? Give them Darling Rose Gold by Stephanie Wrobel, a fictional tale of Munchausen syndrome by proxy, reminiscent of the true story of Gypsy Rose Blancharde. In this thriller, Rose Gold Watt’s mother goes to prison for her lies and abuse, and a stronger Rose Gold can’t wait for her mother to come back home (cue ominous music).
The most in-demand debut of the year across our libraries is My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell. This title has a ton of starred reviews (including fromLibrary Journal, Kirkus, and Publishers Weekly), and though it’s a hard book to read, it’s even harder to put down. When Vanessa was 15, she had a relationship with her 42-year-old English teacher. Twenty years later, another student speaks out about an inappropriate relationship with the same man. Vanessa, believing that her affair with the teacher was real love, defends him, but eventually must decide whether she had agency at the time, or if her young age negated what she thought was her consent. My Dark Vanessa is a stark look at sexual abuse and its long-term consequences.
To help you keep on top of debut fiction ordering, each quarter we post a list of forthcoming Debut titles with a three- to five-month lead time. We have over 200 publisher meetings each year, in which we learn about exciting debuts. We use this information, as well as our own research on new debut titles, and create lists of books we know libraries want. You can find them in our Curated Complimentary lists, where we have Debut titles for Adults, Children and Teens.