and Jeffrey Zaslow, showing the beginning of Part III titled "Adventures…and Lessons Learned."” class=”wp-image-66301″ srcset=”https://janefriedman.com/wp-content/uploads/2024/01/zhao_sophomore_syndrome-blogpost-1000×667.png 1000w, https://janefriedman.com/wp-content/uploads/2024/01/zhao_sophomore_syndrome-blogpost-450×300.png 450w, https://janefriedman.com/wp-content/uploads/2024/01/zhao_sophomore_syndrome-blogpost-768×512.png 768w, https://janefriedman.com/wp-content/uploads/2024/01/zhao_sophomore_syndrome-blogpost.png 1200w” sizes=”(max-width: 1000px) 100vw, 1000px”/>Photo by Ryan Graybill on Unsplash
Today’s post is by novelist Kyla Zhao.
This week, my sophomore novel Valley Verified came out into the world—exactly one year after my debut novel The Fraud Squad was published.
A year ago, I was riding high on adrenaline as my debut novel found its way onto bookshelves around the world. The heady scent of freshly printed pages with my name on the cover, the thrill of getting my first media request, and the outpouring of love and well-wishes made my debut experience far beyond anything I could have ever hoped for.
Back then, I was blissfully ignorant of the intricacies of the publishing industry. I was vaguely aware but not yet fully cognizant what it meant when well-meaning veteran authors told me sagely that writing is a business. Everything about the publishing world was new and fresh—and I dove into it all with wide-eyed excitement and unbridled enthusiasm.
Fast forward to today, and the landscape is starkly different. I am no longer an inexperienced novice, unaware of the intricacies of book tours, the relentless drumbeat of social media promotion, and the exhaustion of balancing a writing career with a full-time day job. There are many guides on how to be a debut author, but far too few resources address the unique challenges of the sophomore slump. and I find myself grappling with the complexities of how different my second book release feels compared to my first.
and-VV.jpg” alt=”Promotional graphic showing the covers of Valley Verified and The Fraud Squad by Kyla Zhao” class=”wp-image-66365″ style=”width:300px” srcset=”https://janefriedman.com/wp-content/uploads/2024/01/Kyla-Zhao-TFS-and-VV.jpg 817w, https://janefriedman.com/wp-content/uploads/2024/01/Kyla-Zhao-TFS-and-VV-365×300.jpg 365w, https://janefriedman.com/wp-content/uploads/2024/01/Kyla-Zhao-TFS-and-VV-768×631.jpg 768w” sizes=”(max-width: 817px) 100vw, 817px”/>
In Valley Verified, my protagonist Zoe is forced to leave her fashion job in New York and move to Silicon Valley to work at a startup. Like me, she’s stepping into a realm where expectations loom large. and as Zoe strives to redefine success for herself in the cutthroat tech industry, I see echoes of my own journey in balancing ambition and reality, in learning to find fulfillment in the process and not the destination.
I was re-reading my manuscript the other day and came across a scene where Zoe is confessing her career woes to a friend:
“But what if that was the best I could do?” Zoe whispered. Glumly, she drew circles in sauce on her plate. “I don’t know tech and I don’t know business. Lillian comes up with good ideas every other minute, but I feel like I just got lucky with that See Yourself campaign—a lightning bolt of inspiration that won’t strike twice.”
With that last line, Zoe could have been talking about me. I can relate all too well to my character’s insecurities and profound imposter syndrome. The sophomore novel brings with it the weight of expectations—both from external sources and the insidious whispers of self-doubt. Will it live up to the hype of the first? What if no one shows up to my book events and signings? Have people tired of me now that I’ve lost the shiny new halo of being a debut author?
As Zoe dared herself to ask—Can lightning strike twice?
As I promote Valley Verified, I can’t help but draw comparisons to the reception of my debut novel The Fraud Squad. It’s a strange paradox: I genuinely believe I’m a stronger writer now than I was back in 2020 when I wrote my first book. The Fraud Squad will always be my baby, but Valley Verified is the book of my heart.
and yet, I know better now than I did a year ago that a book’s success depends just as much—perhaps even more—on its marketability than the quality of its writing. Over the past year, I’ve gotten a behind-the-scenes look at the marketing strategies employed by other authors: hiring publicists, investing in merchandise, orchestrating book tours. It always feels like there’s more I could be doing to maintain visibility in a crowded market and stay relevant in a perpetually evolving industry.
The most palpable shift is the evolution of my relationship with writing. My first book was a passion project conceived without the constraints of external pressures, back when I didn’t even think of getting published. But after The Fraud Squad came out, I’m no longer a completely unknown entity, and that comes with the daunting task of either meeting or defying the expectations set by my initial offering. I’ve grown more aware of reader reviews, more attuned to the likes and dislikes of an audience that I didn’t fully comprehend when I embarked on this journey. and I feel all too acutely the weight of commercial considerations and the unrelenting demands of a market where success is measured in sales figures.
I started writing Valley Verified at a juncture in my life when I felt lost and incapable—not only had I just moved from my hometown of Singapore to live alone in California, but I had also given up my fashion journalist role at Vogue to work for a Silicon Valley tech company. Creating Zoe’s story gave me a safe space to explore my insecurities and fears as I went through two big life and career transitions simultaneously.
Now, my insecurities are rearing their head again. As Valley Verified makes its way out into the world, I’m trying to remind myself that something is meaningful not because of its reception, but because of the authenticity with which it was created. Even if my second book “fails” by objective measures, even if it receives none of the accolades that my debut novel did, that’s okay. My journey in publishing has pushed my skills to a new level, introduced me to an amazing community of book lovers and some of my best friends, and added so much vibrance to my life. I’m a better person now because I chose to be an author.
The innocence from my debut experience may be gone, replaced by a more seasoned understanding of the industry. But I can still hold on tight to everything that drew me to writing in the first place.
Kyla Zhao writes novels starring Asian women in fun settings like high society, the fashion industry, and Silicon Valley. Her first book The Fraud Squad was a book pick by Good Morning America, a #1 new release in Asian-American literature on Kindle, and featured by media outlets such as Vogue, Elle, Cosmopolitan, Buzzfeed and so on. Kyla was also selected by Forbes for its 30 Under 30 list and Tatler as a Leader of Tomorrow. Her second novel Valley Verified was published in January 2024.
Kyla now works in Silicon Valley after graduating from Stanford University in 2021. She’s still trying to understand why Californians adore hiking and Patagonia fleeces so much. To learn more, visit her website, Instagram, TikTok, or Substack.
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