In press materials for Eva Rice's upcoming novel, The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets, Dutton touts the book, a coming-of-age tale set in postwar London, as the arrival of a brave new voice in fiction.

Twice dubbing it a "debut" effort, the publisher fails to mention that the book, written by the daughter of famed White Way lyricist Tim Rice, is in fact the author's third effort, since she previously published two books in the U.K. Whether the flub was an honest mistake or a sly PR move, the slippery language speaks to an abiding assumption in the industry: it's always easier to sell a debut work. Right or wrong, this notion is creating some innovative, and perhaps questionable, behavior as some look for ways to claim the occasionally elusive tag.

Though Dutton failed to stipulate that Lost Artis the author's U.S. debut, the director of marketing for Hudson Street Press and Plume, Marie Coolman, was unflapped by the oversight. "This book is a U.S. debut, so we're calling it a fiction debut," she said. Noting that Rice had "two very small books" published overseas, Coolman said she didn't want to miss potential press coverage for the book by being technical. "There are some reviewers who really like first fiction, so we don't want to lose those opportunities because something was written and published in a very small way in another continent." As Rice was selected for B&N Discovers—a program dedicated to launching promising first-time authors—others clearly saw the distinction as a minor one, too.

But are book reviewers and journalists really inclined to cover debuts more than second or third or fourth efforts? Warner Books publicist Jennifer Romanello echoed Coolman's thoughts. "In my experience, you can get a lot more reviews and media attention for a debut novel," she said, believing that both journalists and publishers are attracted to the possibility of discovering a new and possibly bestselling author. Sloane Crosley, a publicist at Vintage/Anchor, said one advantage of debuts is that some outlets reserve space specifically for titles that fit this bill. (PW, it's worth noting, does an annual feature dedicated to debuts.) But Crosley said the debut tag isn't without its downside, stipulating that the page space given such titles is usually smaller.

What exactly defines the term debut is clearly up for debate in the industry. Philip Turner, editor-in-chief of Carroll & Graf, said his house went to great pains to correctly classify George Elliot Clarke's February novel, George & Rue. With Clarke, an author who'd published a number of volumes of poetry but never written fiction, Turner said the key was to "let people understand he was not a literary newcomer, but that the book was his first novel." And while the word debut is sprinkled throughout press materials for the book, Carroll & Graf makes it clear that Clarke is a newcomer to fiction, not publishing at large.

Mick Owchar, deputy editor for the L.A. Times Book Review, said that publishers trying to position more seasoned authors as debut writers isn't such a new thing. And Owchar says the move doesn't necessarily put him off. He understands why so many publicists want to push the label. "A house publishes a wonderful book and what happens? It drops into a hole. Gone. Out of sight. This new tactic is a way of giving a book another chance," he said. But Owchar also said the debut label doesn't affect his review decisions. "Debut is a term you feel gets overused, so it's nothing that grabs our attention.... If you're looking at an author you've never heard of before, it makes no difference if it's a debut or not."

Even though book reviewers say the tag is meaningless—Michael Ollove, book editor for the Baltimore Sun, felt much the same way as Owchar—publishers still think it's a strategy to spin a book as such. Doubleday has found either an inventive or duplicitous (depending on your take) way of fashioning veteran authors as debut novelists. Relying on pseudonyms, the house recently touted these two debuts: Jeff Lindsay's Darkly Dreaming Dexter (July, 2005) and Richard Hawke's Speak of the Devil (Jan., 2006). The latter is a thriller by longtime crime novelist Tim Cockey (who had published seven titles with Hyperion), while the former is the work of an author who penned a number of novels under his full name, Jeffrey P. Lindsay. Aside from the unexpected pitfalls from such a maneuver—Darkly Dreaming Dexter, for example, was dropped from the Mystery Writers of America's Best First Novel category after the group learned that Lindsay had, according to MWA rep Margery Flax, "put out a few books under his full name in the mid '90s"—some think the system hurts authors more than potentially duped readers or journalists.

David Montgomery, editor of the Web site, who outted Hawke as Cockey in his review of Speak of the Devil for the Philadelphia Inquirer, said that, aside from the marketing advantage of becoming a debut author with the use of a pseudonym, he assumes some authors are forced into hiding their identity in order to get published. According to Montgomery, publishers often turn away a previously published author with a less-than-compelling sales history because his book might stumble getting into the chains. The sequence of events as Montgomery tells it goes like this: "The chain store looks up the author in the computer. 'His last book sold 3,000 copies, so we'll order 3,000 of the new one.' Then the publisher decides they can't sell a book by that author."

Whether houses are trying to circumvent a harsh publicity climate or a difficult retail atmosphere, the cloaked debut likely speaks to the realities of a business increasingly driven by the bottom line. As Montgomery notes: "It's a disappointing trend—and not a particularly honest one—but as long as the readers don't care, and I don't think they do, it's probably here to stay."