ShortList is supported by you, our amazing readers. When you click through the links on our site and make a purchase we may earn a commission. Learn more

The best debut novels - the greatest first books of all time

Fantastic first books, revealed.

The best debut novels - the greatest first books of all time
14 April 2022
There's a nobility in lying sometimes, especially when it comes to your best mate's first, self-published novel. Just say it's great, guys, and move on. It's too late.
Some pals of aspiring novelists have been able to be somewhat more honest, though. Like the chums of Chuck Palahniuk and the buddies of Mary Shelley.
They're just two of 30 authors who feature in our list of the all time best debut novels.
Each of these first books are well worth a read but if you think we are missing something off of our best debut novels guide, then let us know in the comments below.

Best debut novels

Best debut novels

1. To Kill A Mockingbird - Harper Lee (1960)

Buy now from Amazon

Imagine having just one book published, it winning the Pulitzer-Prize before being voted "Best Novel of the Century" in 1991 a poll by the Library Journal. You might be tempted to call it a day there. With the exception of a few short essays, Harper did just that. And fair play to her.

39
8
Thanks for voting
Best debut novels

2. The Hobbit - J.R.R Tolkien (1937)

Buy now from Amazon

"In a hole in the ground, there lived a Hobbit." The words that kickstarted one of the biggest fantasy book and, in turn, movie franchises of all time. Despite the book's popularity, paper rationing brought on by wartime conditions and not ending until 1949 meant that the book was often unavailable during this period. Subsequent editions in English were published in 1951, 1966, 1978 and 1995, however, and it's been translated into over forty languages. Tolkein even designed the original book's dust cover (pictured). Props.

43
14
Thanks for voting
Best debut novels

3. One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest - Ken Kesey (1962)

Buy now from Amazon

Kesey's devastating debut novel was born of his experiences working on CIA-funded drug trials. While a student at Stanford, he volunteered as a medical guinea pig in the secret service's study into the effects of psychoactive drugs. This experience altered Kesey, personally and professionally and, while working as an orderly at the psychiatric ward of the local veterans hospital, he began to have hallucinations about an Indian sweeping the floors. When chatting with them Kesey did not believe that the patients at the hospital were insane, rather that society had pushed them out because they did not fit the conventional ideas of how people were supposed to behave. All this prompted him to write the spectacular One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest which was an instant hit and spawned the Oscar-winning film.

31
3
Thanks for voting
Best debut novels

4. Invisible Man - Ralph Ellison (1952)

Buy now from Amazon

Immediately hailed as a masterpiece, Ellison's audacious and brutal Invisible Man changed the shape of American literature by tackling bigotry, head on. Bottom line? If you're human, and chances are you are, you need to read this at some stage in your life.

25
1
Thanks for voting
Best debut novels

5. Catch-22 - Joseph Heller (1961)

Buy now from Amazon

In 1953 Heller thought of the first line, "It was love at first sight." and within a week, he had finished the first chapter, and sent it to his agent. He did no more writing for the next year, as he planned the rest of the story. When it was one-third finished his agent sent it to publishers who purchased it and gave him $750, promising him another $750 when the full manuscript was delivered. Heller missed his deadline by almost five years but, after eight years of thought, delivered the most significant work of postwar protest literature in the history of mankind and changed the English lexicon forever. Worth the wait.

23
3
Thanks for voting
Best debut novels

6. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo - Stieg Larsson (2005)

Buy now from Amazon

When published posthumously Brooding Scandi-noir genius Larsson’s psychological thriller caused a global sensation. Shortly before his death in 2004, he submitted the third volume in his "Millennium trilogy" to his publisher, but not a single book had been printed. Today more than 63 million copies of the trilogy have been sold with Dragon Tattoo being our pick of the bunch.

24
5
Thanks for voting
Best debut novels

7. Frankenstein - Mary Shelley (1818)

Buy now from Amazon

In 1816, Shelley spent a summer with Lord Byron. Sitting around a log fire Byron proposed that they "each write a ghost story". Unable to sleep, Shelley got to it: “I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together," she recalled. "I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world." She began writing what she assumed would be a short story, but became her first novel, Frankenstein regarded as one of the first genuine science fiction novels it still speaks to – and spooks - readers nearly 200 years on.

23
5
Thanks for voting
Best debut novels

8. The Catcher In The Rye - J. D. Salinger (1951)

Buy now from Amazon

J. D. Salinger's coming-of-age tale captured the very essence of disenchanted youth. Around 250,000 copies are sold each year with total sales of more than 65 million books. It was included on Time's 2005 list of the 100 best English-language novels written since 1923, and it was named by Modern Library and its readers as one of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. Need we say more?

25
8
Thanks for voting
Best debut novels

9. The Time Machine - H.G. Wells (1895)

Buy now from Amazon

You've got to doff your cap to a man who is generally credited with the popularisation of the concept of time travel. The Time Machine was an instant success and Wells went on to produce a series of science fiction novels which pioneered our ideas of the future. None would top his debut success, however.

14
2
Thanks for voting
Best debut novels

10. Carrie - Stephen King (1974)

Buy now from Amazon

Stephen King's books have sold more than 350 million copies. He has published fifty-five novels and has written nearly two hundred short stories and it all started - at least in getting published terms - with Carrie. It was written in two weeks on a portable typewriter (the same one on which he wrote Misery) that belonged to his wife. It began as a short story, but King tossed the first three pages of his work in the garbage. His wife fished the pages out and encouraged him to finish it. King eventually quit his teaching job after receiving the publishing payment for Carrie but the hardback sold a mere 13,000 copies. The paperback, released a year later? Sold over 1 million in its first year.

18
6
Thanks for voting
Best debut novels

11. The Picture Of Dorian Gray - Oscar Wilde

Buy now from Amazon

In the preface to his debut and only novel Wilde writes: "To reveal art and conceal the artist is art's aim." Odd then that the book boasts very obvious echoes of Wilde's own life. Perhaps that's why there was no second novel. Still, the one he did write remains enduringly popular and William Butler described it as "a wonderful book."

17
5
Thanks for voting
Best debut novels

12. Jane Eyre - Charlotte Brontë

Buy now from Amazon

Charlotte's first manuscript, The Professor, did not secure a publisher, although she was heartened by an encouraging response from Smith, Elder & Co., who expressed an interest in any longer works she might wish to send. Charlotte responded by finishing and sending a second manuscript in August 1847. Six weeks later Jane Eyre: An Autobiography was published and it revolutionised the art of fiction. Since then Brontë has been called the 'first historian of the private consciousness'. Exploring themes of classism, sexuality, religion, and proto-feminism, there's a lot going on in Jane Eyre, but never at the expense of enjoyment.

13
3
Thanks for voting
Best debut novels

13. A Study In Scarlet - Arthur Conan Doyle (1887)

Buy now from Amazon

Conan Doyle introduced us to Holmes and Watson in November 1887, but the story, and its main characters, attracted little public interest when it first appeared in Beeton's Christmas Annual. Only 11 complete copies are known to exist, in fact. Despite the slow uptake it was a classic mystery tale which went on to spawn 56 short stories featuring Holmes, and three more full-length novels in the original canon.

13
3
Thanks for voting
Best debut novels

14. The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz - L. Frank Baum (1900)

Buy now from Amazon

L Frank Baum failed as an actor, failed as a salesman, failed as a chicken breeder then started writing The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Smart move. Full distribution of Oz occurred in September 1900 and by October, the first edition of 10,000 had already sold out and the second edition of 15,000 copies was nearly depleted. By 1938, over one million copies of the book had been printed. Less than two decades later, in 1956, the sales of his novel grew to 3 million copies in print. Nice work if you can write it.

15
5
Thanks for voting
Best debut novels

15. Trainspotting - Irvine Welsh (1993)

Buy now from Amazon

Rumour has it Welsh wrote Trainspotting in the breaks while writing his thesis at Heriot-Watt University's Library. The book prompted The Sunday Times to call Welsh "the best thing that has happened to British writing for decades" and he continues to be just that.

13
3
Thanks for voting
Best debut novels

16. The Pickwick Papers - Charles Dickens (1836)

Buy now from Amazon

Dickens announced his outrageous talent with this genuinely funny, not just laughing because we're supposed to, set of comic episodes that befall ‘gentleman of leisure’ Samuel Pickwick, Esq. The book became the first real publishing phenomenon, with bootleg copies, theatrical performances, joke books, and other merchandise surrounding it.

11
2
Thanks for voting
Best debut novels

17. The Kite Runner - Khaled Hosseini (2003)

Buy now from Amazon

Hosseini almost never finished the novel. He started by writing a short story in 1999 then, in his words: "The short story sat around for two years. Then I went back to it in March 2001. My wife had dug it up. I found her reading it, and she was kind of crying, and she said, "This is really a nice short story. She gave it to my father-in-law, and he loved it. He said, "I wish it had been longer." So then I said maybe there's something in the story that's really touching people. Maybe I should think about going back to it and see if there's a book in it."

There was. The novel sold more than 4 million copies in three years.

13
4
Thanks for voting
Best debut novels

18. A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man - James Joyce (1916)

Buy now from Amazon

In 1998, the Modern Library named A Portrait third on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century (Joyce topped the very same list with Ulysses while The Great Gatsby came second). In 1917 H. G. Wells wrote that "one believes in [Joyce's fictional alter ego] Stephen Dedalus as one believes in few characters in fiction." With W. B. Yeats and Ezra Pound also championing the work, it clearly carries serious literary clout.

12
4
Thanks for voting
Best debut novels

19. Fight Club - Chuck Palahniuk (1996)

Buy now from Amazon

We the love story behind the conception of Palahniuk's ground-breaking debut novel. When he attempted to publish Invisible Monsters, publishers rejected it for its disturbing content. So he wrote Fight Club in an attempt to disturb the publisher even more for rejecting him. Publisher loved it, career exploded.

15
7
Thanks for voting
Best debut novels

20. The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time - Mark Haddon (2003)

Buy now from Amazon

It won a raft of awards including, rather delightfully, the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize after it was published simultaneously in separate editions for adults and children. However, it was perhaps what it didn't win that caused the biggest stir. The Curious Incident was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, and "many observers were surprised that it did not advance to the shortlist." said John Carey, chairman of the Booker panel of judges. "We have several clashes of opinion among the judges but I found Haddon's book about a boy with Asperger's syndrome breathtaking."

11
4
Thanks for voting
Best debut novels

21. Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone - J.K.Rowling

Buy now from Amazon

In 1990 Rowling wanted to move with her boyfriend to a flat in Manchester and in her words, "One weekend after flat hunting, I took the train back to London on my own and the idea for Harry Potter fell into my head... A scrawny, little, black-haired, bespectacled boy became more and more of a wizard to me... I began to write Philosopher's Stone that very evening. Although, the first couple of pages look nothing like the finished product." Then Rowling's mother died and, to cope with her pain, Rowling transferred her own anguish to the orphan Harry. Rowling spent six years working on the novel after which critics compared her to Jane Austen, Roald Dahl and even to the Ancient Greek story-teller Homer.

18
11
Thanks for voting
Best debut novels

22. Sense And Sensibility - Jane Austen (1811)

Buy now from Amazon

In 1811, the Military Library publishing house in London accepted the manuscript for publication, in three volumes. Austen paid for the book to be published and paid the publisher a commission on sales. The cost of publication was more than a third of Austen's annual household income! She made a profit of £140 (almost £8,000 in 2014 money) on the first edition, which sold all 750 printed copies by July 1813.

14
8
Thanks for voting
Best debut novels

23. The Wasp Factory - Iain Banks (1984)

Buy now from Amazon

A 1997 poll of over 25,000 readers listed The Wasp Factory as one of the top 100 books of the 20th century, while The Times called Banks "The most imaginative novelist of his generation" and the FT described the novel as "A gothic horror story of quite exceptional quality... Quite impossible to put down." This book will live with you long after you're done, but it's wide berth territory for animal lovers.

12
6
Thanks for voting
Best debut novels

24. Robinson Crusoe - Daniel Defoe (1719)

Buy now from Amazon

The book was published on 25 April 1719. Before the end of the year, this first volume had run through four editions.

By the end of the 19th century, no book in the history of Western literature had more editions, spin-offs and translations (even into languages such as Inuktitut, Coptic and Maltese) than Robinson Crusoe, with more than 700 alternative versions. Well played, Daniel. Well played.

9
4
Thanks for voting
Best debut novels

25. Doctor Zhivago - Boris Pasternak (1957)

Buy now from Amazon

Due to its independent minded stance on the October Revolution, Doctor Zhivago was refused publication in the Soviet Union so Pasternak sent several copies of the manuscript in Russian to friends in the West. In 1957, Italian publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli arranged for the novel to be smuggled out of the Soviet Union and published an Italian translation. So great was the demand for Doctor Zhivago that Feltrinelli was able to license translation rights into 18 different languages. Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature the following year, an event which humiliated the Communist Party.

7
3
Thanks for voting
Best debut novels

26. The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath (1963)

Buy now from Amazon

It's hard to judge the brilliance of Sylvia Plath's shocking, realistic, and deeply emotional novel about a woman falling into the grip of insanity without factoring in her tragic suicide just one month after it was published, in the UK. Perhaps we shouldn't have to. A truly haunting classic.

8
4
Thanks for voting
Best debut novels

27. Other Voices, Other Rooms - Truman Capote (1948)

Buy now from Amazon

Both Capote's first published novel and semi-autobiographical it's a powerhouse of a piece due to its erotically charged photograph of the author, risque content, and the fact that it debuted at number 9 on the New York Times Best Seller list, where it remained for nine weeks. Brilliant.

6
3
Thanks for voting
Best debut novels

28. The Bluest Eye - Toni Morrison (1970)

Buy now from Amazon

Written while Toni Morrison was teaching at Howard University and raising her two sons on her own, it's about a year in the life of a young black girl who develops an inferiority complex due to her eye color and skin appearance. "I imagine if our greatest American novelist William Faulkner were alive today," reviewed The Washington Post "He would herald Toni Morrison's emergence as a kindred spirit... Discovering a writer like Toni Morrison is the rarest of pleasures."

4
1
Thanks for voting
Best debut novels

29. Less Than Zero - Brett Easton Ellis (1985)

Buy now from Amazon

In the words of the author himself Less Than Zero "[isn't a] perfect book by any means... [But] it was pretty good writing for someone who was 19." Nineteen! We can't argue with that. Plus the novel was almost universally praised by critics and sold well, shifting 50,000 copies in its first year.

6
4
Thanks for voting
Best debut novels

30. Adam Bede - George Eliot

Buy now from Amazon

Immediately recognised as a significant literary work Charles Dickens, no less, lavished it with praise: "The whole country life that the story is set in, is so real, and so droll and genuine, and yet so selected and polished by art, that I cannot praise it enough." No point in us trying, then.

2
6
Thanks for voting

SOMETHING MISSING FROM OUR SHORTLIST?

Tell us about it, and if enough people agree we'll add it in.