Very interesting article from the NY Times today about Amazon and used books. Many assume that Amazon’s ample selection of used books represents a grave threat to authors and publishers, but some economists who looked into the issue found evidence that just the opposite is true. The key point: “When used books are substituted for new ones, the seller faces competition from the secondhand market, reducing the price it can set for new books. But there’s another effect: the presence of a market for used books makes consumers more willing to buy new books, because they can easily dispose of them later.” Read the whole article here.
I thought I was a decent member of the literary community. I read local writers; I buy books at local bookstores; I go to at least one literary event a week. Then my own novel came out. Mountains crashed; music rang out; and I was flooded with the awareness that I’ve been doing a whole lot wrong.
A few weeks in, I’ve assembled a list of my top epiphanies. As you can see, First Novel Karma blends classic karma, the golden rule, the pirate code, and old-school business ethics. Still, I’ve been shocked by how completely this Way has taken root in me; how seemingly obvious it (now) is; how, in most situations, there really is a right way and a wrong way.
Respect the author
Do you have any idea how hard it is to publish a book? First, an author invested years of her life to create a story out of nothing; then she had to plow through hundreds of rejections to convince seasoned industry veterans that the story is actually valuable and land a deal—or, harder yet, do it herself; then she had to go bang the drum to get readers to actually care about the story enough to pay for it, all while emanating grace and gratitude and the goodwill of all humanity.
Books aren’t slapped together over the weekend; they’re built on years of love. Ignore the snarky reviews and trust that love.
Read books from living authors only
This one’s easy: Hemingway’s grandkids are swimming in cash, whereas hustling artists need whatever they can get. That $10 purchase actually does make a difference for writers like me. Respect life.
A guy from my college rap group (long story) just Facebookmailed me to tell me he liked my book. I hadn’t talked to him in person since he mysteriously disappeared after my junior year, presumably to become a plumber. But he bought the book, and may tell more people about it, because he saw it on Facebook.
Facebook feeds your high school boyfriend, your dentist, that girl you used to play tennis with, the friend of a friend who laughed at your jokes at a wedding four years ago. Wading through Farmville gifts from that weird uncle is absolutely worth the hassle. Also, I might be a little spammy for a while, but it’s worth taking that risk—and my friends understand.
Shut up and buy books from people you know
A month ago, when acquaintances put out books, I’d balk at buying em. I have a Kiliminjaro book pile I’m never going to finish, and life’s too short to read books you don’t want to.
Now, when I see friends slishing out of the book sales line, I know I had it coming. From here on out, I’m shelling out for at least one copy. That means sometimes buying a book I know isn’t my style—but on the plus side, an autographed book always makes for a bad-ass gift for somebody.
Don’t talk shit
Not that I’m a particularly big shit-talker, but I have opinions and enjoy sharing them frankly and generally like people who do the same—that’s what makes them interesting.
From now on, I’m only dishing the positive opinions in public. While I remain fervently anti-boring, pissing in the literary pool only enrages the swimmers, and the world’s short enough on civility and tact. If I ever feel an unquashable need to shit-talk, the plan is to let loose on dead guys.
Channel jealousy into solidarity
Did you see the front-page rave in the New York Times for John Brandon’s Citrus County? Every striving writer in America did, then checked John’s meteoric Amazon ranking (I saw it top out at #33).
After 30 seconds of furious envy, I knew I would become an advocate for John—not only do highly reputable people vouch for John’s chops, he’s with a local bad-ass publisher and he’s hustled for years. By god, he has earned it. And the more terrific writers who catapult into mainstream success, the better it is for all of us.
Sell with charm – and by hearing no
My publisher booked me at a “Pre-Bastille Day Happy Hour” last week. Though it sounds intriguingly festive, the event actually consisted of a thin crowd of tourists enjoying a quiet glass of wine. I was already there, so I went for it: during lulls in conversation I politely introduced myself to each table, offering to leave as soon as they said the word. I noted that the Pre-Bastille Day Happy Hour was furiously gaining steam, handed them a copy of a recent review, and offered to read whatever chapter they liked, or tell a joke, or dance for them. An alarmingly high percentage of patrons bought copies immediately; two people went on to buy me drinks. It was a pretty awesome afternoon.
Still, people didn’t like saying no to my face. Identify the code words—“maybe,” “let me think about it,” “I’m out of cash”—and exit with dignity.
Never relax, tastefully
We have so many terrific distractions clamoring for our time—not just millions of well-written books, but also movies, family, bands, sports, The Daily Show and iPads, Twitter and the new hot ice cream shop, not to mention old-fashioned walks on the beach and phone calls and sex. Gambling eight hours and $12 on a first-time novelist is a significant request. I’m a little too aware of this and spend most of my free time figuring out how I can get the word out to people who might care enough to take the dive.
There’s a gourmet restaurant storyline in my book; I’m lining up tasting/reading events with foodie organizations. The book’s an allegory for the French Revolution, so I want to throw down with every Francophile organization within driving distance. I’m in touch with my alumni association, have activated my workplace, and am hitting the neighborhood garage sale. I’m absolutely hustling, but I’m trying to hustle the right way, with thank yous and confirmation emails, eye contact and the extra phone call, every interaction loaded with what I hope comes across as charming and respectful writerly energy.
Biographer Charles Shields has already put this request out on many book blogs, but since he asked, I thought I’d share it here, as well:This past June, I published Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee. Now I’m beginning work on the first authorized biography – the first biography at all, actually – of Kurt Vonnegut. I’d like to hear from any of your readers about their experiences with Vonnegut, either personally or with his novels.Shields can be reached at [email protected] As a big Vonnegut fan, I’ll be looking forward to this one.Related: Some reactions to Shields’ book on Harper Lee.
From the far side of the Great Financial Meltdown, 1994’s Speed, ostensibly just another popcorn flick, starts to look instead like a brilliant allegory. Pop quiz, hot shot:
Dennis Hopper: “The airport. Gunman with one hostage. He’s using her for cover. He’s almost to a plane. You’re a hundred feet away.”
Keanu Reeves: “Shoot the hostage.”
Don’t see it yet? Consider: Keanu is the government, Hopper is the neoliberal consensus, the crazy person waving the Glock around is the financial industry, the bullet is two trillion dollars in losses, and the poor schmo being jerked hither and yon is you and me.
Readers concerned to further understand the dynamics of our own particular hostage crisis would do well to look at a couple of more recent documents: The Big Short and Diary of a Very Bad Year: Confessions of an Anonymous Hedge Fund Manager. Their charms are complementary. In the former, Michael Lewis, a Salomon Brothers alum, brings an insider’s savvy to the subprime crisis. In the latter, N+1 (in the person of Keith Gessen) lends an outsider’s ear to the brilliant disquisitions of a guy caught in the middle of it all. And read side-by-side these books do something even more valuable. They suggest that our captivity is at least partly in the mind – that even the most astute critics of what Lewis calls “The Doomsday Machine” have internalized some of the premises that made it possible.
In the case of The Big Short, that suggestion feels accidental. Lewis (also the author of The Blind Side, among other bestsellers) knows that every good story needs someone to root for, and so, against the big New York investment banks, he fields a kind of Magnificent Seven of scrappy smaller investors. (Smaller is a relative term, of course; most of these guys have tens of millions of dollars of assets under management.) Most compelling is his central character, Mike Burry, a California-based hedge-fund principal with a glass eye and Asperger’s syndrome. Burry, as Lewis tells it, was one of the only people in America with the acumen – and, thanks to the Asperger’s, the patience – to evaluate the actual mortgage tranches underlying those now infamous “toxic assets.” And, with our American admiration for an underdog, we cheer Burry on as he tries to find a way to monetize his discoveries before the subprime market collapses.
Lewis explains with great lucidity how, via the esoteric financial instruments Burry engineers (or rather, has Goldman Sachs engineer) theoretically endless profits can be manufactured from a single piece of subprime paper, like Xeroxes from an original. What he never quite spells out, though, is that the huge profits Burry amasses shorting the subprime market also represent huge losses for his counterparties – and thus (by way of bailouts and layoffs) to taxpayers all over the world. Perhaps this is why the The Big Short, in the end, lacks a sense of moral payoff. It’s as if the Wall Street Journal narrative of enterprise as an end in itself has gained traction not only with Burry, but with Lewis. At the very least, it says something that he takes as his hero of the financial crisis…a hedge-fund guy.
Gessen is more explicit about the amorality of postmodern finance. In an introductory note about the anonymous hedge fund manager who is his subject (henceforth, and in the book, HFM), he laments “that a mind so excellent, so generous, so curious, should spend all its time on relative trading in foreign jurisdictions and yelling at people who refuse to pay him back. . . .” But in this note, as in the interviews that follow, we can feel him being seduced, as we are, by HFM’s formidable intellect. Indeed, Gessen wants us to feel that seduction. HFM’s mind is “excellent” – and makes for excellent reading. Listening to him discourse on capital flows, currency speculation, real estate, literature, and hedge-fund folkways is like taking a terrific college elective, minus the final exam:
There’s some people who think the problem is so bad that if you actually recognize the losses, that it’s akin to smashing the equipment in the factory. Because these institutions can’t exist anymore, right? That for a bank, if you say, “Look, you can’t exist anymore. You’re so deeply insolvent that everybody’s fired and everybody’s got to leave,” at that point financial intermediation won’t work anymore. It doesn’t matter that you’ve marked everything down to the level that makes sense – you don’t have a financial system anymore. And a lot of people think that’s one of the reasons the Great Depression was so difficult to get out of, that the financial machinery was smashed. So I think which camp you fall into depends a little on how bad you think the damage is.
Still, like Burry’s, and perhaps even Lewis’, HFM’s is a captive mind. For all his candor about the causes of the financial crisis, he speaks from within a framework of essentially Friedmanite, free-market fundamentalism. As he’s speculating about martial law and breadlines, his biggest worry remains not widespread unemployment, but…the possibility of inflation and its effect on currency values. (His concessions to Keynesianism seem to evaporate as the immediate crisis of the Lehman Brothers collapse recedes.) Nor does HFM appear to see the shenanigans of the financial sector as systemic, rather than as tokens of personal fraudulence on the part of unsavory “dirtbags.” Gessen’s interviewing strategy – to present himself as a novice in search of instruction – succeeds brilliantly, in that it gets HFM to open up in all kinds of compelling and admirable ways. On the other hand, it means that his macroeconomic premises tend to go unchallenged.
Narratives about the horrors of stimulative deficit spending, in particular, have lately become a viral element in the body politic. As with New York’s fiscal crisis of the 1970s, or the various currency collapses of the 1990s, the public is being set up to choose between punishment at the hand of “bond vigilantes” or draconian “austerity measures” designed to ward off default. Notice, though, that those bond vigilantes are the very people who got us into this mess in the first place. Notice that the rate of inflation reported a few days ago was essentially 0%. And notice that, if we accept the choice as it is being framed for us, the hostage is screwed either way. I invite you to think back to Speed. One of the first questions we’re trained to ask about any narrative is whether the narrator is reliable. And if history has taught us anything, people, it’s that Dennis Hopper is f-ing crazy.
“The Open Boat” by Stephen Crane (from Open Boat and Other Stories)This 1898 story, about the last survivors of a shipwreck as they fight for the safety of land on a soaked and cold dinghy, contains one of my favorite sentences in all of short fiction: “It was probably splendid, it was probably glorious, this play of the free sea, wild with lights of emerald and white and amber.” That repetition of “probably” gets me every time.“Merry-Go-Sorry” by Carry Holladay (from Prize Stories 1999: The O. Henry Award)It’s a shame that Holladay hasn’t yet published a collection, for This tale of a town affected by the killing of three young boys, told in a fluid omniscient narration, is strange, ambitious, and beautiful. We venture into the minds of the accused killer, of the girl who writes him letters, of the cops investigating the murders, and so on and on, until a complicated world has emerged on the page.“Do Not Disturb” by A.M. Homes (from Things You Should Know)This story concerns a wimp of a husband and a bitch of a wife. She gets cancer, and she gets meaner. What now?“Stone Animals” by Kelly Link (from Magic for Beginners)In this wild story, a family moves from a cramped Manhattan apartment to a big haunted house outside the city. Objects start to feel “wrong” and must be discarded; there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of rabbits on the front lawn; the wife cannot stop painting the rooms; the daughter sleepwalks; the husband won’t return home from work. Just as the story begins to create a coherent universe, the narrative embraces something new and strange, and the reader must remake meaning once again. It’s a big, messy, playful collision of a story.Stay tuned for more recommended stories from The Millions later this week.
In what must be a first, a literary author is being praised for her fashion sense. Zadie Smith has been named one of Britain’s top 10 “fashion icons” by Harpers & Queen magazine. Here’s a look at Smith in some of those stylish duds.
In noting our new Nobel Laureate on Thursday, I also mentioned that “dating back to my bookstore days, out of all the major literary awards – the National Book Award, the Booker, and the Pulitzer – only the Nobel reliably drove significant interest. On the day the prize was announced, customers on the phone and in person would descend on the store, occasionally leading to problems when a relative unknown with little in print, like Imre Kertesz or Elfriede Jelinek, won the award.”Now, granted, this is purely anecdotal, but based on that experience and my haunting of various other bookstores over the years, I’d guess that generally speaking, the awards that generate chatter in the book pages are more important for burnishing writers’ reputations than for inciting genuine interest among the general reading public.It’s very different in the UK, of course, where the Booker Prize is a national event that lands on page one of the country’s newspapers. Even the gamblers get swept up in the action. In my experience, we Americans get swept up too, but it’s hard to get too wrapped up when American writers are excluded from the action. To give some specific examples. Winning the Booker undoubtedly helped The Life of Pi become a big seller in the US, but it was a slow building crescendo of word of mouth that made the book a mega hit. Vernon God Little, on the other hand, not so much. Still, if the Booker were to make American books eligible, a plan that has been proposed and scuttled in the past, I could see it becoming nearly as popular in the US as it is in the UKHere in the States, we have a pair of literary awards that are generally regarded as the most prestigious: the National Book Award and the Pulitzer. The National Book Award could be the US equivalent of the Booker, but it doesn’t market itself as well. The name is too… on the nose, and the judges have at times shown an odd predilection for the obscure.The Pulitzer, meanwhile, has plenty of name recognition, but it treats its “Letters” awards as little more than afterthought to its centerpiece journalism prizes. Bringing the book award to the forefront and creating a shortlist, as I have suggested, might be enough to create some Booker-esque excitement here in the States.And so, that leaves the Nobel, which in my experience, actually sells books. I think there are a few reasons for this. With its broad slate of awards and century old pedigree, it’s got serious name recognition. At the same time, it doesn’t push aside its literature award to put the spotlight on the other categories. Finally, it recognizes a body of work rather than a single volume, perhaps subconsciously appealing to people in that it presents readers with a reading list ready to be explored.In the end, these awards, even the Booker and the Nobel, are more fun to talk about than to get book recommendations from. I prefer to hear from my trusted fellow readers than any panels of judges.Some other favorite awards: The Lettre Ulysses, the IMPAC, the MacArthur Genius grants