Instant Lessons: First Novel Karma

August 5, 2010 | 1 book mentioned 24 4 min read

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
coverDid 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.

's debut novel, The French Revolution, has been called “wildly imaginative,” “brilliant,” and “an excellent achievement.” He’s mildly infamous for releasing the novel on Twitter first. Grab his free French Rev iPhone app on


  1. I love almost all of these. As a reader, though, I think respecting authors can sometimes get counterproductive. I understand that books take a lot of work to write, but I don’t like it when writers use that as proof of worth. A book that took a lifetime to write can still be bad.

    It’s frustrating when everybody loves everybody else’s books out of “respect” or a desire not to talk shit: it makes it even harder to find the really great books. I prefer honest, fair, unspiteful criticism. If it wasn’t good, you can say so nicely, or at least fairly (or not say anything).

    It irks me especially when books that really are bad get rave reviews and blurbs, because nobody wants to piss anybody else off. You’ve got to respect the reader, too, and sometimes that means calling a book for what it is, whether that hurts a writer’s feelings or not.

  2. I like these a lot. The one thing I’d add, perhaps as an alternative to your “read books from living authors only” thing, is “if the author’s alive, try your best to buy the book new.” Used bookstores are wonderful places, but unless I’m broke and absolutely must read the book immediately (which happens sometimes), I try to only buy books from dead authors there.

    Living authors need the royalties, and independent bookstores who buy new books from publishers and support living authors need the sales.

  3. @Nico – I’m not saying forget having good taste–life is way too short for that. I’m saying stifle the shit-talking and say nothing instead of something evil. At this point, for me as a new novelist, being an ass gets me nowhere.

    @emily usually, I really favor the user. I mean, I want it to be as easy as possible for people to read my stuff. I used to be pretty pro-Kindle until I realized that indie stores are really good front-line supporters of my work – Amazon doesn’t care. BUT – as a consumer AND an author – I can’t rule out used books. At least there’s some demand for my work. I personally buy tons of books used. That hasn’t buckled in my new author status.

    @Chris you are exceedingly kind

  4. I really like these nuggets of advice and will take them to heart. May I say, though, that I would draw the line at Farmville. Some dignity has to be maintained.

    Sensitive folks might want to skip this part. This morning, I had to experience one of the necessary thrills familiar to those of us who have recently entered our 6th decades: the routine colonoscopy. The nurses told me that rarely had they seen someone laughing with delight on their way into the procedure room. I was, of course, finishing off The French Revolution. It was a LOT better than the procedure! And funny enough to take my mind off….. well, what it is not easy to take one’s mind off. I give you a gift of the blurb: “Takes the edge off a colonoscopy”.

    I’ve really enjoyed the book. I will be writing the best appreciation I can and and telling everybody how much it will improve their summer.

    And as you make the rounds, man, don’t be TOO nice. A little bit of that cynical glint adds a lot of charm.

    Obviously, Matt, better and better times are ahead for you. Its thrilling to watch.

  5. “Read books from living authors only” Seriously? I find this pretty much ridiculous.

    “Read books from living authors” I can live with.

  6. I love this post, Matt. While I understand Nico’s feelings (in a comment above) about the importance of honesty in criticism, having a book out there in the world has taught me to approach other people’s work with more generosity than I had brought to reading in the past. That is, I try to appreciate what the author is doing (and wants to do) before focusing on what does or doesn’t work for me. It’s made me a happier and more engaged reader.

  7. Wonderful post. For me, I figure there are more than enough professional and amateur critics out there ready to trash someone’s book; I’m living by the ‘only say something, if you have something good to say,” rule. I’m amazed when I see writers stamping miserly stars on fellow-authors books vis a vis goodreads, Amazon, etc.

    I like spreading word of all the wonderful books (living authors especially) out there. Plenty of readers to go around–and great writers should be great readers, right?

    A writer’s spirit of generosity goes a long way.

  8. Only living authors? Stay positive? Thanks for the advice, but I’m going to keep reading dead white guys and staying as snarky as possible. As Edward Abbey would say, “I appreciate the advice, but f–k you all the same.”

  9. Well done. I’m especially loving the “don’t talk sh**” rationale. If a book gives me pleasure or expands my horizons in some way, I give it a five-star rating everywhere I can…who am I to be persnickety? (After all, writing books is hard work!)

    The downside of this philosophy is that it made me want to throttle a friend who gave a recent project of mine FOUR stars on a book-sharing site.

    When asked about it, he explained earnestly, “Look, it was good, but it wasn’t CLASSIC.” Oy.

  10. I am going to side with Nico: there’s a big difference between thoughtful criticism and shit-talking. Thoughtful criticism takes work, for one thing, like all serious writing. It’s hard. You put yourself out there. I’d much rather say nothing.

    Why bother then?

    I think the “second-grade art class” approach to criticism actually feeds into its shit-talking opposite (or evil twin). Look at the Shivani piece on “15 overrated writers” that ran in Huffpost over the weekend. It’s a vile screed in a lot of ways: shallow, stingy, vindictive criticism. If I was shit-talking I’d say “it makes Dale Peck look like a Talmudic scholar.”

    1100 or so comments when I was over there. A lot of them saying “thank you” and basically decrying the inbred back-scratching culture of the MFA-publishing complex, the mutual blurbing, the prize-fellowship gift baskets, etc. My point being that even a hatchet job like Arvani’s can sound like a refreshing blast of honesty in an environment of hyper-inflated rhetoric where everybody is a “bold new voice in American fiction” and gets a blurb from their teacher. (I got one too, for what it’s worth.) The friendly five stars mean a little less each time.

    Several of the points here make a lot of sense — getting past the jealousy of a good writer, shelling out that $12 when you go to someone’s reading. But do we all just write to publish and sell books, to make friends, to get jobs, to … write more books? Doesn’t everything we do depend on an informed, engaged readership that will tell us the truth, even if it hurts?

  11. Read books from living authors only? If you’re buying a book so some author gets a royalty, you’re probably not going to read it. No one ever buys a book for the author’s royalty. People read for any number of different reasons, but helping someone out is never it.

    Dead authors are a safe bet because you know your reason for reading is going to be met. This is why most readers and publishers shy away from first-time novelists because it requires a leap of faith on the part of the reader.

    Your “Don’t talk shit in public”: I don’t know so much. Talking shit in public worked for most of America’s great novelists: Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, John Updike even Tom Wolfe. They talked trash about other authors but made sure their next novel was better. (Even Hemmingway talked trash about other authors such as Gertrude Stein and F. Scott Fitzgerald.)

    I work in publishing, and it isn’t fair. It’s not karma, it’s a business. The book is your heart and soul but to the publisher it’s a potential profit or loss and to the reader it’s good to fill up some time, or a bad waste of time. Getting published is the first step. Marketing to people who have opinions that other people listen to is your best bet, and you’re going to have to do this yourself as most publishers are pouring all their marketing into their established author brands.

    You’re doing the right thing, though, by thinking of different ways of marketing, but just make sure you’re marketing it to your audience. There’s an audience for every book, you just need to find yours.

  12. Every author dies sometime. Don’t you want to be read after you pass? I do.

    Snark and nastyism: no. But you don’t get points just for trying.

  13. I don’t entirely agree.

    There’s plenty of living authors swimming in cash. There’s also plenty of dead authors whose children are struggling, just like you. I know a couple examples — including the daughter of one author whose work I loved (and still love) immensely who still hasn’t found anyone to re-print the works.

    Buy books of authors you LIKE. That’s it. I say this as an author who ISN’T swimming in cash. I don’t want to encourage people to buy my books just because they should support me. I want them to buy my books because they say “this is good stuff, and I want him to write MORE of those.”

    Don’t talk sh*t in a limited sense. There’s nothing wrong with being opinionated in your own space, on your own blog or facebook. Don’t, however, ARGUE ABOUT BAD REVIEWS. This is one of the few truly fatally stupid things a new author (or even an old author — see “Anne Rice”) can do.

    Hustle is fine. Don’t spam. You can talk about your book in a venue that you’re normally present in; you can go to events and talk yourself up. But don’t drop in on some community that you didn’t belong to before just to promo your book. (this is a general rule, not directed to YOU personally).

    Respect the author, yes (unless he or she does something to lose it). Respect the editors and publishers,too. THEY are the ones risking the money FOR us authors; we write, they pay. And for many authors, it’s a losing bet.

  14. I’ll also note that the “5 stars or delete” is silly. First of all, a book with all five stars is clearly phony reviews, and no one believes it, unless you’re dealing with something like Harry Potter where the legions of fanatic fans are well-known and unstoppable.

    Second, you want honest reviews, not sympathy or charity reviews. If your friends don’t like your work, why the hell should you be asking them to in effect LIE about it? I’d rather my friends felt perfectly comfortable saying “Ryk, I’m glad you like writing and I’m glad you make money from them, but I really don’t like this stuff!”.

    In point of fact, my brother generally doesn’t even read the GENRE I write and the one story of mine he read (part of my first novel Digital Knight) he said was reasonably well written but was disappointed that there was actually a vampire in a, well, vampire story.

    Some of your friends and family just won’t be good reviewers, and it’s better to have the honest opinions.

  15. You might as well just put up a banner saying “Ignore all my book recommendations,” as tell the world that you won’t say anything but “Five Stars! Marvelous!” about a friend’s book, even if you decide after five pages that you don’t like it.

  16. Love that the knives came out.

    @Vicki dead wrong. I would never advocate for a shitty book, and never give a book five stars that didn’t deserve it. However, if I don’t like it, I don’t broadcast it. I ask the same of my friends with my work. Pretty simple.

    @Ryk I absolutely want honest feedback from my friends about my work. In private. Not affecting other people’s purchase decisions. Agree with you about not arguing about bad reviews – nothing to gain there. Sounds like you need to write your own piece.

    @Jason I think you missed the point. I’m giving lessons learned from a first-novelist’s perspective, not the general public’s perspective. I’d rather put my dollar toward a living person. I’m not saying they’re better, or that it even makes much of a difference. I’m saying it’s the right thing for me to do today. And if you don’t believe in karma (doesn’t look like you do), that’s your choice. But karma is community, and I need that now. Once I’ve got an Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test under my belt, I’ll start throwing poison darts.

    @Eric I like your comment. I’m not ever planning on getting into criticism myself – I don’t see any upside. If I did, I’d be honest though. Also, I’m definitely in this to continue growing as a writer and write better books, and to do that I absolutely need honest feedback. From strangers, honest, thoughtful feedback in any forum is fine. From friends? Tell me privately, and don’t be a dick about it. I’m following those rules myself, but not offering feedback at all for strangers. Yet.

    Case in point: a friend of mine privately shared criticism with me today for a reading I did last week. I’m grateful for it.

  17. Also – @Eric an ironic note that this piece about NOT shit-talking is destroying other pieces on The Millions comments-wise (even if you subtract my comments). There is something here.

  18. Matt: I’ve written many of my own pieces at different locations.

    Insofar as reviews, I still don’t agree. Public or private, same thing. 4 stars is a perfectly good review. All of my books pretty much cover the gamut (once they get enough reviews to show it), and average in at around 4-4.5 stars. I’d be very disappointed to find out that my friends deliberately put in 5 star reviews if they’d really mean 4 or even 3 stars. (with one exception, the higher reviews some of them put in on one novel specifically to counteract an idiot who gave a 1-star review… because there wasn’t a Kindle edition. Not for anything actually relevant to the book)

    The point of a review is to give someone an idea of IF they want to buy the book. A rating that is higher than you really mean is a dishonest and ultimately less helpful review.

    For independent reviews (i.e., not grouped on something like Amazon, where for a while there was no real feedback mechanism) I always try to write a thank-you even when the review’s dead-negative.

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