For the next two weeks we'll be discussing blurbs on the blog here. The first entry will be devoted to the topic of getting them, while next week we'll be talking about giving them. Why two weeks? You may well ask. Because I've written enough on the subject for it to be a dissertation. Seriously. And this first part is by far the longest. So let's get started.
WHAT ARE BLURBS?
Before we get started, let's clarify our terms, since I've occasionally seen confusion on this issue. A blurb is not the back-jacket description of a book; it's not the inside-flap description of a book. It is a quote from an established author, the purpose of which is to help promote the book at hand.
WHY GET BLURBS?
I don’t think the average consumer buys a book strictly on the basis of a blurb. Do you? Yes, there are degrees of blurbs. For example, if Stephen King says, “This book is good,” that’s a nice thing to have on your jacket. On the other hand, if Stephen King says, “This is the best book I’ve read in the last five years,” now, there’s a blurb that might actually get people to sit up and take notice. But generally speaking, the average person who walks into a bookstore is picking up a book based on catchy cover, catchy title, a review they’ve read, a recommendation from a friend. The blurb, for consumers, is usually the last line of influence.
So who does care about blurbs? Reviewers, in particular the reviewers for the major prepublication trade magazines, and buyers for bookstores. Do blurbs guarantee a good review or increase orders? Not directly, no. But they are part of the package that guides perception of the work before reading or buying. They can also help attract attention if you’re still at the stage of trying to acquire an agent and, if you’ve already sold the book to a publisher, they can help create in-house enthusiasm among the editorial department and the sales force. Then, too, if you receive a number of glittering blurbs from a wide array of successful authors, it can even help you expand the market for your book, getting people to think outside that box we all seem to get stuck in. So let’s get started on…
WHO TO ASK
1. Don't Go Public
I’ve seen novice writers put out general requests for blurbs on lists that are populated by hundreds of people: “If anyone here would like to blurb my book, I’d be very grateful!” Please don’t do this. What are you going to do if you get fifty blurbs this way? Will you be able to use them all? Further, not to knock self-publishing, but if your book is slated for publication from Random House and one of the list members who jumps at the opportunity to give you five to ten hours of their valuable time to blurb your book, and then it turns out that person’s own book is published by iUniverse, are you still going to use their blurb? And if not, how are you going to tell them?
2. Not Tit for Tat
I’ve also seen novices offer publicly, “Hey, if anyone wants to blurb my book, I’ll blurb theirs!” Again, please don’t do this. It’s unprofessional in so many ways. For starters, there’s already an unpleasant impression in some circles that blurbing is a corrupt process involving log-rolling and political back-scratching and every other awful name you can think up for it. Don’t help perpetuate that negative perception. Further, let’s say Ian McEwan or Nora Roberts – or why not both? – are the sort of authors you’re going after. No offense, but do you really think it’s going to influence their decision, the promise that you’ll gladly blurb them in return?
3. Aim Higher
This relates to 1 and 2. You don’t want blurbs from people no one has ever heard of, particularly if no one has ever heard of you…yet. You want blurbs that will increase your visibility. You want blurbs from people who are as famous as you can get. Huh. In light of what I just wrote, it makes me wonder why anyone ever seeks me out to blurb their books. And yet they do.
Some established authors advise sticking to authors in your own genre. But I say, wherever possible, diversify! When my debut novel came out – The Thin Pink Line, a dark comedy about a woman who fakes an entire pregnancy – I knew that the uberpink packaging of the book would limit the audience and I wanted to expand that market as wide as I could. So I sought out and received blurbs from: Jane Heller and Carly Phillips (both noted for their success in comedy); Carole Matthews (who’s hugely successful in England, where the book was also being published); Adriana Trigiani (because she writes such incredibly sweet books and I thought her endorsement might take some of the sting out of the fact that my book opens with the acerbic line, “Have you become a fuckwit, Jane?”); Karen Karbo, whose books are regarded as more literary and who occasionally reviews for the New York Times); and two men, Nick Earls (“the Aussie Nick Hornby,” since the book was going to be published in Australia) and Nelson DeMille (because Mr. DeMille has more testosterone than any man needs in a lifetime, so I figured women could push the book on their menfolk with the line, “Nelson DeMille has more testosterone than any man needs in a lifetime, and he loved this book…”). Really, it’s nice to have the usual suspects on board with you, but if you can get some of the unusual suspects… Like, say, if I could just get Gabriel Garcia Marquez to say, “Lauren Baratz-Logsted is the Dennis Lehane of Chick-Lit!” Oops, I forgot. Writer/cowboy Tom Groneberg did use that line in his blurb for How Nancy Drew Saved My Life, but my publisher, in their infinite conservative wisdom, cropped the blurb to, “Witty and wonderful…her best book yet.” They also cropped out Christopher Moore saying that A Little Change of Face was a book with “great breasts,” leaving me with two very nice but breastless lines that ended with “a whip-smart, funny voice.” Rats.
HOW TO ASK
1. The Intimidation Factor
I frequently hear novices say they’re intimidated at the thought of writing to established authors to ask for a blurb. Well, don’t be. The overwhelming majority of writers have once been where you are now – hoping to break in, hoping to have a good career – and we’re all big girls and boys. That means we can say no if we don’t have the time to help or aren’t inclined to. But you shouldn’t say no for us without giving us the opportunity to say yes.
2. Spell My Name Right
No. Really. Spell my name right. And address me formally, as Ms. Baratz-Logsted, however long it may take you to type that, until I write you back and sign with my first name, granting you the right to address me more informally.
3. Stroke My Ego
Tell me that you loved Vertigo, that you agree with the Boston Globe’s assessment that is stands on the same suspense shelf with the work of best-selling author Ruth Rendell. There. I’m feeling better toward you already. Of course, if you haven’t read any of my books, and you’re not an innate liar, then how about, “I’ve long been an admirer of your career and the way you handle yourself.” Really, anything to personalize the opening will do. At least then I’ll feel like you’re writing to me, not because you couldn’t hunt down Helen Fielding’s email address, but because maybe you actually know who I am.
4. Pitch Your Book
Don’t just ask me to blurb your book without telling me anything about it. Use the middle of your letter to put in the kind of pitch you’ve been using to approach agents or that your publisher is using for the flap copy, so I have some sense of what you’re asking me to read and why I should be excited about reading it.
5. Close Politely
Thank me for my time in reading your letter and tell me how much it would mean to you to have my endorsement. Time is the most valuable commodity we humans have and you should always be grateful when a stranger expends some of theirs on your behalf. Oh, and if you have a specific time frame – say, you have an absolute deadline of two weeks by which you need to have all your blurbs in – then tell me that up front. There’s no point in wasting both our time if it’s going to be impossible for me to accommodate you due to my own career and life obligations.
6. If I Say Yes
Ask how I prefer you send the manuscript, as an email attachment or snail. Some authors will gladly accept email attachments – and I’ve been known to do it if the situation is time sensitive – but many prefer snail. In the case of the latter, yes, you will be out the price of the paper to print it on, the drain on your print cartridge and the postage. But better you than the person you’re asking a favor from. If someone is doing you a favor, it shouldn’t put them in the hole.
THINGS NOT TO DO
1. Offer to Send Just the First 50 Pages
I’ve had people do this, write and say, “I don’t want to impose on your time by asking you to read the whole manuscript, so if you could just read the first 50 pages and offer me a blurb based on that sample…?” I know. You think you’re doing me a favor. You’re being sensitive about my precious time. In fact, you’re insulting my integrity. Not much in a writing career is permanent, but my good name should be one of those things. And it’s my good name you’re hoping to use as an endorsement on your books. So don’t expect me to donate that name based on a sample. Yes, your first 50 pages might be the most brilliant ever written…but what if the rest of the book sucks? I’d rather read the whole book, however long it might take me, than be part of something less than honest.
2. Don't Boast in Public About Getting Blurbs for Your First 50 Pages
I’ve seen people do this. If you’re one of those people, please keep it to yourself. It doesn’t enhance anyone’s belief that your book will be good – quite the opposite – and it’s an offense to all those who are playing the game straight.
3. Small Print
I had a woman ask me to blurb a book once and when it arrived in the mail it had zero margins and was single-spaced in a smaller-than-usual type size. It also has a cover letter that joked, “I sent it this way because I wanted to save on my paper and postage!” Not funny. I’m still reading at the insane rate I set myself in 2005 of 365 books a year and I’ve written some 1200 manuscript pages since January 1. It’s amazing I can still read anything at all that isn’t written on the side of a barn. I shouldn’t have to go blind or get a blinding headache while helping you out. Sap that I am, I read the book anyway and I even blurbed it, because it was good. But when I sent the blurb to the author, I included a gently worded note saying that in future she should refrain from saving paper and postage expense or, at the very least, she shouldn’t tell people that’s what she’s doing. The reply I got was snippy. Again, not good.
4. Don't Dis the Hand that Feeds You
One time, a woman on a public list was dissing a best-selling author when one of his books came under discussion. She spoke specifically about how she would have handled the same material differently and how much better the result would have been. The thing is, she’d previously boasted about the wonderfully generous blurb she’d received from this author and the debut novel the blurb was for had yet to come out. You know what? If you really believe you’re a better writer than someone who’s sold tens of millions of books and has gone out on a limb for you, fine, say it to yourself in the privacy of your own little megalomaniac head or say it to trusted friends. But don’t pull this kind of stuff in public. It only makes you look bad and it does nothing for making others want to help you. Ever.
THINGS TO DO
1. Say Thank You
We always come back to the question of manners, but it’s true: like I always tell my eight-year-old, you can get away with a lot in life if you have good manners. Besides which, it’s good for the soul to practice gratitude; much better than bitterness or envy, which are easy enough to come by in a writing career. So, if you’re lucky enough to get a blurb from Dream Author, say thank you. In the past, I’ve received handwritten notes, finished copies of the published books, even Godiva chocolates. But you want to know the truth? Those things are nice, but none of it’s necessary. A simple and sincerely worded “Thank you for your time” is all most of us need.
2. Buy the Author's Book
If someone is nice enough to blurb your book and it turns out that the truth of the matter is you’ve never actually spent money on one of their books, do so now. It’s not required and no one will ever know if you don’t – I’ve never once stormed a blurbee’s house demanding to see their bookshelves – but it is good karma. Even seemingly established authors need to keep selling books in order to keep on having careers, and while the single copy you buy will hardly be a bulwark toward disaster, it just feels like the right thing to do.
And that's it! Sounds easy, doesn't it? I'm looking forward to what others have to say about any or all of the above. Keep in mind, these are just my opinions, albeit culled from a quarter century as an independent bookseller, PW reviewer and now published author. So let me know what you think and I'll see you all back here next Tuesday for Blurbs II: Giving.
Be well. Don't forget to write.