Saturday, January 17, 2015

Logrolling in Our Time*, or, You Can't Take Blurbs With You

Blurbs. You know,  those little quotes about how awesome an author or their book is that are often on book jackets or in advertisements? Like: "Author is a certified genius and this book is a revelation!" Yeah. Those little tricky devils are the cause of no small amount of angst for all parties concerned. So here are some blurb facts and some blurb etiquette that might help. (Maybe).

FACT: * Pretty Much Everyone Hates Blurbs. * I'm gonna go out on a limb and say the majority of people in the publishing industry LOATHE blurbs. Agents and editors and publicists and their ilk know how hard they are to get, and more than that, how little most of them are worth. Authors generally dislike being in the position of begging for favors OR having favors begged of them. The process of blurbery can cause anything from mild stress to genuine anguish in its victims. :(

FACT: * Blurbs Are Mostly Worthless. *  Did I say "how little most of them are worth"?? Am I implying that Blurbs are mostly WORTHLESS? Well... no. I wasn't implying it, I was saying it. I mean look: If you are lucky enough to get a blurb from an extremely well-regarded author in your genre, you might get some of their fans to perk up when they see it. But those fans are PROBABLY fans of the genre in general, and they probably already knew about your book or would have come across it anyway, and nobody is going to read it JUST because of the blurb.

It's much more likely that a personal recommendation or review from an author - on their twitter, blog, vlog or whatever - will bring the book to fan attention. The blurb that is in the catalogue or on the back of the book is only good if somebody has already picked up the publishers catalogue or the book to look at it. So, you know, it's SUPER NICE,  but there isn't any proof that blurbs really help move the needle, sales-wise.

I've spoken to hundreds of readers, booksellers, librarians and others, and the fact is, the vast majority of the time, the blurb is not the deciding factor about whether or not they spend time and money on a given book. It's just not.

FACT: * Sometimes They're Not Worthless. * I can see the value of a blurb from a LEGIT FAMOUS PERSON that may help you get customers you wouldn't normally get. There are a few "legit famous person" authors: John Green, Neil Gaiman, Judy Blume, and maybe a handful of others. A blurb from one of these people may translate to a buy from some of their fans, and that is not anything to sniff at. Most famous people, of course, are NOT authors.

I am in the publishing industry, I already knew about the book X: A NOVEL, read it in galley form with no blurbs attached. But even I, hardened and cynical, raised an eyebrow in appreciation at the nice blurbs from Chris Rock and Muhammad Ali. These quotes, if printed in advertisements in mainstream publications (ie, NOT trade publications like PW that only industry people read) will likely catch the eyes of people who aren't "the usual suspects" -- customers that DON'T normally shop in the YA section or have a clue about kids books, but who will be attracted by these very high-profile endorsements.

FACT: *Blurbs Aren't Going Anywhere. * - For better or for worse, this practice of trying to get blurbs for nearly every dang novel that comes out seems to be a trend that is lasting. Part of it, I think, is that success is so ephemeral. Nobody knows what exact combination of factors causes a breakout book. Is it about Great reviews? Word of mouth? Right place right time?  Pure dumb LUCK? Or what? WHAT? Everybody wants to catch this lightning in a bottle. But there is very little that is actually within the publisher or authors' control.

You can write the best book possible. That's in your control. But virtually nothing else about the process really is. And ultimately, even the biggest, fanciest publisher can't make people write reviews or talk the book up or influence the Great Beyond to work on the books behalf. They can make a great looking package, but they can't force people to buy or read it. They can spend money on marketing but they can't guarantee that it will DO anything. So "getting blurbs" at least makes people FEEL like they are doing something to encourage the success of the book. And it probably doesn't hurt at least, so what the hey.

Here's how to live with it, with less stress:

ADVICE: * If you are a BLURBEE * - that is to say, a person whose work is in the publication pipeline, who is concerned about getting blurbs: If the subject doesn't come up, you really don't have to bring it up. If your publisher isn't anxious about this, you shouldn't be either. (See "mostly worthless", above). Blurbs are, in my experience, never sought for picture books or chapter books. It is also not terribly common for a lot of middle grade, particularly highly commercial books where the "hook" really does all the work. They are more likely to be thought important for upper MG and YA, particularly for somewhat literary novels, debuts or "breakout" books.

If/when the subject DOES arise, I suggest working with your agent and editor to brainstorm a list of possible authors to approach for endorsements. These should be authors that you think are actually appropriate for the material at hand -- so I would not suggest a picture book author to blurb an edgy YA. It just doesn't make sense.  It makes logical sense that your book should appeal to the same audience as the person who is potentially endorsing you.

So you have your list of awesome, appropriate names that you brainstormed. Now you and your agent and editor figure out who will approach whom. The person with the strongest connection to that author (or their agent or editor) should be the person to approach. You as the author should NEVER have to "cold-call" (cold email?) people you don't have any connection to. Nor should you ever be asked to make the request if it makes you feel uncomfortable. When in doubt, your editor should approach their editor or agent.

YOU MIGHT HAVE WEIRD FEELINGS. Like: a) They'll feel sorry for me, as they know what it's like to "need" a blurb;  b) They'll be put on the spot and feel like they "have" to blurb and then hate me; c) They'll have to say no and then feel guilty. DO NOT FEEL WEIRD. This is just part of the process. Nobody will hate you. Nobody will give a blurb unless they are genuinely able and willing to do so. And if they aren't, that's OK. Blurbs are nice, but a lack of a blurb has never killed anybody.

If you are approaching somebody - whether they are your BFF or just somebody who you know tangentially, or even a total stranger - take Curtis Sittenfeld's advice and be polite, succinct, and pre-emptively let them off the hook.  DO tell them what the book is about, and why you think it is a fit, but do so briefly. Don't say no FOR them obviously - but don't be offended or upset if the answer IS no. When you are more famous, people will be asking YOU for blurbs, and you'll remember this experience.

ADVICE: * If you are a BLURBER * - that is to say, a person who is being approached for a blurb: Value your own time and sanity. If you are on deadline or just busy with life stuff, or hell, if the book just doesn't sound interesting to you, nobody can be offended by your saying No. If they are offended, they are jerks.

YOU MIGHT HAVE WEIRD FEELINGS. Like, a) I feel sorry for the author, and I know what it's like to "need" a blurb;  b) I'm worried the author will find out I was asked and said no and then hate me; c) I'm worried if I say no this fancy classy editor will hate me. DO NOT FEEL WEIRD. This is just part of the process. Nobody will hate you. If you have time and ability and are moved to do so, by all means do it! But if not, that's OK. Blurbs are nice, but a lack of a blurb has never killed anybody.

My Personal Blurb Rules: 1) You should genuinely like the book and want other people to read it. 2) It should fit your "brand" or target audience. Would you recommend this to the same people who buy your book? 3) Don't be a "blurb whore" - if you blurb everything, your endorsement will stop being meaningful.

Your blurb rules may vary, but whatever they are, if you want to avoid burnout, I suggest you and your agent come up with a blurb plan. Perhaps it is that you NEVER blurb, or you will only blurb one book per season or year. You can always reserve the right to CHANGE that blurb plan, you aren't locked into it with manacles, but if you are approached unawares, it will give you a handy excuse to say no if the stars aren't aligning, and you can always make your agent into the bad guy. "Ah, my agent doesn't want me to blurb until my deadlines are passed" or "Oh, my agent says only one book per year, sorry!" (Agents are fine with being the bad guys). 

But if the book does sound great, and you do have the time, and you do read it and love it -- well, what the heck. If you CAN do it and WANT to do it, by all means do! Nothing will make an authors day/month/year more than kind words from an author they admire.

Did I miss anything? What are YOUR blurby feelings?

*PS: If you are too young to get the title reference: in the late 80's/early 90's there was a satirical magazine called SPY that had a feature called "Logrolling in Our Time" that showed blurbs that famous people gave each other. Quid pro quo, Clarice. (And if you're too young for THAT reference, don't tell me).