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).


  1. Anonymous4:48 PM

    I offered to try to get some blurbs for my debut MG, but my publisher wasn't interested - as you say, they seemed to think they were pretty worthless (even though some of the authors I could have asked were award-winning, if not exactly Neil Gaiman). I, otoh, figure (as you also say) they can never HURT, so why not get one or two? Especially for a debut, when no one's heard of you. I'd have thought it all adds to buzz, even if only a little.

    (Plus personally I have bought books - or more often been encouraged to take a closer look at a book - because of blurbs in the past.)

    1. I think most publishers don't think they are necessary for younger books. That said, as you say, they couldn't HURT you. If you were to say, HEY, my BFF is *fancy award winning* and she's read the manuscript and she wants to blurb the book -- they'd be delighted, I'm sure! But I think that most authors are not lucky enough to be in this position, and they don't want people chasing phantoms and wasting energy and brainspace. Also, the fact is, you might have only one "chit" you can cash in with this fancy-award-winning friend or colleague. Is THIS the time you want to call in the favor? (Maybe it is... but maybe that blurb would be even better suited for when you are three novels in and poised on the brink of really breaking out...)

      I don't know. Food for thought. I hope your debut was received fantastically!

    2. Putting aside my life as a writer and speaking as a reader, I have become very suspicious of blurbs. They are often phrased as cliches as in "a fresh new voice" or "a must read," which I find off-putting. I've also seen back covers covered with blurbs that gave no idea at all of what the book is about. For a non-debut novel, I'd much rather see excerpts from professional reviews of the author's earlier work. I feel as if I'm getting a less biased idea of the quality of the author's work in general that way.

  2. Perfect timing with this post! I've been trying to figure out how to handle both sides of the endorsement coin. This brings a lot of clarity (and help!) to the matter. :)

  3. Two other things - having someone famous blurb your book also puts your book in their hands, which means if they like it, they will also share information about it via their networks. Even on a 'non-famous' level, this can be helpful - for example, I review comic books, but if I see one that's stellar, I'll share it via my social network and librarian networks and recommend libraries purchase it. Also, while blurbs mostly live in print on the back of your book, if you have a blurb from a very famous celeb (like your example of Neil Gaiman), definitely include that in your pitches for coverage and chats with journalists outside of publishing/kids books. Especially with newspaper journalists, TV reporters, bloggers,radio, people who cover a of of ground, it can lift it from 'something in the slush pile' to 'something I should look at.'

  4. I was asked for the first time last year to provide a blurb (as a bookseller) and I went looking up how to structure it, etc. I would have loved this post and am filing it away for the future as well! ^.~

    If I see a book with blurbs from one--or more!--author I love, I'm more willing to pick it up off the shelf and look into it. I picked up THE GIRL OF FIRE AND THORNS by Rae Carson because Tamora Pierce blurbed it long before the book got good word of mouth among readers of this genre. (And then pushed it on other people and helped begin that word of mouth).

    I've picked up so many books because Jodi Picoult and/or Jacquelyn Mitchard (Sometimes both at once! Then I KNOW I have a winner) have blurbed them or the blurber is comparing the author to Picoult, etc. I've discovered Michelle Richmond, Lisa Genova, Diane Chamberlain, Laura Moriarty, and Heather Gudenkauf that way, to name five off the top of my head.

    Then there are books such as CITY OF A THOUSAND DOLLS, which I bought anyway, but when I saw that authors I enjoy such as Cinda Williams Chima, Cindy Pon, Elana Johnson, and Jaclyn Dolamore ALL blurbed it, I was even more excited to read it right away. [I think I had it on my radar initially because you were representing the author/title!] Same thing with LOVE LETTERS TO THE DEAD, which I requested to review specifically because of all the heavy-weight contemporary YA blurbers.

    So blurbs will always make me look harder at the book. Whether or not I pick it up to read falls on the summary or heavy buzz or personal recommendations, but blurbs help...especially if I'm randomly browsing the bookstore!

    I'm one reader who does like them!

    And as a bookseller, I agree: I cannot tell you just how many copies of ELEANOR AND PARK we sold because John Green blurbed it!

  5. I am a "blurber" in a way (I work for a book review magazine), and I always read the blurbs on books when I'm reading the back cover, etc. They never make or break me buying the book or not, but they do help get a sense of what the book is about, and they prepare me a bit for the reading. I would never not buy a book without blurbs, though, of course, and a book with blurbs will not automatically make me more likely to read it. But I do enjoy reading them to see what others have said. If an author I like has a blurb on the book, I might be more likely to pick up the book and check it out, though, that's for sure.

  6. Anonymous6:48 AM

    As Janet Reid says, writers are woodland creatures who worry about everything and I admit I have worried about this. I, fortunately, belong to a group with several very successful authors. I'm sure I could prevail upon some of them for blurbs, but boy howdy, do I detest the thought of it.

  7. Good, good stuff. I once picked up a library book because I noticed Karen Cushman loved it. I ended up loving it, too. That's really the only time I've responded to a blurb.


Comments are moderated - if I'm at my desk, they'll show up quickly. If I'm not... not so quickly. Thanks for your patience!

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.