Why won't you blurb me? (Copyright Salon 2008)
I had an agent and a book deal for my first novel. All I was missing was quotes for the back cover. Next time, remind me to suck up to more famous writers.
By Rebecca Johnson
Aug. 4, 2008 | A few years ago, I went to a party at the writer William Styron's house in rural Connecticut. The great man himself was somewhere else, but his daughter, my friend, had invited a few people over for dinner. After the meal, I wandered into the living room, where I saw a long table piled high with unbound book manuscripts, all as thick and unwieldy as a Manhattan telephone book. Curious and slightly sheepish (was I being too nosy?), I went to take a closer look. A thin coating of dust lay over the manuscripts, many of which had yellowed with age. I leaned down to read the cover letters. Each was practically identical. "Dear Mr. Styron: It gives me great pleasure to present the debut novel of writer X." Each letter writer went on to praise the author as a talented new voice on the American literary scene and then requested a blurb from Styron. I looked (in vain) for a name I recognized. I hadn't written a novel at that point in my life (though I wanted to!) but I remember feeling distinctly chilled by that graveyard of hopeful dreams.
A decade later, I managed to beat the odds by finding an agent and a publisher for my own first novel. All seemed to be going well until, about six months before publication, my editor called to discuss the issue of blurbs. For the paperback version of my book, I'll have plenty of reviews with which to lard the back cover but, pre-publication, the first-time novelist needs quotes like "Genius!" or "Masterpiece!" or "Johnson writes like an angel!" from other, more established, writers in order to lure potential readers. Thus commenced the dreaded search for blurbs.
No problem, I told my editor. I've lived in New York City for 25 years. I'm a professional journalist. Some of my best friends are novelists. I rattled off their names to my editor and was met with a worrisome silence.
"What about Ann Patchett?" she asked. "Do you know her?"
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Ah yes, blurbs. Like most writers, I've been on both sides of the gun. Seeking blurbs, dealing with requests for them. As for the seeking...I've only had a few embarrassing experiences, the most memorable (i.e. I can't forget it) with a writer who told me very politely that I was a minor hack and blurbing me would forever ruin his reputation. That one really hurt. I'd called him because my editor said that major name blurbs would help. I try to blame him but I can't. I was the one who called. I was the one who asked.
In general, though, most writers I've asked (and I've never made a habit of such requests) have been cordial and willing to at least look at the book. This isn't to say that I haven't been turned down. But at least they didn't make me feel that I came loaded with a terminal case of cooties.
When a writer asks me for a blurb, which isn't all that often, I usally say, and quite seriously, that my name as a sales tool has little or no value. "Damn, man, if Gorman likes it this'll go all the way to the top of the NY Times!" Most of the requests I get are from writers who've just started to publish. Remembering how helpful established mystery writers were to me when I began I feel guilty if I don't give their book a look over. And if the look over is ok I read the whole thing. In the past five years I've read a number of really fine first novels in the mystery, fantasy, horror and western fields.
I'm not convinced that blurbs are all that helpful anyway but since the industry thinks they are I play along.
How about you writers out there? Any interesting blurb stories? Any strong opinions on the subject?
In case it didn't register, when Rebbeca Johnson, writer of the blurb piece, mentioned that she set off seeking blurbs and ended up at William Styron's house...well, my search was a bit different. I ended up at Carter Brown's.