Monday, August 04, 2008

Why won't you blurb me?

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?"

for the rest go here:

Ed here:

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.


Unknown said...

At least twice, and maybe more (I've tried to forget), writers have asked me for blurbs that I've been happy to supply after reading their novels. Then they've been embarrassed to tell me that the publisher doesn't think my name will help sell the book, so the blurb won't be used. Gee, you'd think the name of a genius like myself would sell anything.

Ed Gorman said...

Been there too. Supplied blurbs that were never used. They ran ones by Stephen King. Who is this guy anyway?

pattinase (abbott) said...

What do they know. I would certainly pick up a book either of you two blurbed.

Ed Gorman said...

Wer're in a business, Patti. It's p&l. You make your strongest case. I don't take it personally. I did the same thing for eighteen years when I edited Mystery Scene. Big names went on the cover and the biggest got the cover pciture. And the writer I spoke of, now deceased, tended to be a jerk to everybody. But I was thirty-two years younger than I am right now and was sort of shocked by his attitude.

Ben Boulden said...

Blurbs. I'm a reader and not a writer, but I'm wary of writers blurbing other writers. I always assume it's a buddy who has never read the novel, but instead sat together one evening in a bar trying to think of something dashing to say--X's writing is vibrant, brilliant, and more entertaining then any three Alistair MacLean novels combined.

But I have to admit there have been times I've been swayed. A Dean Koontz blurb lures me, an Ed Gorman, and always--I mean always!--a Harriet Klausner. (bad joke.)


Dave Zeltserman said...

Ed, I'm going to go into the bunsiness of selling blurbs--but first I need to legally change my name to Jack Kong Rowley or, as shortened to, J. K. Rowley.

Anonymous said...

From the beginning, I've been embarrassed to ask for blurbs, so I don't. The two or three that appear on my novels were gotten by editors. Instead, my publishers used good review quotes-- and maybe that's why I've written over sixty contracted novels. Readers will trust a review quote far more than a blurb.

Richard Wheeler

Anonymous said...

Dean Koontz blurbed NO EXIT FROM BROOKLYN for me, which excited me. But we sent the book to Harlan Ellison for a blurb. One day he called my editot at SMP and said, "I was going to call you to tell you I don't have time to read this, but I made the mistake of starting it, and I couldn't put it down." Then he gave usa blurb. Hell, I would've settled for the bit about not being able to putit down.

Not convinced they help, either, but even PW is impressed by them, because at the end of some of their reviews they tell you who blurbed the book. I was also happy to get a Michael Conelly blurb on EAST OF THE ARCH.


Sandra Ruttan said...

I've definitely heard variations of "I'm not a big name so a blurb from me won't help" but... the thing is, is it better to go with no blurbs at all?

I'm not convinced blurbs help, but it is only the bestsellers - the Rankins, Lippmans, Connellys - that dare to put out a book without a blurb on the front cover. Not having a blurb is a curiosity, and I guess for the people who do pay attention to these things they think either you're full of yourself or you aren't that good.

My own experience is such that getting new blurbs from known names was pretty well impossible for me, so I turned to other new authors, and one of them met me with a laundry list of conditions for supplying a blurb that was about three paragraphs long.

It's a popularity game for so many, choosing only to blurb when it will bring attention to their name, and often more about trading favors than anything else. Best story I know is a very well-known author who blurbed another author. Blurb appears on the cover. My SO picked up the book, and in an e-mail exchange with the blurber said, "I'm reading X by X right now." The author responded, "Never heard of it."

I've given up on it. If it's all about kissing backside and not about writing, I don't want the endorsements. I've grown to distrust most of them.

Cap'n Bob said...

I was embarrassed when several blurbs I had weren't used. One was from Bill Crider, who I consider to be a big name and big talent. I hope everyone who was stiffed realizes I had nothing to do with it.