Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Blurbs

I’ve been thinking a lot about blurbs these days — by which I mean author quotes: the endorsements that one writer will give another for use usually on a book jacket. I’ve been thinking about this because I get asked to do blurbs more and more, ever since my novel Paranoia hit the NYT bestseller list.

Calvin Trillin once proposed that anybody who gives a blurb should be legally required to state right on the book jacket his relationship to the author. Like, “brother-in-law.” Or, “we have the same agent.” Or, “met him at a bar.” Kurt Vonnegut recently said, “Blurbs are baloney. Anybody who reads a blurb is crazy.”

Is anyone really persuaded by author endorsements? Actually, yes, I think so. It’s just us writers who are cynical about the process. Most publishers think they’re important. My editor worked his tail off to get blurbs for Paranoia.

Within the publishing industry, there are some writers who are dismissed as blurb whores — they’ll give a quote to anyone who asks. You see their names on every other book in the store — sort of the literary equivalent of Rex Reed, who’s never seen a movie he doesn’t like. Call it literary Weimar currency — quotes by the wheelbarrowful. I doubt the regular book-buyer cares, though. Take the famous literary recluse Thomas Pynchon — even he has gone through a recent flurry of quote-giving, I’ve noticed.

I know some writers who absolutely refuse to give quotes to anyone for any reason. This policy inevitably causes them no end of grief. A couple of writer friends of mine — whose own first books were launched with quotes from Famous Writers — subsequently refused to help anyone else out. On the one hand I respect this — they’re helping to strengthen the currency of the quote, keep it as strong and fully valued as the Swiss franc — but on the other hand you can’t help thinking, Oh, so now that you’ve reached the summit you won’t give anyone else a hand up? It feels stingy.

One of the dirty secrets in the blurb biz, of course, is that a lot of authors give quotes without bothering to read the books. Some will say, just tell me what you want me to say and I’ll say it. That’s usually in the case of a favor he or she is doing for a good friend.

So how can you tell if a writer is truly pushing a book and an author he really admires — or he hasn’t even read the book? You can’t. Take The Da Vinci Code — I happen to know that a couple of the writers who gave Dan Brown’s novel enthusiastic blurbs hadn’t read his book. They did it as a favor to his agent or his editor or whatever. One of them later told me he’d just read The Da Vinci Code and thought it was great — a year after it came out with his quote on the back. (This isn’t a knock against Dan Brown’s novel. It’s just the way the biz works.)

I know that sounds awfully unsavory, but is it really wrong? It all goes back to the question of whether anyone really believes in the legitimacy of the blurb. Dan Brown wasn’t going to complain at the time — he needed all the help he could get, back when he was just a writer who’d published a few clever, fast-paced books that had all but disappeared. I’ve received quotes from writers who I know hadn’t read my book —- do you think I was so ungracious as to say, No, I really can’t accept that, sorry, it’s not legit?

It’s totally understandable to me why an author would blurb a book he hasn’t read — some authors who do a book a year barely have time to read their own drafts. The more successful a writer is, the more often he or she gets hit up for quotes — and the less time he or she has.

Believe me, I don’t get asked for blurbs as often as, say, Nelson DeMille or Tom Clancy . . . or Dan Brown — not even close — but I still have to deal with requests fairly often, and I’ve gotten a little jaded about the whole business.

See, I’ve been burned. I once did a quote for a thriller writer without having read the book, and I still regret it: I was dismayed at how many people came up to me, angry and betrayed that I’d recommended this book that was, as it turned out, pretty crappy. I should have read it first. Learned my lesson.

Then there was the time, maybe five or six years ago, when an editor pressed me hard for a quote, and I dropped everything to read the book and do the blurb — and then they never used it. They got bigger names. They gave me the line — one of the great lies — that there wasn’t room on the jacket, but we’ll be featuring it prominently in promotional material. Yeah, right. Never happens.

Then there was the editor, a guy who used to be right near the top of Warner Books (he’s no longer there) who asked me a few years back to do a blurb for a thriller he was publishing — I figure he struck out with the big names and ended up with me. I actually read the book, liked it, and did a blurb. So did Mr. Bigshot Editor ever thank me? Nope. He didn’t even send me a copy of the book with my quote on it. No class.


And there’s the Almost-Bestselling Author whose editor asked me for a quote — the editor really pleaded — and I did it. Had to read the damn book of course, and though I didn’t dislike the book, I didn’t love it, so I was able to scrape together some nice, honest things to say. Not faint praise, either. A good, selling quote. And the writer didn’t even thank me — not a note, not a book, nothing. Pissed me off. Never again, I decided.

A few weeks ago I noticed a blurb on this same Mr. Almost-Bestselling Author’s latest thriller, done by a friend of mine. I called my friend, asked him why he’d contributed the blurb. A favor to their mutual agent, he said, adding, “And you know, that bastard writer never even thanked me.”

7 Comments:

Blogger Paul G said...

Joe

I found this very interesting. A side of the world of publishing that most people likely aren't familiar with. Thanks for sharing your thoughts! 'Blurb whores', that's rich!

Paul

February 8, 2005 at 6:50 AM  
Blogger S. W. Vaughn said...

Hi Joe,

I love you for writing this post! As a struggling author (who is so close to needing blurbs she can taste it), I'm thrilled to know how the process actually works. And a little disheartened to discover the "industry" attitude toward blurbing (though I did suspect as much).

And as a copywriter for RTIR, I know of a prime example of "blurb whores" -- a pair of 'em, actually -- whose names I won't mention here because I'm chicken. :-)

I will now go forth and purchase Paranoia in support of your efforts to enlighten the rest of us (and because I suspect it will be a great read). Thanks again!

Sonya (bestseller-to-be... see you on the charts!)

February 13, 2005 at 4:02 PM  
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November 14, 2005 at 7:19 PM  
Blogger Jennifer said...

Don't know you from Adam... stumbled across your blog looking for info on blurbs, as I am writing my own book.

Enjoyed the view. Love your writing. And don't worry, I won't ask you for a blurb!

Much continued success to you.

I think it's crappy I had to "sign up" just to leave this meesage though.

April 19, 2006 at 4:47 PM  
Blogger Chumplet said...

My first book was e-published a month ago, with a print release in October. When I was asked to provide a blurb, I was fortunate that an early draft of my book was read and commented on by an author (in another genre) who was an old friend of my mother. She genuinely liked the book and gave me permission to quote her if it ever got published.

Now, I've been asked to write a blurb for an on-line critique partner. I'm flattered and honoured. I read most of her work through the critique process, so I at least know her style and the gist of the book. I think I'll be able to come up with a suitable blurb.

Thanks for the inside poop!

August 9, 2007 at 1:59 PM  
Blogger Annie Chen said...

Recently I've read Paranoia and I think it's interesting.

September 11, 2007 at 7:00 AM  

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