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Say your book is scheduled for publication and your editor sends you a note that it’s time to seek out blurbs. “Come up with your dream list,” she says.

How cool is this?! You start a list that begins with Oprah and goes on to include your literary heroes. You list bestselling authors whose books seem to tap the same themes, and hopefully the same audience, as yours. Then you pass the list back to your editor and cc your agent, feeling like a pampered celebrity.

In a little while, carefully-worded, enthusiasm-suppressing emails come back to clarify what is really meant by “dream list”. “Are you friends with Oprah?” “Do you have connections to this person and that person?” “Are you comfortable contacting them?”

Sometimes you are a slow learner, and what is only beginning to sink in is that the publishing house doesn’t actually get these blurbs for you. You’re expected to find Oprah’s email and ask her yourself. You: the writer who’s still a nobody, the person who hates to ask anyone for anything.

You look at the list again and cross off Oprah, Harper Lee, Ellen Gilchrist. And you build a new list consisting mostly of friends-of-friends—writers who are still stellar but not yet unlisted.

Staring at this new list is no less intimidating. You feel like a nuisance—a telemarketer about to make a call. And how do you even ask for a blurb?

You say something like this… “Um, hi. Sorry to bother you. You don’t even know who I am and I’m going to be asking you to do me a favor which will take up a lot of your time. It’s for my book, the one you’ve never heard of. If I’m bothering you, please just tell me to go away and I will do it this instant. In fact, I’m already going.”

Perhaps you asked so pathetically that you made it easy for the writers to say no. Still, you wait. You wait as you did in the center of the cafeteria, holding your lunch tray and hoping for a seat. You wait as you did at the edge of the gymnasium, hoping someone might walk over and invite you to dance. And in the world of begging for blurbs, rejections sound like this: “I’m sorry, I have a no-blurb policy.” “Hello, I am so-and-so’s assistant and while he’s flattered, he just can’t respond to these kinds of requests.” Sometimes a writer says he doesn’t have the time, though you see him horsing around all day long on Twitter and Facebook. And some say no with such guilt and so many reasons why they can’t do it that you realize even your question has burdened them, just as you feared.

But some people, bless them, will say yes. Quotes begin to trickle in from one author at a time, and it strikes you: This person read my book. She really got it. And she said this beautiful thing about it. How amazing is that? And this one somehow distilled the essence of my book into a single sentence. It’s a generosity that brings you to tears. You love these people! You feel an almost fierce desire to make sure something really good comes their way.

And then you learn another truth about blurbs. Some writers, particularly those extraordinarily talented writers from groundbreaking indie presses, aren’t always valued by your publisher, despite their glorious and generous words about your book. And the same is true for writers who have a track record of poor sales, even if those poor sales were not the fault of their writing. And these blurbs, these kind offerings, are simply cast aside. It’s a business decision, one you have no control over that leaves you feeling rotten.

Soon, many things will be out of your control—what reviewers think of your work, what bloggers post about it online, whether your book rises up the bestseller charts or falls away into obscurity. So you commit to things that will always be in your control—working hard on your craft, remaining grateful for those who came through for you, and keeping an eye out for opportunities to send good their way.

Have an opinion about blurbs? Jump on in!

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Susan Henderson SUSAN HENDERSON is the author of UP FROM THE BLUE (HarperCollins, 2010) and founder of the blog, LitPark, a literary playground for writers.

28 Responses to “The Truth about Blurbs”

  1. Ronlyn Domingue says:

    I’m almost tempted to see if I still have the Word file with my dream list. I wrote personalized letters to every single one of the writers, which my publicist sent out with the ARCs. Alas, it was for naught. The responses ranged from too busy to don’t do blurbs to nothing at all.

    But the blurbs I did manage to get were wonderful. Some were writers I knew personally, while others were connected to my publisher.

    Yes, some blurbs are set aside because the writers aren’t as well-known, but sometimes it’s a matter of not enough space on the book to print them. That’s when it’s great to list all the kudos on one’s website.

    Blurbs are like a little cheering section for the book. Especially important for debuts. A strong blurb from an established writer can get a debut novelist a bit of attention. That doesn’t ensure great sales, but it does help with the process of getting the writer and her/his book out there. I know one of my blurbs in particular helped a great deal.

    Susan, is time totally flying right now as you approach your launch?!!!!

    • LitPark says:

      I was out of town for the weekend, and how nice to see this whole conversation happening here.

      It would be fun to see your dream list, thought the real stars for me now are the ones who took the time! And yes, time is flying toward the launch. Every writer who’s been through this has told me to enjoy this time so I’ve been very careful to do that and to not get caught up in looking ahead.

  2. Billy Bones says:

    Should you ever need a blurb from an imaginary character I’d be thrilled to help out.

  3. Jessica Blau says:

    Yes, the asking is painful. Feels like asking a guy to the Sadie Hawkins dance in high school. But now that I’ve blurbed a bit, I do find the asking a little less painful. I mean, when you blurb you get the book early (which is, strangely, fun), and for free! And if you really, really love the book (as I did yours!) then it’s a joy to blurb. And it’s like a great word puzzle trying to figure out how to express your love for a book in one pithy sentence.

    Are they using my blurb?! Or was I cut to make room for bigger, bigger, better?!

    • LitPark says:

      They are! It’s on a page just inside the front cover. And they talk about you all the time because you really charmed the whole staff when you stopped by in person.

  4. Greg Olear says:

    In the big picture, I think of them the way the crazy general does nuclear weapons in “Dr. Strangelove.” If the Ruskies have one, you need one too, or else there’ll be a blurb gap.

    As for the asking, I’ve found that people are receptive and generous. I phrased it as “consider blurbing,” which means “will you take this free book and write something nice if you like it or if you have time.” Jessica’s right — it’s nice to be asked, and free books are always great to get.

    • LitPark says:

      It’s such a kooky process in some ways, and I’ve heard lots of people say they don’t know why blurbs matter. Except I’m one of those people that picks up and puts down books based on all the superficial things–the cover, the back copy, and the blurbs–even though none of that is actually the work of the author.

  5. I sweated more over that blurb request letter than I did the edits for the book…. all I can say is that I was humbled by the generosity of writers who I admired but who had never heard of me — who not only offered blurbs but advice — who continue to do so — and who I now count as friends. It is an unusual process– and I’m not sure if the blurbs make a difference in sales figures especially for an unknown author — but it has made such a huge difference to me in feeling embraced by a community that in my wildest dreams I never ever imagined.

  6. Gawd, I hated asking for blurbs – I haven’t asked since the first book came out and I need to for the next two . . . ughhhhrrrhhhghhh, should, will . . . I guess . . . ughrrrnnnngghhh

  7. Kevin Fenton says:

    As with many things about my book, I’ve had an unexpectedly happy experience. The fact that I won an award meant that I had one recommendation in hand from an established writer. So for the remainder i was able to approach writers I had some personal connection with and who i knew liked my work. And although my publisher and I spoke about who might do blurbs beforehand, they left them be once they arrived.

    I didn’t have to do this but I love the idea above about posting all blurbs on the web site. I also think “blurb gap” is hilarious and insightful. Blurbs are probably most apparent when they’re missing. They have rarely sold me on a book but when I got my blurbs, I almost wept because people were willing to say such nice things.

    • LitPark says:

      You’re so right about how having something in-hand makes the next one easier. And not just with blurbs. Any piece of good news seems to set off more enthusiasm with the publishers and that makes them more likely to put a little more energy or money into the book, and so on.

      (Congratulations on your award!)

  8. jonathan evison says:

    . . . i’m a blurb whore . . .thank god nobody has sent me a bad book yet . . . as a guy who buried a bunch of novels that his own best friend wouldn’t read, i understand what it can mean to a writer (particularly a debut writer) to have her/his work qualified by somebody they admire . . . it’s nice to feel “authorly” after you’ve spent years getting kicked in the grill with a steel-toed boot . . .

    . . . oh, and i never feel bad asking for a blurb . . . spread some good will around, and hope some comes back at you . . . if not, keep spreading good will around . . .

    . . . finally, would-be debut novelists: be proactive . . . bring your publishers blurbs long before anyone asks you for them . . . give the folks in marketing a reason to be talking about you . . .

    • LitPark says:

      I was just thinking of you the other day. We were visiting friends and came upon a nest of bunnies. Took a while to realize they weren’t mice!

      Well taken about spreading good will around. I’ve also learned to be louder about the books I like and to keep bringing them up in conversations. It makes a difference to those authors who’ve been kicked in the grill.

  9. Robin Slick says:

    Note to self: Engrave Jonathan Evison’s name and email address on your brain.

    Oh, Sue, I can’t imagine anyone reading Up from the Blue and turning you down. But I never thought about the other scary side – asking a friend or someone you admire, having them come through brilliantly, only to learn that your publisher turns their quote down. Dear God, am I not neurotic enough without having to worry about that on so many different levels – both as the one who provides the “unwanted” quote and the one who has to inadvertently hurt a friend or idol?

    Gah! I should just take a job folding sweaters at the Gap.

  10. Sue,
    Thanks for the honest post, which will help all of us making our way. Great attitude, Jonathan.

    Jessica

  11. Tawna Fenske says:

    Yikes! I recently signed a three-book contract & my debut hits shelves Aug. 2011, but I’ve gotta confess — I hadn’t even THOUGHT about blurbs. I imagine my editor will start talking with me about this soon, so thank you for this informative post.

    I think I’ll go hide under my bed now.

    Tawna

  12. Robin Slick says:

    Man, my world is so full of crazy coincidences I can’t take it.

    My son played an awesome music festival in Philadelphia yesterday and despite the fact that it was 100 degrees outside and I sometimes get weird and feel too old for these things, I went, anyway, and I’m so glad I did, because there were people there from 2 years old to 75, sitting out in the sun by the sparkling river, eating amazing food (yeah! a festival with that catered to vegetarians – I was in heaven!) and vendor booths from the sixties – tie dyed shirts, hand tooled leather, candles…but it was the music from some pretty amazing bands that really made my day, including my boy’s band, Dr. Dog. So I just googled to see if there are any You Tubes up, and I find this blog…and well, it turns out the guy who posted the You Tube of my son wrote a book, and look on the right hand side — I got chills when I saw who gave a quote:

    http://zero-station.blogspot.com/2010/07/postmortem-great-time-yesterday-at.html

    Small freaking world. Crazy.

    xo

    • Susan Henderson says:

      Jonathan Evison just rocks.

      And how cute was that “Dr. Dog makes me happy” and everyone singing along?!

  13. It *is* a small world…and Jon Evison makes it even smaller because HE KNOWS FREAKING EVERYBODY! (Hey, he’s a great guy. Easy to like. So there, easy equation. And he’s a talented sumbitch, too.)

    Robin, your son — along with the rest of the band — kicked much ass Sunday afternoon. Dr. Dog made me happy, too.

    G.

    http://gregippolito.net/

  14. Kimberly says:

    HA! Hahahahahahahahaha!

    I swear, Sue. I did not see this post until this morning. Funny how zeitgeist works, isn’t it?

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