Thursday, March 20, 2008

Blurb Is A Funny Word

In this week’s issue of Entertainment Weekly, Stephen King writes about the sullied reputation of the blurb. He argues that effusive praise has become so routine that blurbs, like car alarms, have become a kind of noise that no one pays much attention to anymore. True enough. And yet the first thing many readers (myself included) still do when they pick up a book is turn to the back cover and scan the quotes.

What I think readers are looking for on the blurb page is not praise (that’s a given), but who is doing the praising. They are looking for a familiar name to latch onto, a writer they already love and trust, someone to help them categorize the book before they plunk down their money. With the cost of books and the amount of competition out there, it’s hard to fault even a savvy consumer for using blurbs to hedge his bets.

Still, I wonder if the public is aware of how many blurbs are written by friends of the author. I have no statistics to offer, but as I’ve become more aware of different personalities and relationships in the publishing business, sometimes looking at a blurb page can be almost comical. I’ve seen spouses praising each other. I’ve seen literary cliques fawning over one of their own in ways that read like the signature pages of a high school yearbook. I’ve even seen a famous author write a book under a pseudonym, then blurb himself.

If these examples have you miffed instead of amused, consider this: if you were in their position, you would do the very same thing. Blurbs are tough to get from people you don’t know. Imagine walking up to someone on the street and saying, “Hey, I know you don’t know me and you’re really busy, but could you spend a few hours reading my book and then writing a few great sentences to help me sell it? I can’t pay you anything, but I’d be eternally grateful…” Getting blurbs is like that.

When it’s time to prowl for blurbs, your editor will ask you for a list of anyone you might know whose name could add a little sparkle to the back cover. You have to really dig deep and think of all your friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friends. If you’re not well-connected, your editor and agent will call upon a few of the people they know. Then galleys (the cheap paperbacks sent to reviewers) are mailed to everyone on the list. If someone is really famous and you don’t know them all that well, you might have to write a letter to their editor or agent first to prove your connection before they will send a galley. Then you cross your fingers and hope that someone will be kind enough to help you out.

For my novel, THE GREATEST MAN IN CEDAR HOLE, I had only one connection to call upon—Richard Russo. Being a former student of his was obviously a big help but it wasn’t an automatic “in”. Since winning the Pulitzer Prize for EMPIRE FALLS, everyone has been beating down his door for a blurb, so I felt very fortunate when he took the time to read my book.

My editor and agent came up with a list of people they knew that might be able to help, but out of twenty or so names only two agreed to blurb. One came from Stephanie Kallos (BROKEN FOR YOU) and Alice Elliott Dark (IN THE GLOAMING). I don’t know what sort of bribery took place to make these kind ladies to write blurbs for me, but I will always be grateful.

So for those of you who don’t belong to a literary clique or have a famous friends—don’t lose heart. If you search hard enough, there will always be a kind soul out there who is willing to help out. Ultimately, a blurb is nothing but a marketing tool—one of many at your disposal—and it isn’t necessary for finding an audience.

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