Thursday, August 25, 2022

Blurb: “There were no misspellings” from James W. Ziskin

Blurbs. We all need them. We all write them. Give us some phony/funny suggestions for boilerplate blurbs.

A dear friend of mine who passed away late last year was a world-renowned scholar. A true giant in academic circles. And he’d been a damn good baseball player in his youth, too. He once told me a doctoral student of his asked him for a letter of recommendation. As the student had not impressed him, he felt annoyed by the request. He agreed to write the letter all the same and provided the following succinct assessment:

“Mr. X was a student of mine. He was always on time for class.” 

And that was it. Not one negative word, yet it was the most devastating recommendation I could ever imagine. 

The moral of the story? 

Be careful who you ask to blurb your book.

A blurb equivalent to the recommendation above might read, “I read this book. There were no misspellings.” —World Famous Author

Writers are, on the whole, a generous bunch

But that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily willing to recommend something they didn’t like. Some will, of course. Many will not. I have friends—good friends whom I respect—who won’t give a five-star rating on Goodreads unless the book in question is “literature.” Even for a friend’s book. I’ve wondered before—in this very forum, in fact—what do those people tell their kids when they bring home a finger painting from school. And don’t get me started on the Goodreads readers who review angry. Why so much hate for one book? You’ll read again. Climb down from your high horse and realize that not every book is for every reader. A one-star rating should be reserved for your own kid’s finger painting when hung next to a Rembrandt.

I believe it’s okay to give friends encouragement, and a positive blurb costs little. I’m not suggesting you rave about a book you thought was bad. But as Terry mentioned earlier this week, there’s usually something positive you can find in the book. Maybe it’s the descriptions. Or the author’s ear for dialogue. Or even the characters. So far I’ve been lucky. The books I’ve been asked to blurb have been wonderful. My praise has been sincere.

It’s hard to ask for a blurb, I know. 

You’re asking someone to spend about ten hours reading your book, and then a couple more thinking of something pithy to say about it. It’s a big ask. But you can do it. Just be sure to acknowledge that what you’re asking is something of an imposition. Also, try to personalize your request. If you’ve met the author before—maybe even had a nice conversation over a drink—mention it. If you enjoyed what that author said on a panel, mention that too. And offer to thank the blurber in a modest way. Read a book or two of theirs and give it a review online. I always send a signed copy of my book to my blurbers as a thank-you as soon as it comes out. And, if I run into them in a conference bar, I’ll stand them a drink if they have the time, energy, and inclination.

Empathize and sympathize

All this to say that I empathize and sympathize with writers who are asking for a blurb. They’ve likely worked for years on their books. In our community, we’ve all experienced the dread of approaching an author, hat in hand, to ask for a line or two of praise to grace our book covers. Me? I’ve asked and I’ve received. And I’ve been asked and I’ve jolly well blurbed. The big-name authors who agree to read and blurb are paying back the same favor someone else once did for them. If less-famous/successful writers are lucky, one day they’ll have the same chance to pay it back.


Susan C Shea said...

I'm not sure I would ever have gotten the nerve to ask for my first blurb, but an early mentor, the wonderful Louise Urr, suggested she write one and explained what a blurb could and could not do for a book. She also steered me to asking in the ways you mention, Jim, with awareness of what we're asking for and how to give a potential blurber a graceful way out. Now, I find, the publisher sometimes will ask their own authors to blurb your book to pull readers of one author into the work of another in their stable.

Catriona McPherson said...

I hate asking for blurbs. The only thing worse than that is having to say you can't write a quote for a book you agreed to read - because it's not something you want to be recommending. I've only had to do that twice in the last ten years but it still gives me the collywobbles to think of it.

Ann said...

I don’t so much read blurbs as check to see who wrote them. There are those I trust and those I ignore. You’re one I trust. And Jim. And Stephen King.