In Pursuit of the Blurb

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One of the things you don’t (or I didn’t, anyway) particularly think about when you’re heading into a writing career is that at some point, if you’re successful, people are probably going to start asking you to consider blurbing their books.

This is awesome and alarming beyond belief. ZOMG! Somebody wants me to blurb their book! ZOMG! Somebody likes me that much! ZOMG! Somebody thinks what I’m writing would draw people into *their* books! ZOMG!

…zomg, what if I *hate* it? It’s perfectly horrible to have to tell someone that you’re sorry, but the book isn’t really your cup of tea. On the other hand, it’d be worse to give a positive blurb to something you didn’t like.

Sometimes the blurbing thing is very easy: you read a book by someone you already know, say, “Hey, I really liked this!” and they say, “Ooh, could that be turned into a blurb?” Generally the answer there is, “Sure!” Much of the time, though, it’s an editor or agent or even the writer herself contacting you to ask if you’d have the time and inclination to read a manuscript with an eye toward blurbing it. (And sometimes books just show up on the doorstep with no prior warning, with a letter from an editor saying, “Please give this a try!”)

But here’s a thing they don’t tell you about becoming a writer (though I think I’ve mentioned it before): writing professionally really cuts into your reading time. The very best of intentions for offering a blurb can go down the drain just because you’re writing your own book and haven’t got time or energy to try reading someone else’s. For me, this is compounded because–unsurprisingly, since I write urban fantasy–I’m most often asked to *blurb* urban fantasy…but it’s probably my least favorite sub-genre to read, because I’m writing so much of it. Reading it is like work, so I rarely get any escape from delving into an urban fantasy manuscript.

As a reader, I tend to expect that I’ll like a book. Unfortunately, as a writer, I’ve become vastly more picky about style, particularly when I’m reading urban fantasy. I’ve read whole manuscripts where I just could not get past sentence structure in an otherwise pretty good book (and I kept reading because I kept hoping I would stop *noticing* sentence structure–usually I do after three or four chapters, if the book grips me enough). I’ve read manuscripts where there’s some element of similarity between what I’m writing and what the other writer is doing, and have been unable to get past how I would do it to appreciate the story I’m actually reading. (This, by the way, is something to watch out for if you’re in a critique group, or editing someone’s manuscript. There’s a difference between not liking something stylistically and it not being good.) And I’ve read manuscripts where the idea pitched by the editor really appealed to me, but the implementation couldn’t get me past the third chapter.

The flip side of this, of course, are books where the implementation exceeds the wonderfully appealling idea (Laura Anne Gilman‘s FLESH & FIRE, for example), books where I get so caught up that I don’t mind that I’m reading urban fantasy (Mike Shevdon‘s SIXTY-ONE NAILS), and books where I finally get around to reading the manuscript too late and love it, so have to ask the editor to send me a copy of book two to blurb (Nichole Peeler‘s TEMPEST RISING). They’re the kinds of books that make you want to say “Yes! Yes! Yes!” to every blurb request that comes along, because the next book might be That Good.

That way, of course, lies madness. Every writer out there knows it, too, because we’ve all got books of our own to write. And that compounds the whole odd issue of *asking* for blurbs, because as a writer you become so very, very aware of how much you’re imposing. So it remains genuinely delightful when someone whose work you admire is willing to make the time to try one of your books. I think that’s probably one of the on-going neat things about this job, in fact, and some days it’s good to remember the neat bits, too. :)

(As you might guess, this post was prompted by the fact that this week I’ve been doing just that–asking other very busy writers if they have time and inclination to read something I’ve written, with an eye toward potentially offering a cover quote.)

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15 comments to In Pursuit of the Blurb

  • Yeah, I’ve given a few blurbs and asked for plenty. Getting that perfect blurb for a book cover is a great thing. Sherwood Smith’s blurb on Sorcerers’ Plague may be the nicest thing anyone has ever said about any of my books. I was flying for a week after getting that one. And I gave a blurb to Doranna Durgin a couple of years ago that was a joy to give — great book (the reissue of DUN LADY’S JESS) and a good friend. But I’ve also had to turn down a blurb request from a good friend because the story just didn’t work for me — something I feel bad about to this day — and I’ve been turned down by people who didn’t like my book. That sucks; it’s like a bad review. But as you point out, you can’t lie. Your endorsement carries with it your reputation as a writer. You have to be honest, and blurb when you can. And I make a point of sending along editorial comments whether I like the book or not — it seems a courtesy. Authors can accept or ignore my criticisms as they see fit.

  • I’ll tell you this though–Blurbs are powerful.

    If I see a blurb from an author I really like, I’ll take a chance on the book. I will also take a chance on reading an author that has blurbed on a series I REALLY liked reading too.

    It’s a two way (occupationally hazardous, it seems) street.

  • Weird. I don’t pay any attention to blurbs at all. “Oh, Anne McCaffrey liked this book. Okay, whatever.” I guess it’s because I’ve never hated something I bought so much that I didn’t read it. I’m pretty good at picking what I’d like based back-cover, title, wiki summary, online review, that I’ve never had to rely on blurbs.

    Beyond that, I don’t know an authors taste in reading just because I’ve read their books. For example, I looked at the blurbs in my copy of Gaiman’s Neverwhere. Out of the two that were by authors, they were by authors I’ve never heard of. In other books at hand this was not the case, but still… It has been often.

    Next time I go to the bookstore, if I grab a book on a whim, I’ll check the blurbs to see who liked it.

  • Catie, I know the feeling. When Kim Harrison said she would blurb my first series, I was on cloud nine. Her blurb made all the difference to my carreer. Yet, even now, I *hate* to ask writers I know to blurb books. And I feel really weird when asked to blurb a book by a new author. Ambivalent. Yep. That’s me.

  • It may be imposing a bit, but all writers require blurbs at some point. 😀 I can’t wait to ask for some for my first book. 😉

  • How do you deal with requests for blurbs from people whose book has not yet found a publisher?

  • AJ, I don’t know bout Catie, but I have it in one of my contracts that all requests for blurbs must go through either my agent or publisher. So I must kindly turn down any such requests made to me personally.

  • That was the most fun, roundabout way of finding out that one of MY favorite writers likes my book. :-) Thank you!

  • To echo Nicole, it is very cool to find out that someone whose writing you admire and enjoy liked your book. I was pleased and grateful when you agreed to take a look, and absolutely delighted when the blurb came back. Thank you so much!

  • What about a blurb from a different genre or style or age of book. Jim C Hines wrote a while back that he turned down writing a blurb for a friend because the book was horror (I think), and not at all what Jim writes. It sounded like he didn’t want readers to think, ‘Jim Hines liked this so it must be funny and light-hearted.’ What if you write urban fantasy with a strong adult themes, and a friend asks you to blurb their middle grade coming-of-age novel?

  • jim duncan

    C.E., I’d love to see an additional post here on the proper etiquette for approaching an author for a blurb. I’ll be in this position sometime during the second half of 2010, and since I’m not friends per se with any known authors, I’ll likely be cold calling for this, assuming my agent/editor doesn’t have the connections to do this or just wants to see what I can come up with. I know it’s a huge favor to ask of an author given the time demands, and it’s without much payback. So, what’s the best way to ask?

  • Aheh. Politely, Jim. That’s really about all I’ve got. I’ve been cold-called a couple of times–once by Mike Shevdon up above–who essentially said, “You’ve been very nice to me in email interactions, and I know this is bold, but I wondered if you’d be willing to take a look at my book with a possible eye to blurb it.” Also, yay for being in the position to have to ask for blurbs! :)

    AJ, I would not blurb a book that hadn’t found a publisher. That’s too much like asking me to try to sell a book *to* a publisher or agent, which is the writer’s job, not mine. :)

    NGD, I think for a cover quote you really want somebody in your sub/genre, but possibly for an internal front page quite somebody a little further out might be okay. But yeah, I’d kind of be with Jim on that: it’d be silly for me to blurb, say, a literary fiction novel (or even hard science fiction, probably) because although I really like *reading* hard SF, *my* readers would probably expect my opinion on urban or epic fantasy to carry more weight.

  • Robin

    If one of my favorite authors likes a book, I’m quite likely to look into it and will probably read it. (For example, I’ve already learned, to my sadness, that my library carries no books by Nicole Peeler or Mike Shevdon. :( Thinking of remedying this….) I actually take it one step farther: I’ve been known to look into the books of the authors who give the blurbs, especially if I see their blurbs on several different books I liked. I figure if they 1) have good taste as a reader and 2) are well-known enough that other authors want their blurbs, they probably write something I want to read, too.

  • The best way to get a blurb is to go via your editor, because that way any (or most) of the awkwardness is done at a remove, and if someone says no, the author never needs to know that.

    Or, if you share an agent, to slip it sideways that way. That happens a lot, too. The trick is to make it about business, not friendship or obligation.

    [I think I broke those rules and asked Catie directly, but it was a very sort of “ifyouhavetimeandddon’tmindIknowyou’rebusypleasedon’thitme” sort of things. 😉 And then I tried not to mention it to her (except of course I did, because we were talking about the book anyway) because once it’s sent, you have to pretend it’s not out there being read. ]

  • Well, and I’d made it fairly clear I was interested in your book, too, Laura Anne, so it wasn’t really a cold call, either. :)