I had a recent conversation with a few writers about the common practice of writing a nice bunch of things about another person’s book. You’ve seen blurbs–on the back of paperbacks, mostly, but also on dust jackets. Hypothetical example; a new book by Denis Lehane has just been published, and fellow writers, Michael Connelly, Ridley Pearson, etc., have glowing quotes about the writing, story, plot, etc., printed on the dust jacket. A real example: I picked up a huge paperback edition of Walter Isaacson’s biography of Benjamin Franklin, which is covered in quotes from reviews by newspapers. However, inside are a couple of pages devoted to reviews by fellow historians, Doris Kearns Goodwin and David McCullough. Rhian Ellis, a newly published author at the time, for After Life, was bestowed with recommendations by distinguished author Ann Patchett and two other published novelists. How did she manage to snag Ann Patchet’s approval, especially her first time out? Why does Lehane warrant biggies like Connelly and Pearson to write nice blurbs for him, and how did Goodwin and McCullough even know about Isaacson’s book to begin with?
In the past I’ve looked suspiciously upon blurbs by fellow writers. Why? My belief was that as friends, they are asked to read the manuscript by the author, and they oblige, and then blurb it, whether or not they enjoyed the book or thought it well written. This was especially true, and to an extent I believe this still, when authors who blurb and are blurbed belong to the same publisher. It appears a bit incestuous. Say, a Berkley writer has a new book coming out, when it does, a couple of other writers from Berkley have surprisingly given the book a major thumbs up. In my mind, I think, ‘of course they would, they are obligated to praise writing comrades’. When a really small legitimate publisher puts out a title, it is almost always the fact that another author from that small press will praise the daylights out of their pub mate. But are my suspicions true, and does it even matter?
It matters to me as a bookseller and a consumer. If I respect Michael Connelly, which I do, then I will look at his review as solid proof in his opinion that Lehane’s new work is worth reading. If deciding whether to lay out the bucks for a giant bio of a founding father–not only do newspaper reviewers help me make a decision, knowing two of the greatest historians love the book may tip me over into lugging that book home. If looking around for a new author to try, and among the myriad’s of newbies one stands out because three respected writers are praising the book, that’s the one I will chose. But if the blurbs aren’t legit, I’m being duped, and if too many times that happens, not only would I not buy the book in question, but I’d probably avoid the blurber too.
Well, I happen to know for a fact that Michael Connelly only blurbs those works he truly believes in. I spoke to him about this many moons ago, and he is careful of whom he choses to say yes to, and after having read the book, if not worthy, he will not blurb it. In this case I can understand why it seems as though friends blurb friends, because probably to Connelly it’s safer to read a book by a friend whose work you respect and admire, than some newbie, or author you don’t know. He does blurb first time authors–as in the case of Jonathan King–he apparently read the manuscript of The Blue Edge Of Midnight and thought it top notch, so blurbed it. He wasn’t wrong–I read it, probably because of Connelly and other’s blurbs, and it was fantastic, hard to believe it was written by a first time novelist, even if he’d been writing for newspapers as a career. Here’s a blurb on King’s site by Connelly:
“Full of true character and jagged surprises. King adds new dimensions of depth and substance to the modern crime novel.”
Berkley has an entire section devoted to specific genre mysteries–bookstore sleuths, cat sleuths with books, ghost cats, (that one may not exist, lol) chefs, herbs, cheese, you name it, they have a mystery for it. So, how among all these tempting treats can you choose? A blurb? If you do look at blurbs, it could be confusing. Julie Hyzy writes ‘a White House Chef’ mystery. On the cover of a couple of her books, fellow Berkley author Susan Wittig Albert blurbs the excellence of her work. Julie Hyzy blurbs Avery Aames’ cheese mystery Clobbered by Camembert. A fellow food genre author Kirsta Davis, blurbs cupcake mystery author, Jenn McKinlay. In the crafts compartment, Monica Ferris, stitchery is her thing, blurbs Betty Hetchman, she crochets. Not every genre author has a fellow pubbed writer blurb them. Laura Childs writes two series, one a tea shop theme, the other scrap-booking, and no blurbs from authors adorn the front cover. I don’t know about the back. She does have mystery reviewers blurbs, which is a regular and well regarded type of blurb. However, Laura Childs did blurb Maggie Sefton, –knitting, I bet you wanted to know which craft genre, right? LOL.
So, you see how incestuous it seems. But in speaking with a very successful author at a different publisher, she explained a possible reason for this practice. If author A is coming out with a new book and you need some nice blurbs–are you going to ask an author from some other publisher to do it? Why give the other publisher the publicity? That makes sense–but–and this is a big one–too many in house blurbs makes it seem as though they are the only writers who like the books published there. At least it does to me. To readers of Berkley mysteries, maybe it does the opposite, it confirms a potential sale because a fellow author who also writes within a similar genre likes the title. The possible customer may have even read the blurber and trusts their opinion.
So how do writers find other writers to do blurbs for them? Usually the author doesn’t need to do anything. The editor of the author’s book contacts suitable people they think may give positive reviews. And since the editor would find other authors in their publishing company easier to contact–there’s another reason for in-house blurbing.
Naturally, if an author is very good friends with another author, they are likely to contact each other without the need for an editor to be involved.
But what about those maverick people out there, who send out requests for well known authors to blurb their books? Not through an editor, not friends with the writer they want something from, what would the etiquette be for that? My assessment is for the author to give plenty of time to the potential blurber to read and assimilate the book. Never ever be pushy, or expectant, as if it’s a done deal since the request has been made. No is probably the answer to new writers more times than not. A writer should be aware of another writers difficult schedule, so to ask something that time consuming needs to be done in a manner cognizant of that fact, and with polite humility. Another point–self publishing will not get legitimate blurbs, unless the piece was already published, and this is only an extension as an e-book. A self pubbed writer can and probably will have other self pubs blurb. And if that influences people to buy the book, the self pubs have done their jobs.
For many well respected writers, blurbing is something they think about carefully before doing, and they sincerely must find the book compelling and well written before adding their praise to the jacket of the book. I doubt if many writers who blurb for other reasons would admit it, so it’s difficult to gage what are true, well studied comments, or ones that supply what’s needed by a publisher, or friend. I am still leery when I see blurbs and tend to discount them much of the time, and focus on newspaper, magazine, and well known blogger’s reviews.