The Chicago Sun-Times ran a story about blurbs last month (the free link has gone dead, but Galley Cat posted the gist of the piece here) in which Scott Turow, who has long been known in the book business as something of a blurb whore, was quoted to devastating effect:
“Once you blurb one book,” he says, “it’s like giving to charity. No good deed goes unpunished. That is the first law of blurbing. As soon as you’re kind enough to do this for somebody, then everybody in the world is there with their hand out or a manuscript.”…
“You have to understand, this is an avalanche,” Turow says of his onslaught, which he smilingly agrees is indeed “part of my junk mail.” “It is no exaggeration,” he adds, “to say that there are several requests every day.”…
“There are certain relationships where, whether I like it or not, I feel like I’ve gotta say something,” he admits. “Now, I think you can put Turow blurbs side by side and the discriminating reader can detect the enthusiasm level.”
Turow’s confession slipped past me when it first rippled through the blogosphere, but now that I’ve seen it, I admit to feeling a certain amount of sympathy with his plight. Not that multiple requests for blurbs clutter my mailbox each morning, but I am asked to supply quotes fairly frequently, occasionally from friends and colleagues, more often from publicists and authors I don’t know. Every time I open such a letter, I remember the wise words of an editor of mine who once assured me in a moment of candor that blurbs don’t sell books. “You know who they’re really for?” she added. “Our own salespeople. We use blurbs to convince them that our books are worth selling.”
A sobering thought, that.
I have, thank God, reached the point in my writing career when I’m no longer obliged to go snuffling for blurbs. (It’s almost as embarrassing as asking a friend to loan you money.) My publishers now solicit them without consulting me, and Ken Auletta was kind enough to supply a nice one for The Skeptic that Harcourt recycled for All in the Dances: “Terry Teachout is the kind of tour guide a first-rate biography requires–vivid storytelling by a guide who is both appreciative and independent.” I’m not aware that it’s sold a single copy to date of either book, but nobody ever said that publishing was a business–it’s more like a game of blindfold darts–so I expect that Ken’s blurb will follow me from dustjacket to dustjacket as long as we both shall live.
My own blurbing policies are straightforward:
– I don’t read manuscripts–they’re too bulky and clumsy to handle. Unsolicited ones I throw away automatically. It’s rude to send an unsolicited manuscript to an author you don’t know, and rudeness should never be rewarded.
– When strangers send me a set of bound galleys and ask for a quote, I almost always say no, explaining that I’m simply too busy. If the subject matter is of special relevance to me, though, I’ll take a furtive peek at the first few pages, after which I usually lose interest.
– With colleagues and acquaintances I open the bidding by raising my all-purpose deflector shield: “Remember that if I blurb your book now, there’s no possibility that I can review it later on.” Since I do a fair amount of book reviewing, this usually stops them cold, and also has the advantage of being true. If, on the other hand, I’m interested in the book but know I won’t be able to review it–usually because of a conflict of interest–I agree to look at the galleys.
– I always agree to blurb the books of friends, so long as they’re professional writers. Unlike Scott Turow, I’ve yet to be cornered into praising a bad book. (Sooner or later, every published author lets his guard down and agrees to read a manuscript by a friend who isn’t a professional. Hard experience has taught me that such manuscripts are never, ever any good.)
Bill Buckley used to have a wonderfully evasive form letter that I liked:
Mr. Buckley has asked me to interdict all requests for interviews, articles, reviews, etc., for the next period–probably about six months, as he is drastically in arrears on commitments he has already made. I hope you will understand that to take on any further commitments at this point simply means failing to keep those he has already made. Thank you for writing.
Edmund Wilson, who was one of God’s grumpier souls, opted instead for a postcard that read as follows:
Edmund Wilson regrets that it is impossible for him to:
Write articles or books to order,
Write forewords or introductions,
Make statements for publicity purposes,
Do any kind of editorial work,
Judge literary contests,
Conduct educational courses,
Give talks or make speeches,
Broadcast or appear on television,
Take part in writers’ congresses,
Contribute to or take part in symposiums or “panels” of any kind,
Contribute manuscripts for sales,
Donate copies of his books to libraries,
Autograph works for strangers,
Allow his name to be used on letterheads,
Supply personal information about himself,
Supply opinions on literary or other subjects.
Evelyn Waugh had a Wilsonesque postcard of his own (“Mr. Evelyn Waugh deeply regrets that he is unable to do what is so kindly proposed”), but he could occasionally be persuaded to supply blurbs, usually for friends and/or fellow Catholics. Strangers rarely fared as well.
In 1961, for instance, Waugh sent this characteristic letter to a Simon & Schuster publicist who was looking for blurbs in all the wrong places:
Thank you for sending me Catch-22. I am sorry that the book fascinates you so much. It has many passages quite unsuitable to a lady’s reading. It suffers not only from indelicacy but from prolixity. It should be cut by about a half. In particular the activities of “Milo” should be eliminated or greatly reduced.
You are mistaken in calling it a novel. It is a collection of sketches–often repetitious–totally without structure.
Much of the dialogue is funny.
You may quote me as saying: “This exposure of corruption, cowardice and incivility of American officers will outrage all friends of your country (such as myself) and greatly comfort your enemies.”
Me, I’d have printed it, but Simon & Schuster thought otherwise.