Monday, March 15, 2004

The whole blurb thing 

As many in the 'sphere have noted by now (though I first saw the story when my friend Ali Karim sent it to me) the Telegraph dropped a bit of a bombshell when various UK authors, most especially Isabel Wolff, admitted that they had given fake blurbs to books they didn't necessarily like, but gave them anyway to see their names on the cover or for other, less noble reasons.

I suppose I'm wondering why this is considered to be newsworthy--this kind of practice has been going on for as long as I've been aware there was a book business. Sure, even now I pay attention--a little bit, anyway--to blurbs, but mostly from the other side of the spectrum. If I see a book by someone I don't know, those who blurb give me an indication of the newbie book's target audience. So if a debut author has blurbs by say, Michael Connelly, George Pelecanos and Dennis Lehane, it indicates that the book is at least supposed to be similar to those bestselling authors' works and that it's likely not to be a tea cozy. It also gives an indication of how much confidence the publishing house has in the new book's abillity to sell. If the only blurbs on the back cover are by B or C list authors, then chances are the book's going to be mired in midlist and not likely to break out anytime soon. But if a whole slew of A-list authors have blurbs on there, then the publisher expects the book--or at least, the author, at some point--to do as well as those who blurbed it.

But I've heard too many stories of backscratching, of friends who blurb other friends, lovers and wives who "secretly" offer blurbs for their loved ones, of authors whose names appear on the back cover but really, their agent or editor actually submitted the blurb, to really take much stock in their overall value. As a marketing tool, sure, it's great when the publisher goes to bat for an author and gets some famous person to blurb you. Should a blurb by Thomas Harris ever appear on the cover of a new novel, that would be beyond stratospheric because he doesn't even go anywhere near that whole business. But there are folks whose names appeared on practically every book for a time--the proverbial "blurb whore." Right now, I'd say the top spot for the honor currently, at least in the mystery genre, is Harlan Coben. I'm wondering if he's going to pack it in and stop blurbing fairly soon, like Lawrence Block and Michael Connelly did after a few years of constant appearances.

There are many authors--plenty of them--that contribute a genuine blurb, who really go out of their way to support new authors because they, in turn, were supported by bestselling authors when they started out in the business. SJ Rozan in her Progress blog discusses her own role as blurber and blurbee:

So who are these blurbers? My editor and I made a list of writers I admire, whose readership would in some way overlap with mine, either because of the kinds of books they write or because they set their books in New York City, ABSENT FRIENDS being a very NYC book. The ones I know personally I asked personally, because when people want me to blurb their books I absolutely hate it when the galley comes out of the blue with no request first. The ones I don't know, Bantam is asking. Most writers are very generous about blurbs, given what a pain it is to be asked to read a book that wasn't on your agenda, just to do someone else a favor. But we all had it done for us early in our careers, so we try to help. Sometimes people turn you down because they're buried; I've done that, too. You can't take it personally, and it won't make or break the book.

And I know an author who has finished reading the manuscript who will likely give it a genuine rave because he was floored by it. So that blurb will be real, and worth something both to readers and to the publisher. But it's hard not to think of Robert B. Parker, another "blurb whore" who supposedly told the crowd at a book signing he did some years back that he either reads books or blurbs them. Knowing that, it kind of takes away any perceived value of his own praise on the back cover of a book, and makes me wonder who else engages in that sort of thing.

Ultimately, I suppose blurbing still has some value, but like anything else, one has to take it with a grain of salt. Because authors are, in the end, readers just like us, with taste issues and hidden agendas, so relying on their word is rather foolhardy. But then, that's where the recommendations game or trusted independent booksellers come in, and that's where they do their very best in making sure the right customer ends up with the right book.

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