By Louise Ure
I recently saw a quote from Dennis Lehane who, when asked why he liked working with beginning writers, said “I’m a Roman Catholic. We believe in sending the elevator back down.” I’m more of a Roaming Catholic, but I agree with him. And some of that “sending the elevator back down” comes in the form of providing blurbs.
Tess Gerritsen was absolutely right in her blog post last week when she said that none of us got here without standing on someone else’s shoulders. Each of us has some other writer up there who pushed the button and sent the elevator back to help us up move up more quickly.
But it’s a big ask of an author to take the time to provide a blurb.
There’s only one writer I know who gleefully admits that he scans the first few pages of the manuscript to get the main character’s name and situation, and then writes the most glowing, over-the-top rave review he can come up with.
The rest of us don’t do it that way. We read the whole thing and try to write something fitting, appropriate and positive. It’s not easy. You want to focus on the novel’s most intriguing elements or style, imagine what the target audience for this novel will relate to, and then express that thought in an articulate, colorful way that will please publisher, author and reader alike.
Some publishers still do the work of putting together a list of potential blurbers and sending out the ARC’s. More often these days, the author herself is asked to compile a potential list and contact those authors. And that can be a daunting task.
So how do you do that?
In my continuing desire to debunk those heretofore unexplained mysteries of the publishing world, here’s my list of do’s and don’ts about how to ask for a blurb.
• Start with people you’ve actually met, or whose work you’ve actually read. If you already have a relationship with the author through MWA or ITW, or you’ve met at a conference, or you’ve corresponded with him about how much you love his work, it makes the sale easier.
• Do tell the author why his comment is important to you. Flatter us. Am I one of only three authors you’re contacting? Have you read my work and so identified with my style of writing that you felt compelled to ask? Come on. You’re asking for six hours of our time. Suck up a little.
• Do give the author enough time to read the book. We all have more busy/less busy times of year based on our own deadlines, so giving me a book that has to be read within thirty days limits your chances of being taken on. It just might be my busiest time of year. Ideally, you should allow 3-5 months. (I got a request from a young woman recently who asked me to read her book and then said she only had ten days to get the quote in. “Just scan it enough to give me a great blurb!” she suggested. Can you count how many things are wrong in that approach?)
• Do give the author a way out. Many authors will not blurb a book at all if they don’t like it. I think that’s fine. After all, it’s our name and reputation on the line. And it doesn’t mean your book is bad (although that’s sometimes the case). It just means it wasn’t to our taste. But please recognize how uncomfortable it would be for an author to have to tell you that. In your request, let her know that “if you can’t get to in within this three month window I’ll understand completely.” That leaves her with a gracious way out.
• Do contact more authors than you think you’ll need. Some will inevitably not be able to get to the reading. Some will dislike the book and not want to offer a blurb. I'd suggest a list of six or eight authors should fill most publishers/marketing department needs and still give you the opportunity to focus on the few you really want to feature.
• Do follow up once if you haven’t heard from the author when 75% of your time is up. He might have the wrong contact information for you, or the email might have disappeared into the spam folder. Both have happened to me.
• Do send a thank you note afterward. A thank you email is fine, and if you don’t have their email address, just go to the contact page on their website. However, if you mailed them a galley or an ARC, you’ll also have the snail mail address and an old-fashioned, handwritten thank you note is always appreciated. (PS: I’ve sometimes received thank you gifts like chocolate or a bottle of wine afterward but it’s truly not necessary. We’re happy to help aspiring authors even without the graft.)
• Don’t ask for a blurb until the work is sold to a publisher. This one’s controversial. I’ve seen a disturbing trend recently where new authors and their agents are seeking blurbs earlier and earlier. At first, blurbs were secured when the galleys or ARC’s were available, and they were intended for use on the covers and in promotion when the book came out. But I’ve had more than a dozen requests this year alone from authors who had just retained agents and the agents want the blurbs to help sell to a publisher! I’ve even had debut authors ask for blurbs to include in their query letters to agents. (A better idea: if you know me well enough to ask for a blurb before you get an agent, you’d be better off if I sent that agent a private letter extolling your virtues. Take one step at a time.)
I don’t know if this practice will now move into the mainstream. My hope is that debut authors, as they begin sending out their query letters, will also put together a list of potential commenters and ask, “when this manuscript sells to a publisher, would you be willing to consider offering a blurb?”
• Don’t promise how you’ll use it. Sure, the blurb may wind up on the front cover with your title, but don’t promise that. It’s really up to your editor, the marketing department and the cover design artist to make the decision of how best to use the author comment. Later, however, as your final plans are made, it might be thoughtful to write back to your author and tell them how pleased you were to be able to use their quote on your website or in your promotional material … especially if the quote didn’t make it onto the book cover.
• Don’t ask for specific language in the blurb. This one should be self-evident. None of the “if you could focus your comments on the emotional depth of my work” etc. Feh.
• Don’t ask the author to print out an electronic version of your manuscript unless it’s absolutely necessary. The author may actually offer to receive your manuscript electronically. If at all possible, do not take them up on it. They won’t read the work on screen and you’ve just cost them twenty dollars worth of paper and ink to print it out. Multiple that by the Lee Child-number of inquiries coming in and author blurbs start to look like their own separate cost center.
• Don’t send out your manuscript until it’s absolutely perfect. That draft of the ms before you got around to a final check for typos will not reflect well on you. (My two favorite typos from recent reads were: 1) the woman who said she “was going to have an organism” if he touched her leg one more time, and 2) the man who ordered a “Crap Louis Salad” for lunch.)
See? It’s no different than that ideal query letter you sent to agents:
1. Perfect your work before you send it out
2. Identify the target audience (which authors) you want to contact
3. Tell them why their blurb is the one that’s important to you
4. Don’t feel bad if they turn you down; they weren’t the right person for the job
5. Tell them thank you.
Okay, ‘Rati, how about you? Your chance to crow. What’s the best (or most unusual) blurb you’ve ever received or given? And readers, what’s the blurb that made you pick up that book you’d never heard of before?
PS: Happy Birthday Obama, you Hawaiian-born son of America!