Just A Few Words

Jeffrey Cohen

First off, "blurbs" is fun to say.  Blurbs, blurbs, blurbs.

Okay, now that I’ve gotten that out of my system, let’s talk about blurbs.  You know: those quotes that appear on the front and back covers of books (and sometimes inside as well) from other, cooler authors, film stars, TV stars, supporting players, booksellers, people who have on occasion read books, etc.  They tell you what a swell book this is, how the author is the finest writer since Herman Melville gave up fish stories, and why you’re a complete and total idiot if you hesitate even another second to purchase this particular tome. 

Much has been written and said about blurbs, most of it pretty nasty.  Writers wonder aloud if anyone would ever truly purchase a book because some other author (quite often from the same publishing house–wink, wink) tells you it’s good.  They complain about having to prostitute themselves to get other, cooler authors to blurb their books, and they make darn sure you know that if you ever see their name on a book jacket, that you can be positive they read and would recommend the writing therein.  No "tit-for-tat" blurbs coming from them.

Publishers tell writers they really want some good blurbs on the book, and writers whine and moan about the process.  Shouldn’t the work stand for itself?  Shouldn’t the months (sometimes years) of sweat and tears that went into the creation of this masterpiece from out of nowhere count for more than a quick "exhilarating" from a bestselling writer whose best years were, let’s face it, not in this decade? I wouldn’t buy a book just because someone I’ve never met says they liked it, they say.  Why would someone else?

Well, here’s my confession about blurbs: I love ’em.  Absolutely.  They are, without question, my favorite part of the publishing process after writing "The End."  (As William Shakespeare should have said, "I hate writing; I love having written.")  They are the finest ego stroke I can imagine after holing up to arrange 80,000 words in the proper order.   Deciding who to ask for blurbs, discovering who will agree to read the book, and then the indescribable moment when the email comes with the short compliment (because who’s going to send a blurb that reads, "man, this really stunk?"): I love it all.  So shoot me; I have an ego.  When people whose work I respect say they like my work, it makes my day.  No.  My month.

Aside from the phone calls I’ve gotten saying that a publisher wanted to print my work, there is no question but that the best days I’ve had in this business have been when first Larry Gelbart and then Linda Ellerbee sent back blurbs for two of my novels.  I could be like other writers and tell you that the greatest moment was holding my first published novel in my hand (that was good; I’m not saying otherwise), but I’d be lying.  I’m greedy: I want the praise, and I want it from people I think are good.  No, great. 

Gelbart, to me, is a writing god.  For those of us who traffic in comedy of any sort, the man whose name appears on A Funny Thing Happened On the Way To the Forum, the TV version of M*A*S*H (the early, funny years), Tootsie and City of Angels is about as close to perfect as you can get.  When he used the word "witty" to describe something I’d written, I had fulfilled a lifetime dream.  A blurb may not mean anything to the shopper in the average Barnes & Noble, but that one meant more to me than I can say.

Ms. Ellerbee, possibly the most influential TV journalist of the past few decades, has been a heroine of mine for a long time.  She did all the things I wanted to do when I graduated college with the intention of becoming both Woodward and Bernstein (hey, it was the Seventies).  When I discovered that I lacked almost all the skills to become a really good journalist, I followed her work more closely, because she had them, and used them extremely well.  First, as Ted Koppel once noted about her, "the woman writes like a dream." (That was in a blurb, by the way.)  And after that, well, she has a lot more nerve than I do, and would go anywhere, ask anybody anything and come home to tell you about it.  For 15 years, she has been giving the news to the most important demographic in the world–children–on Nickelodeon, and doing it remarkably well (as ever).  Ms. E. has also written three amazing memoirs (which do not in any way contain the annoying qualities I groused about a few weeks ago), one of which had recipes, for a good reason.

While I had met Mr. Gelbart online before I’d gathered the courage to ask him for a blurb, I had never had any contact with Ms. Ellerbee.  I managed to get through an email, however, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned in 20 years of freelancing, it’s how to write a good cover letter.  She agreed to take a look, and truly fell in love with the Aaron Tucker series (I don’t know any less self-flattering way to put it).  She sent a blurb that not only sustained me through a cold winter, but made me a celebrity in my own home for an entire weekend.  We have since met, and I can tell you that she is one of the seven most gracious people on the planet.

What’s the point of all this bragging?  Well, aside from inflating my ego, it’s about the effect that positive feedback has on a writer.  Not on the public, who might see Lee Child’s name on my book (and don’t think I’m not extremely grateful for that one, as well!) and say, "wow, I’ve forgotten to pick up… the latest Lee Child book," but on the author, who made a contact and had a good day when someone talented paid a compliment.

And don’t think that because I single out two of the blurbs on my books that I’m not just as proud as every last one.  When a bookseller, another author or a reader takes time out to say something nice about my work, I glow.  Honestly.  It really annoys my wife at night.

Is that awful?  I really don’t think so.  Authors get enough rejection in this business.  In fact, we get too much rejection in this business, to the point that we begin to expect it.  If a few kind words from an idol, a peer or a hero can boost our self-esteem for a day or two, is that such a crime?  I believe it’s a blessing.

I’ll continue to ask those whose work I respect if they’ll read my book.  I certainly won’t expect them to lie if they hate it.  I won’t lie if I hate someone else’s book (although I’ve never been asked to blurb a book I hated, so I haven’t had to say no).  But I’ll set my sights high, for those who have meant the most to me, and I’ll leave myself open to disappointment.  So far, all I can say is that it’s been well worth the risk.

Look out, Mel Brooks.  I’m coming for you.

7 thoughts on “Just A Few Words

  1. Lorraine T.

    Your Sunday am posts always make me smile at my PC. Interesting, too, because I never considered blurbs from the author’s perspective. As a reader, I ignore blurbs from writers I don’t like, but am impressed when a really beloved writer blurbs a newer author. Last one I saw that made me go “Wow!” was Tony Hillerman’s blurb on “The Clovis Incident” by your co-blogger, Ms. Taichert.Lorraine

  2. Bill Cameron

    I have my list of dream blurbists, whom I won’t name aloud out of fear that I will jinx the whole thing.

    My wife can relate to the glowing thing. All night long after I got that call from my agent about my deal, she kept telling me, “Stop it. Stop glowing. Trying to sleep here.” I couldn’t help it.

  3. Beatrice Brooks

    Fun blog (as always), Jeff, and I glow from complimentary blurbs too — my manager at The Olive Garden once told me to stop glowing; actually, he chastised me for “being too enthusiastic/excited” and I asked if I could quote him in my letter to national headquarters :::grin:::

    Do blurbs mean anything? I think they do. Had Diane Mott Davidson, bless her generous heart, not blurbed my first diet club mystery, I doubt my sales would have been so high.

    But even after 13 (soon to be 14) books, it takes me at least 3 days of hyperventilating before I have the courage to ask an author I admire for a blurb.


  4. Pari

    I wonder how you’d conjugate BLURB? How do you spell “blurbing?” Two Bs or three?

    Regarding the blurb factor on books, I always look at them out of curiosity, but I don’t buy books because of them.

    When I first got the contract for CLOVIS, I had the horrid experience of having a nonmystery author (who was pretty famous at the time) write a blurb for me and then get angry with me — personally — and TAKE IT BACK. She wrote a scathing email to me and my editor at UNM Press. Lucky for me, my editor scoffed and pronounced her wacko.

    Still, it took me a long time before I could screw up my courage to ask for a blurb from anyone else. Since then, I have been truly grateful and astounded at the generosity of those authors — including folks like Tony Hillerman and Charlaine Harris — who’ve read my work and taken the extra step to write kind words about them for others to see.

  5. Robert Gregory Browne

    Great post. When Tess Gerritsen and Gayle Lynds sent me blurbs for my new book, I had that glow for days. The best part was realizing that these wonderful writers had taken time out of their very busy schedules to read MY book.

    Yes, it’s an ego stroke. But it’s the kind of ego stroke that makes our publishers very happy.

  6. Mark Terry

    Yeah, I agree with you. And I’m not just saying that because you blurbed my novel Dirty Deeds. There’s this concept that some authors don’t actually read the book they’re blurbing, they just make it up, and although that may be true, I damned sure don’t want to know about it if they did that to my book. I’d be much happier knowing that Jeff et al read Dirty Deeds and loved it, thank you very much. Same is true with my upcoming novel, The Devil’s Pitchfork, which has a terrific blurb or two or three from J.A. Konrath, Jay MacLarty and Joe Moore, with presumably a few more to come. As for this…

    “Authors get enough rejection in this business. In fact, we get too much rejection in this business, to the point that we begin to expect it.”

    There’s a post alone in that statement. In the fiction biz, I’m always shocked when things go well, not the other way around.

    Best,Mark Terry


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