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Blurbing and Being Blurbed

Flickr Creative Commons: Tim Geers

A note to my friends at Writer Unboxed: 

As a Type-A to-the-max sort of person, I prepared this essay weeks ago, when the world was different.  Now, an essay about how to solicit praise for one’s book seems frivolous, irrelevant, and downright offensive—and yet I do want to offer it to you. 

Rather than retracting the essay, I’ve decided to offer it in the hope that you will save it for when it may be useful.  

Is there any writer who actually likes asking for blurbs?  I suppose there is, but most of us wish we didn’t have to do it. We understand that it’s necessary—and we all like praise—but we cringe at having to ask for it. The challenge is how to do that sensitively and intelligently.

Let’s start with a few truths.

Truth #1: Endorsements matter. If we trust the person who recommends a product, especially when there are countless other options that could meet the same need, we’re much more likely to choose that particular shoe or car or coffee maker—or novel—from among the alternatives competing for our attention.

Truth #2: All blurbs aren’t necessarily equal. The question is whether a fantastic blurb (Best book I ever read) by someone relatively unknown is more or less “valuable” than a generic blurb (A well-crafted exploration) by someone famous. To a degree, it depends on an author’s goals; it may also be a matter of what’s realistically attainable. In general, the more authority the blurber is perceived to have, the more others are likely to be swayed by what she has to say.

Truth #3: Unless you’ve been pegged as a rising star by a major publisher who will get the blurbs for you, you have to ask—even if it’s terrifying.

Truth #4: Everyone agrees that it’s important to be polite, start early, make it easy for the person to say yes—and to thank the person afterward. Not just privately, but publicly. As Sonja Yoerg suggests in her 2017 essay [1]: “When I have all my endorsements in hand, I publicly thank the author on Facebook. This post is not about the blurb (i.e. me and my book) but about the author and his or her generosity. As part of my thanks, I tout their most recent book.”

So far, so good.

I started to reflect on all the advice I’d read about securing blurbs and to wonder how well it mapped onto real experience. I thought about my own experience, and I asked other people.

Turning to myself, first, I was reminded of what I discovered, years ago, when my then-husband and I set out to adopt our first child.  My thinking, when we started out, went something like this: “You, pregnant person, have something I want. What do I have to do to convince you to give me this thing I want?”

It didn’t take long for me to feel the absolute wrongness of that attitude. Since we were going to be adopting privately, it meant (back then) that potential birth mothers would see our ads and call a special phone number we’d set up. Reality quickly smacked me in the face when I spoke with the first woman who called.

She was a person. This wasn’t about being clever enough to impress and persuade her. We were two women, each in a situation we hadn’t expected and hadn’t chosen. Could we connect, trust each other, find our common humanity?

I think asking for blurbs is like that. We need to put ourselves in the shoes of a potential blurber and ask ourselves:

Obviously it’s not a perfect analogy because, unlike a woman seeking an adoptive family for her child, a well-known author isn’t seeking manuscripts to endorse!  However, many of these authors do, in fact, want to help new authors, just as they were helped when they were starting out. So if a Famous Author says she wishes she could help but is truly swamped right now—believe her. Thank her and let it go. “Following up” (i.e., pestering her) won’t bring a different answer. Trust me. I’ve tried it.

What works best—as with adoption—is to abandon the notion of oneself as a salesperson in favor of an appreciation of our common humanity.

Three principles can help.

First, remember that you’re asking someone you don’t know for a huge favor.

You have nothing to offer in return that would be an equivalent favor. Own that, without apologizing for it. Besides, the Famous Author already knows.

Acknowledge the favor you’re hoping for, without groveling.  Let her know your time frame—and make sure you’re giving her a reasonable amount of time.  Give her options: a PDF, a spiral-bound copy, an ARC, sample chapters plus a detailed synopsis. But do not suggest what she might write or say, “I’m sure you won’t have time to read the whole thing …”  Let her decide.

Second, you’re asking a favor for you, specifically.

The Famous Author may have reasons for wanting to be generous—a wish to repay the help she received, a belief in giving new authors a boost—but why should your particular book be the focus of that generosity?

Do your homework.  Explain what you love about her work (be specific) and why your believe yours might resonate with her. Follow her on social media, comment on her posts—long before you ask her to do something for you. Make her know that it’s her endorsement you would love, not just any endorsement by any Famous Author. As Sonja Yoerg points out, “Dare I say that if you are asking them to read your book, you should’ve read one of theirs? I’ve been approached for an endorsement by writers who didn’t appear to know my work at all!”

Third, you’re asking a favor of her, specifically, rather than some other Famous Author.

She needs to understand why you’re asking her and not someone else.

Find the fit. Find other books she’s blurbed. That way, you can explain why you think yours is “her kind of book.” Again, it shows that you’ve paid attention and demonstrates why her blurb, in particular, would be meaningful to you. It’s worth taking the time to craft a really good appeal, heartfelt and specific. As Katrin Schumann notes (https://grubstreet.org/blog/tips-on-getting-those-dreaded-blurbs-for-your-book/ [2]): “Even though I’m just a no-name person hitting him up for a favor he doesn’t even owe me, he agreed to read because he said it was the best request he’d ever received.”

… which brings us to the relationship between getting and giving.

I was curious to talk with people who had been on both ends of the process—who had asked for blurbs and also been the one asked. I wondered if their experience as the asker affected their experience later, when they were in the other chair.

It seemed to.  People told me:

I found the whole process of asking so nerve-wracking, I told myself that I’d agree to blurb for anyone who asked me.

It’s been three years since I had to write my blurb requests for my debut novel, and I can still vividly recall how sick I felt over the process.

When I get blurb requests, I can’t help but remember how vulnerable you feel when you’re sending your work out like that, hoping for an endorsement, and how much you’re hoping to land blurbs that will both pop on the cover and seem unique.

That didn’t mean they always said yes. But when they said no, it was for a reason and with respect.

I did also get a request I wasn’t able to help with. Originally I said okay, but then I realized that the book was much too steamy for my brand. I wound up saying that I unfortunately couldn’t help. But I wrote her back, because I’ve had authors agree to blurb and then disappear. I didn’t want to do that to someone else.

I replied frankly that I wasn’t involved in that world anymore and giving my name to the poet’s work would probably not have the clout any writer needs to impress prospective readers. I hated doing it, having just received my own blurbs, but thought honesty was the best policy.

I only talked with a few people, none of whom were the sort of Famous Authors who receive dozens of requests each week. But their thoughtful, sympathetic responses indicate that that there’s a common cycle of anxiety, gratitude, and the wish to give back.

And then it was my turn.

Five weeks after the launch of my debut novel, I got my first request for a blurb from a writer a didn’t know, someone whose own debut was only a few months behind my own. My first response was incredulity.  Me?  My second response was fear. What if I said yes and got trapped into affixing my still-fragile name to something awful?  What if I said no and incurred bad blurb-karma, especially I would soon be seeking blurbs for my second novel? How could I be less generous than the people who had taken a chance by blurbing me?

So I asked again, posing the question on a writers group I belong to. The responses were sensible and reassuring.

As it happened, I ended up saying yes because the synopsis and first pages the author sent, as a sample, were fantastic. She was right: her book was a perfect fit for me.

That doesn’t mean I must always say yes; my colleagues taught me that. In fact, I got a second request only days later that I ended up declining. Partly, it was the timing. Partly, it was that resonance thing.

Now I too am on both sides of the blurbing line—a milestone that arrived much sooner than I expected. The experience brought me to Truth #5: You don’t have to be a Famous Author to help someone else.

What about you? Have you ever asked for a blurb?  What was that like?  Have you ever been asked?

About Barbara Linn Probst [3]

Barbara Linn Probst is a writer, blogger, former teacher and therapist, and “serious amateur” pianist living on an historic dirt road in New York’s Hudson Valley. Her debut novel QUEEN OF THE OWLS launched in April 2020 from She Writes Press--the story of a woman’s search for wholeness framed around the art and life of Georgia O’Keeffe. QUEEN OF THE OWLS has garnered stellar advance praise and will be the May 2020 selection for the Pulpwood Queens, a network of nearly 800 book clubs across the U.S. It was also named one of the most anticipated books of 2020 by Working Mother [4]. Her second novel is slated for publication in April 2021. Before switching to fiction, Barbara published two nonfiction books and more scholarly articles than she cares to remember. She’s proudest of WHEN THE LABELS DON’T FIT (Random House, 2008), a book to help parents raise, understand, and nurture out-of-the-box children. An out-of-the-box child herself, Barbara has a PhD in Clinical Social Work and worked for many years counseling, teaching, doing qualitative research, and advocating for people with mental and emotional challenges.

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