Saturday, November 13, 2010
THE VALUE OF PRE-PUBLICATION BLURBS
I’d like to bring up a topic I don’t see addressed on the writer’s and agent’s blogs I visit—the potential value of pre-pub blurbs.
First, because I know there are different levels of writers who visit this site—from very new and beginning writers to established pros—for the benefit of the new writers, a blurb is an endorsement of someone respected and who has name cachet. It’s those little paragraphs you see on the covers or books by someone whose name you recognize who vows that the book you hold in your hands is the best thing since sliced bread.
Also included in the category of blurbs are the reviews from various publications that also grace the covers of books. I won’t be talking about those here, since those are obtained after the book has found a publisher, and what I want to address here are the blurbs solicited before the book has found a publishing home. What I’ll be talking about here will be what I’ll call “pre-pub” blurbs, i.e., endorsements of the book before it has been sold to a publisher.
There are differing thoughts on the value of blurbs. Some think they help sales and others think… they don’t. Personally, I think that simply from the fact that they exist, and are found on the vast majority of book jackets, is proof that at least the publisher feels they have value.
And, this is usually how most of us view blurbs. As something that’s solicited after the book has found a publisher. However, there are a few agents and authors who feel that gathering endorsements before the manuscript has even been sent out to editors has value.
I’m in that camp.
And, so is my own agent.
We both see endorsements from the right folks as being beneficial in not only selling a manuscript, but also in sometimes raising the amount of the advance and attention paid to the manuscript with the marketing departments of publishers.
Tell me—which of two otherwise equally good manuscripts in the horror novel genre will get taken more seriously by publishers—one accompanied by a couple of paragraphs from Stephen King, saying this book is one of the scariest books he’s ever read? Or, the manuscript who doesn’t have a couple of paragraphs from Stephen King?
Okay. That’s my argument for pre-pub blurbs…
Until a few years ago, I didn’t realize there was even such a thing as a pre-pub blurb. I assumed, like probably most of us, that blurbs were only solicited after a publisher had purchased the book. An agent (whom I won’t name) showed me how he sold sports books, using this technique. He graciously sent me sample proposals for a number of sports books and always included in the proposals were pre-pub blurbs by renowned and respected sports figures. In fact, the blurbs were always the first thing the editor saw in the proposal. This guy sells just about all of his clients’ manuscripts and proposals and he’s quick to give a lot of credit to those blurbs. After all, if Curry Fitzpatrick and Bo Jackson give hosannas to a proposed book on baseball, who is going to resist at least giving that proposal a close read?
The answer to that is as clear as the fact that Roseanne has kicked anorexia’s ass.
Can everybody get pre-pub blurbs? Well… no. But, a lot of writers can—even previously unpublished authors. Don’t assume that just because you don’t have your first book out that you can’t.
Psychology of endorsements
Let’s look at the psychology behind pre-pub blurbs first. Almost all of us—including seasoned editors and agents—have at least vestiges of uncertainty residing in our DNA. In other words, like all of us as human beings, we’re at least sometimes a bit unsure of our decisions. It’s why Michael Jordan made millions of dollars shilling for tennis shoes and cereal. It wasn’t because Fortune 500 CEO’s liked Mikey so much, they just wanted to shower him with dollar bills—it was because they’re well aware that the average citizen doesn’t really know what’s good and what isn’t. When a prominent person says they like something—even though we know he’s paid to say it—we take his word for it that it’s good and therefore we feel okay about plunking our money down.
The same psychology works in book sales to editors. If you’ve written a thriller and are shopping it around to publishers and included in your sales pitch are blurbs written on its behalf by Lee Child, Joe Finder and Linwood Barclay, with what frame of mind do you think most editors will be in when they pick up the manuscript and begin reading page one? It’s already half-sold! Besides respecting these bestselling authors, the editor also knows the book already has gained blurbs for the book that the thriller audience is familiar with and respects as well. That’s an editor who is going to feel extremely confident when he presents the manuscript to his board. He already knows how accounting is going to view this bit of information. (With high-fives and spraying each other with bottles of Crystal…). In fact, there are a great number of… how should I say this?... “flawed” books that have become published, simply because it was endorsed by a brand name. That’s life. And, is an aspect of publishing many won’t talk about, but which exists. We can declaim against it as being unfair… or, we can use it to our advantage.
Okay. So we’re aware that pre-pub blurbs can help sell a manuscript. Now. How do we get them?
There are many ways. My agent is currently marketing two of my books. One is a proposal for a new writer’s how-to and one is a new novel. We’re using pre-pub blurbs for each.
For those of you who’ve followed this blog for awhile, you already know how we’ve gotten pre-pub endorsements for my nonfiction book proposal, titled, A Fiction Writer’s Workshop at the Bijou. I asked for your blurbs on this site. And got a ton of ‘em. Thanks! I also asked others via email for the same and they’ve also been extremely generous in sending me blurbs. As of now, I have nearly thirty of them and you can bet they’re included in our sales pitch to publishers.
This is one way. Many of you have blogs of your own—blog readerships you can ask the same of that I have. For a book such as this—a writer’s book—I received endorsements from the targeted audience—writers. Some of you were well-known authors yourselves and others were beginning writers. Blurbs from both sources work very well in this particular case.
But, for my thriller manuscript, I couldn’t ask the same audience for endorsements. I had to go to other thriller writers. Fortunately, because I’ve been doing this for a long time (writing books), I’ve been on many panels at writer’s workshops and become friends with those appearing on the same panels. Years ago, for instance, I was on several such panels, made a presentation, and conducted a workshop at Henry Perez’ writer’s convention, the Midwest Literary Arts Festival in Aurora, Illinois. I sat on panels with such renowned names as James Rollins, Dennis Lehane, David Morrell, J.A.Konrath, Hallie Ephron, and many other well-known writers, too numerous to list here. (Best writer’s convention ever! Henry, if you’re reading this—make it happen again!) Because of that, I was able to solicit blurbs from Henry Perez and others for my thriller, The Bitch. Recently, I was asked to submit an article for John Schoenfelder’s website for his new imprint, Mulholland Books at Little, Brown. A week or so later, I read an article on the same website from author Joe Trigoboff. I wasn’t aware of Mr. Trigoboff or his work at the time, but what he said in the article led me to realize we shared many of the same views. I was able to track him down through his publicist and he was gracious enough to provide me with a blurb. (In return, I’m pre-blurbing his brilliant memoir, Rumble in Brooklyn).
I’ve received other pre-blurbs for The Bitch from other contacts I’ve made over the years. I was a presenter the summer before last for both of the Writer’s Retreat Workshops in Erlanger, Kentucky. During one of the two WRW events, I met a bestselling author in attendance—Bob Stewart—who’s written several true crime bestsellers (No Remorse, et al) and we became friends. Bob was extremely gracious in providing a kick-ass blurb. A few years ago, Cortright McMeel founded Murdaland, a noir magazine, and he’d solicited me for a short story which appeared in the first issue. Cort sold his first novel to St. Martin’s, Short, which is forthcoming next month. He liked my work and voice and so I approached him for a pre-pub blurb. It’s coming on Monday. (And, Cort is going to be interviewed here in a few weeks.)
Another of my blurbers is a close friend I went to school for my MFA with at Vermont College. He’s blurbed my work before and I’ve returned the favor. A great source for those of you who have writer friends from high school or college to solicit.
I’m providing my own experiences in how I gathered pre-pub blurbs for the few reading this who’ve formed similar relationships with other writers. I suspect at least a few of you can do the same.
Can everyone do this? Of course not. Some can, some can’t. Does that mean you have to be in the business forever and have a bunch of books out to get these kinds of endorsements? Again, the answer is, of course not. There are a variety of ways to garner endorsements from those whose words count with editors.
I work with writers coaching them as they write their novels. One of my clients is a complete unknown as a writer. However, the novel she’s written—besides being absolutely brilliant—has a subject matter that makes it easy to solicit blurbs from prominent people. She’s a Jewish writer who has written a novel that shows, in a moving way, the story of a Palestinian. I can’t talk about it more than that at this point, but trust me—this is a book that I feel certain will not only become a best-seller, but also garner significant literary awards. I see a potential movie in her future as well. Because of its subject matter, its originality, and her marvelous voice, she’s getting blurbs from former presidents, from extremely prominent people both in the Arab-American and Jewish communities, and from famous people who just recognize a wonderful story, brilliantly told. She’s an unknown writer now, but she won’t be for long.
Another client is in a writing group with prominent writers. He obtains great pre-pub blurbs from his fellow writers from the group.
The point is, nearly everyone who has a good book has a way to garner pre-pub blurbs. I can’t tell you how to accomplish this in every case, but there usually is a way if you simply practice the same creativity you employed in writing your book with your marketing efforts.
Nonfiction book proposals are, as a rule, infinitely easier to solicit such blurbs for. Depending on the subject matter, look at the “names” in that field and approach them. One of the reasons nonfiction proposals are easier to get people to blurb them are that the potential blurber only has to read a chapter or two and the chapter outline to see if it’s something they’d be comfortable in lending their name to. In other words, they don’t have to read that much!
With novels, it’s a bit different. The potential blurber will almost always need to read the entire manuscript. All 416 pages! And, that’s a lot to ask of anyone, especially if the request comes from an unknown writer. To get a good blurber for a novel usually requires that the author have some kind of relationship with the person solicited. For many as-yet-unpublished writers, that’s almost impossible. But… there are ways.
For example, if you’ve taken a class or workshop from someone known in the field, that’s perhaps a person you can approach. If—as in the case of my client—you’ve worked with that person on a professional level—you can probably ask them to provide a blurb.
Here are a few things to consider when approaching someone for a pre-pub blurb:
1. Only approach those who have genuine name-recognition in the genre or field you’re writing in—the kind of name that will attract buyers because of who they are and what they say.
2. Always approach in a professional manner—be polite and don’t ever put them on the spot. Let them know that if they simply don’t want to, you don’t expect them to furnish you a reason for refusing. That a simple, “No thanks—I’ll have to pass” is fine. Many (most?) writers just don’t have the time. Don’t ever make them feel as if you expect them to or you won’t be their friend anymore or won’t ever buy their books again! To blurb someone’s manuscript or nonfiction book proposal—especially one that hasn’t yet found a publisher—is a huge favor to ask of anyone! Be extremely thankful of anyone who will… and extremely understanding when they can’t or won’t.
3. If they do agree to read your work, find out how they prefer to look at the work. For instance, one of my recent blurbers doesn’t work with computers. He prefers to read hard copy only. Since I’m the one asking the favor, I was delighted to spend almost fifty bucks to have a copy printed ($31.00), and mailed to him ($17.00). You should do the same. Make it comfortable and easy for them to read it and by no means ever expect them to pay for any part of the process. Don’t for just one example, send them something they have to sign for.
4. Make sure they understand that after they’ve read your mss or proposal, that if they’re uncomfortable in providing an endorsement, you want them to know you don’t expect them to, for any reason. Make sure you mean this and that they know you mean this in the very beginning.
5. Make sure you offer to return the favor if ever asked. And then, if asked, give them a good ‘un!
6. Don’t solicit the wrong people for your project. For instance, even if you know Stephen King personally, don’t ask him to blurb your nonfiction cookbook proposal or romance novel. Even if he provides a blurb in such a case (unlikely), the editor reviewing your proposal or mss is going to have a hernia laughing… as he slips a rejection slip inside the envelop…
7. If someone does agree to pre-blurb your mss or proposal, and furnishes a good one, ask him or her if they could recommend anyone else who might be willing to do the same. Networking works here as well. If they’re agreeable to furnish names for this, ask if they mind you using their name or will possibly furnish an introduction to that person.
8. Allow them their own timeframe to read and write the blurb in. Don’t ever put pressure on them to furnish their endorsement by a certain time. If they ask, simply say you’d prefer it by (whatever date) and hope that’s okay with them, but if it isn’t, that’s fine. If you don’t receive it from them in time for marketing it, you can still probably use it once it’s sold. In fact, one of the assumptions blurbers will have is that their endorsement will appear in the book once published. While you can’t guarantee that (that’s the publisher’s decision), it probably will happen, especially if you’ve solicited the kind of blurber you should have—one that readers will know or respect because of who they are or what position they hold. Who are the only kinds of blurbers you should solicit in the first place.
9. Always be gracious and professional in all of your dealings with potential endorsers.
10. If you already have an agent, make sure he or she agrees with you that it’s okay to solicit blurbers. Some won’t be behind the idea and they will most likely have sound reasons for their view. Listen to your agent. And, some may be delighted that you’re going to try, but will want to help guide you as to who you solicit.
Can everyone get pre-pub blurbs/endorsements? Not at all. But, some can and more can than may realize it.
Please understand that this is a strategy that will work for some and won’t work for others. I just want to present it as a possibility you may not have considered that may help you in selling your novel or nonfiction book proposal.
Did everyone I solicited give me a blurb? Nope. One thought The Bitch was too dark to lend his name to. A couple didn’t respond to my request. One would have, but has recently had a number of family issues he was dealing with and just didn’t have the time. One told me he was no longer giving blurbs to others. Some in my blanket solicitation of my book proposal for Bijou that I was hoping for didn’t respond.
Just the way it goes. Like they say in sales: Every no gets you closer to a yes. And then there’s that thing about kissing a lot of frogs…
Hope this was of some help!
P.S. It’s entirely possible that some disagree with this strategy and have good reasons for doing so. Hope to hear from you. Also, it’s entirely possible some agree with this strategy and have used it for their benefit. Hope to hear from you as well.
One of my blurbers, Buddy...