Barry Eisler here... MJ has generously offered to let me guest-blog for the next few days at BBH while she takes a well-deserved break. So for today, tomorrow, and Wednesday, I'll be offering a few thoughts about the biz... and not, for a change, about politics, language, and international goings-on.
When I was first published a few years back, I thought blurbing was just a favor an established author might do for an unknown. You know, a way for a known writer to generously give her imprimatur to an unknown writer and introduce the unknown to the known writer's readers thereby.
I was wrong.
We think of blurbing as a favor because we assume: (i) the established author will actually read the unknown's book; (ii) the established author is getting nothing out of this, and in fact is even putting his reputation on the line; and (iii) there are no other incentives or disincentives at work.
Let's examine these assumptions.
How does it feel to get asked for a blurb? First, you're flattered. It wasn't so long ago that I was the unknown; now my imprimatur is recognized as having some value. That's a nice compliment.
Second, you're conflicted. Because... what if I try the book and don't like it? Sure, blurb requests are almost always accompanied by a "If you don't like the book, no problem at all" type disclaimer, but I don't think we need to commission a study to know that when a writer says, "Sure, I'll take a look," the book will very likely get blurbed regardless of the writer's true critical reaction. It's just too hard to say to someone, "You know, I gave the book a try, and realized it's not something I want to associate my name with. Thanks for thinking of me."
Third, you're concerned. Will I seem selfish if I say no? Am I in fact being selfish? People helped me along the way... shouldn't I give back somehow? And if the request came from your editor or agent, don't you want to do them that favor, in case you need to ask for a favor of your own down the line (or if they've already done one for you)?
Fourth, you're calculating. How big is this writer, how big is she likely to become? Maybe she'll blurb me, too? Or maybe we're friends... let's blurb each other! (In politics this is known as "logrolling." See also, back scratching.)
Let's pause for a moment. Do you see how all the inherent dynamics tend to create momentum for the blurb, yet have nothing to do with the ostensible purpose of the practice? So far it's all about feeling guilty, not wanting to hurt someone's feelings, not wanting to seem or be selfish, and trading favors.
All these perverse incentives and disincentives divert blurbing from it's ostensible purpose, true. But there's something more insidious going on here, something that makes the institution not only misleading, but actually corrupt. And that is: blurbing benefits the blurber as much as the blurbee.
When an established writer blurbs an unknown's book, what's implied in the blurb is always that the blurber is an authority, an established presence, perhaps even a master. Otherwise, why would she be qualified to give the blurb in the first place?
Let's say you get an average of one blurb request per month over a five-year writing career. That's sixty requests. Let's say each of the books in question has a print run of 20,000 copies, hardback, softback, or both. If you blurb them all, you just got your name, with accompanying implication of your status as a writer, onto 1.2 million advertising surfaces that will appear in bookstores all over the country.
Hmmm... maybe blurbing isn't such a clearcut favor, after all. In fact, it sounds like a pretty good deal for the blurber. This could get out of hand, unless there are some natural counterforces at work. Are there?
Well, reading a novel takes eight, ten, or more hours. That's a substantial time commitment.
But... if your goal is simply to get those 1.2 million advertising impressions, why even read the book? Just say, "Joe Blow is my kind of writer." "Jane Blow is a writer to watch." Or some other generic nonsense. And you're done.
But what about your reputation, you're thinking? You might have just associated your name with a low-quality book. If your fans read it on your recommendation, won't that cost you?
Cost you what, exactly? How many of your fans will feel so betrayed by the misleading blurb that they'll actually boycott your books, or stop telling other people they enjoy them? Not many, I would guess. Versus, how many new readers will you acquire out of those 1.2 million advertising impressions? In strictly cost/benefit, cold-blooded business logic terms, you'd be crazy not to blurb as much as you possibly could.
It seems the only thing left that could prevent a complete blurbing metastasis is... individual integrity. The rather quaint notion that we shouldn't recommend things we think unworthy, or of which we have no relevant knowledge -- even if the recommendation avoids discomfort and offers material gain -- because doing so is misleading, deceptive, and dishonest.
Hmmm... individual integrity, on the one hand, vs. guilt, worry, and logrolling and other material gain, on the other. Anyone want to place bets? Or even just hazard a guess about the percentage of blurbed books actually read by the blurber?
What's the solution (assuming you believe any of the above is even a problem)? I don't think there is one. It's not as though the industry is going to ban the practice, or even introduce some regulatory guidelines ("Disclaimer: The blurber blurbed this book at the request of her editor." "Disclaimer: The blurber stands to profit personally by offering this blurb.").
But even if you're willing to bullshit readers, don't bullshit yourself. Sure, honest blurbing is possible in theory. And certainly there are some honest blurbs out there. But most of them are anything but. So next time someone asks you for a blurb, ask yourself why you're inclined to do it. Then measure the value of your own integrity. Compare. And proceed accordingly.
For a terrific and sometimes contrary view on this subject, check out the February 9 post on J.A. Konrath's A Newbie's Guide to Publishing.