Leaves of Grass: The First (1855) Edition (Penguin Classics)

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We Need to Destroy the Blurbing Industrial Complex

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In 1856, an obscure-ish writer, frustrated by the non-recognition of his newest self-published oeuvre, took matters into his own hands. He sent copies of his book of poems, unsolicited, to the literary luminaries of his day. One luminary, Ralph Waldo Emerson, replied with a polite thank-you note.

“‘I greet you at the beginning of a great career.’ —Ralph Waldo Emerson” was quickly appended—in blingy gold letters—to the back of this book.

This is widely considered to be the first book blurb in the English language, as we’ve documented on the site before. Without it, perhaps Walt Whitman and his Leaves of Grass might have stayed obscure forever (Emerson, however, objected to this manipulation of his private correspondence). Besides poetic genius, Whitman had the marketing instinct of a P.T. Barnum; of course, today we think of him as an American bard, but at the time, he also penned his own blurbable reviews, anointing himself the “American bard at last!” pulling off what Jerome Loving, in his biography Emerson, Whitman, and the American Muse, viewed  “as a slick promotion scheme, done by a man with little sense of propriety.”

Blurbs, the quoted testimonials of a book’s virtues by other authors, are now so ubiquitous, readers expect them, first-time authors stress about getting them, booksellers base orders on them. A blank back cover today would probably look like a production mistake. But while readers heft books in their hands and scrutinize the praise, it should be noted that blurbs are not ad copy written by some copywriter; they are ad copy written by a fellow author. “Ad copy” might be a bit harsh, but maybe not. The “flap copy,” the wordage on the inside flap of the cover of a hard cover, is written by the publishers, to tell potential readers what the book is about but also, of course, to spur a purchase. Blurbs are also there for promotional purposes only, their bias similarly implicit. “Why is this even a book?” I saw in a book review for a tepid memoir that I read in galleys and enthusiastically thought the same thing about. But such an honest negative assessment is not going to make it as a blurb, nor does an author’s effusive praise guarantee that the book has been read. Random people I interviewed for this piece didn’t know what blurbs were—when I asked about their persuasiveness/necessity, most said they thought they were necessary, but then I realized they were referring to the “flap copy” on the inside cover. Most readers I spoke to casually, including my niece, a college student who can’t leave a bookstore without at least 50 pounds of books, seemed pretty agnostic-to-meh about blurbs and mostly ignored them while browsing.

My spouse worked as an editorial assistant at Farrar, Straus, and Giroux in the time before email and the internet, and much of his workday was spent sleuthing ways to get books to authors, sort of like how the court server jumps out from behind the potted plant with the summons. Now, it’s so easy to get ahold of people, manuscripts and bound galleys are flying. It’s not uncommon for well-known writers to receive more than a book a day “for which we hope you will comment,” i.e., blurb. I’ve seen friends’ apartments made small with towers of books, academic colleagues have to do a systems dump, rejected blurb requests piled outside their offices next to a big FREE sign. To put another way, there are around 600,000 to a million new books published per year (depending on what statistics you want to use) but it’s clear this creates a beast that constantly needs to be fed blurbs, which need to be gotten fresh every time; Rick Simonson, a bookseller at Elliott Bay Books, told me about a publisher using “a nice Susan Sontag quote for John Berger long after she’d passed away”—and that wasn’t super effective. Nor, he said, was using general all-purpose blurbs. A book needs a blurb and a good one. Feed me, Seymour!

The publishing industry thus runs on the fuel of free writer labor from authors often unrelated to the publishing house—i.e., unlike the flap copy writer who is paid by said publisher, the blurbing author is contributing to the book but is not the one getting published and paid, all because some guy made a funny promotional jacket for his book in 1905. As a writer whose last novel came out more than a decade ago, I feel like I am Rip Van Winkle-ishly stepping back into a world that has utterly changed—a new industry of independent publicists, the rise of social media—because of the speed at which things happen, short attention spans, distraction from other forms of media, the insta-data of Amazon algorithms, and just as the Grinch would say: noise, noise, noise.

Before I parse the motivational civic/karmic duty of blurbing, let me take you through a blurb process, at least mine. They fall into roughly three categories.

The ideal: the editor (or author) emails or calls to ask if I’d be interested. If I say yes, she promptly gets me the manuscript, gives me a deadline a few months in the future. I get a big thank you when I turn it in, and months later, the published book arrives with my blurb on it. It’s kind of cool.
The okay: usually a smaller indie press wants a blurb for the book and the ARC (advanced readers copy); being less organized/staffed, they give me the impossible deadline of a week. I will do the blurb but have already missed the first deadline, so there are bad feelings and disappointment already attached to the project.
The terrible: the editor calls and if I assent, informs me they need the blurb right away, like in a day or two. That tells me they are getting closer to publication date and panicking because the author doesn’t have enough blurbs or the hoped-for famous blurbers fell through, so they are asking a novelist who hasn’t published a novel in a decade—i.e., I am being called from the B- or C-list bench (it makes it worse when they effuse—”You would be such a get”—I’m not Jodi Picoult), then exhorted to blurb really fast, and that’s irritating on all fronts and often burdensome. These requests are also historically the ones most likely to end up with my blurb not being used, either because of disorganization or maybe a last-minute famous person came through. Add to the spiritual trouble if I don’t even get a copy of the book I went to a lot of trouble to blurb.

The value of the labor of blurbing is not as trifling as the word “blurb” would suggest. Thomas Mann opined that writers are those for whom writing is more difficult than for other people. I worked for years in research at a big investment bank, and even while needing to express in mathematics how the price/equity values of one company versus another made it a buy/sell/hold, I couldn’t bear to leave a dangling participle or a superfluous comma for a dependent clause.

Reading a book to blurb is of course much more fun. I find writing blurbs, like writing student recommendation letters, to be a joyful and simultaneously fraught task. Primarily, it’s nice to be asked, it’s a joyful thing to have a book come out, it also feels a bit like a civic duty to expend whatever social capital one has (it’s free!) to help another author along.

The fraught part has to do with the scarcest of resources for all of us: time to do our own work. See, I’m not an ad-copy writer, but I must write a squib that will make the book sound exciting, not give up any spoilers, explain what the book is about in a dozen words, and most importantly avoid blurb clichés—”passionate, heartbreaking”—because those would signal insincerity and thereby make the blurb and all my hard work useless. In other words, I have to deploy some of my best writing chops for a blurb. I am not alone. Poetry books need blurbs, too, and poets have an attentional relationship to language that makes blurb writing even more fraught. Poet Adrienne Su tells me, “I read the whole book and think about it a long time, and it’s still a struggle not to sound generic. Being a poet—at least, being in the majority of poets, who aren’t famous—involves too many sacrifices to put your name on anything without care.”

Further, a nuclear arms race in blurbing is building. Besides the plain blurb, there is now the “pre-blurb” that goes onto the advance readers copy and is used as a kind of literary chum to attract more blurbs. There’s even a pre-pre-blurb for a manuscript to wear when it goes out to the market. That’s a lot of blurbs for one book making it through the system.

Yet what’s up with the blurb writers? Who is the Author Lorax who speaks for them?

Back when my physician father still held out hope that of his four children, I would be the one to become a doctor, I questioned the ridiculousness of the days and days of no sleep during internship and how it didn’t make any sense, for the interns or for their patients. The best he could come up with was that he did it, so I, and other young doctors-to-be should, too.  An unconvincing blurb is not the equivalent of a fatal drug interaction prescribed by an overtired intern. But without examination, the beast grows and needs more food more frequently, and is anyone keeping track of what’s happening? At what point will it be deemed ridiculous, at the pre-pre-pre-pre-blurb stage? And who will be doing it?

Who are these authors, the blurbers? Many are simply friends of the author with the forthcoming book. There are generous authors who blurb a lot of strangers, but, given time constraints, don’t read the books terribly carefully. Then there are the super-generous authors who take many hours of reading and writing to craft a blurb; these fastidious authors are driven by a pride in their blurb work. I also read the books in their entirety, but I’m driven more by fear there’d be some literary Rickroll inside the book, precisely at the place I’d skimmed. Or I’d call it “a gripping tale of World War I” when it was actually a novel about World War II, and my mistake will be public as long as the book is in print—you get the gist.

But for either kind of generous stranger-blurber, time is a problem. Some people might run out their lifespan if they actually read every book they blurbed. Gary Shteyngart is the Joyce Carol Oates of blurbing, but he’s quite candid in telling me that he does not carefully read every word or even finish the books he’s been asked to blurb, but avers anyone who does “should be given medals and grants.”

Yet other authors feel it’s part of the social contract to read every word before providing a blurb—but there’s no ethical guidelines about this at all. Some readers feel that having an author’s friend or teacher blurb (e.g., they can see the name come up again in the acknowledgments) is cheating, reflecting a perception that blurbs should be somehow pure, unbiased endorsements for a work. They might be interested in the story of an author who told me that he’d been thrilled to secure the promise of a blurb from a famous writer—who then, because he was a busy and famous, asked the author to Walt Whitmanishly write the blurb himself and he’d affix his name upon it. These readers who presume purity do not realize that blurbing is largely driven by connections and that blurbers may gush about a “book of the century” while merely operating within the loose confines of “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”

Some people say if an author blurbs too much, this reduces the “value” of the blurb. Shteyngart good-naturedly tells me I can call him a “blurb whore.” But I think of it more in terms of overblurbers and underblurbers. The overblurber is generally just a generous person who wants to help other writers; most overblurbers I spoke to had clearly set standards for commitments: e.g., student work, authors of color, underappreciated authors and presses, which all but guarantees a heavy blurbing schedule. The underblurber, however, can be an author with some social capital who could help other authors with a blurb but pointedly refuses, even for what I would call a slam dunk case, e.g., a student—often because he blurbs “up” but never “down.” It’s a free country, but I also give up my seat on the subway for the elderly even though I am not contractually obliged to.

In general, I will say that blurbs are a blight on the publishing industry, both for people seeking blurbs and the writers asked to blurb. I’m thinking of the swath of time and productivity of editors, agents, publicists, writers being sucked into the blurb machine. And while it can drive sales, as it’s meant to, it doesn’t necessarily do readers a favor. When I am asked to blurb, I don’t spend a lot of time thinking, “Is this book worth the readers’ money?” Even if I wrote an honest blurb—”Save your money and buy some Raymond Carver instead of this lukewarm imitative collection”—the publisher isn’t going to use my PSA.

On the other hand, when I genuinely love an author’s work, or even if it’s problematic, or not fully formed, or I just hope to see more in the future, blurbing is a material way to donate my time to help a fellow writer eke out a living, especially if they are a debut author and/or publishing with a small press. Novelist Chris Castellani goes so far to say he thinks of it as “a sacred act—you are putting your name on a work of art, and your name will forever be associated with that work. So it’s a big responsibility.” But he has also encountered the downside of acting as a cog in the grinding wheel of the blurb factory, “which is why I have to say I do get frustrated when I write one, and I get barely a thank you from the author or the editor. It’s a certain kind of entitlement”—one that many writers find difficult.

Newly minted MacArthur fellow Kelly Link, who runs Small Beer Press with her husband Gavin Grant, has insights from both sides: “As a writer who has greatly benefitted from the word of mouth that pre-publication blurbs can provide, as an editor and publisher who hopefully sends out galleys of books that I adore to writers that I adore in the hopes that they will have the time to read and say something, as a reader who is sent far too many excellent books in galleys and feels both an obligation and a feeling of dread because of the tight deadlines that blurbing often requires … it’s immensely gratifying to be given the chance to read new writers, and to have a chance to say something about how much I’ve loved their work. But it’s also impossible to keep up.”

Viet Thanh Nguyen is Shteyngart-level generous with his blurbs, but I asked him, as an academic, fiction and nonfiction writer, contributor for the New York Times op-ed page and others, a mentor, a in-demand speaker, a parent, etc., how he does it all, especially as he makes the commitment to read through every book he has agreed to blurb. Blurbing time indeed cuts into artist production time: “I get very little of my own reading done, which is to say books that I think will help me with my own writing. This is distressing to me.”

Besides the macro effect on the literary output of those luminaries who are called upon to blurb, there is another aspect invisible to readers in the game of blurbs: The playing field is highly skewed toward certain subsets of writers: people who know people, people who live in New York and actively participate in its literary/publishing scene. Also, graduates of MFA programs, as they have well-known writers as faculty to ask for blurbs, this baked-in aspect of MFA programs (which themselves have hierarchies) becomes a system of exclusion in itself. And people who have powerful agents and editors of course have many more avenues of access. This uneven system is mired in issues of race and class and thus can be part of a self-perpetuating cycle that is deleterious—and invisibly so—for the less well off, the less connected, and those far away from the city.

Kelly Link, who is a delightful presence on twitter (@HasZombiesInIt, also @SmallBeerPress), tells me that even for books she loved in galleys, she often couldn’t make the blurbing deadline, and “I’m much happier just recommending books to readers on Twitter when they [Twitter followers] ask for something to read and tell me the sort of thing that they like.”

Maybe readers (and publishers) could declare not an end, but maybe an armistice, in the arms race of blurbing. I, for one, would rather have another Kelly Link short story instead of a blurb. The writer Geraldine Brooks, herself a generous blurber, said, “I stopped asking for blurbs after my first novel, preferring just to go with pull quotes from reviews about previous books”—clearly, her career has not been hampered by this restraint.

Of course, the system can’t change overnight. Bookseller Pamela Klinger-Horn of Excelsior Bay Books and Valley Bookseller says that bookselling “is such a tough market that anything helps. I don’t see blurbs going away anytime soon.”

As an author, however, I can make decisions about my book. Will I have the courage to lessen the load for my brethren and go through publication blurb-less?  Would my publisher even let me?

Image credit: Pexels/Magda Ehlers.

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