The Gift of Giving

Reading Betsy Lerner’s blog has a few side effects.  It tends to plant a song in my head for the rest of the day, as she and I are of roughly the same vintage and she chooses her headlines from the songs of my youth.  It always makes me laugh.  And it usually convinces me that there’s no point in my trying to blog: she’s covering the publishing/writing waterfront far better than I could.

But now she’s lit a fire under me with this entry about The Almighty Blurb, which looms large in the lives of most editors.  Blurbs!  Chasing them is agony; getting one is ecstasy.  I’ve written more forelock-tugging, hand-wringing blurb request letters than I can count, which is just as well because I’m sure if I quantified my success rate it would show a sad return on investment.  It’s not that an editor minds writing or sending them – we do it on behalf of books we truly love.  But it’s hard not to sympathize with the successful writer whose mailbox groans with Jiffy bags sent by me and my hopeful peers across New York.  A colleague once sent a letter to John Updike, describing a novel and asking if he might send him the galley.  The response was as brief as it was heartfelt: the letter itself came back with Updike’s handwritten note across the top—“Please, no.”  Maybe the sound of the novel really tanned his hide, but to me it was the cry of a man besieged.

Over the years I’ve encountered all kinds of responses to blurb requests, ranging from silence to enthusiastic support (a highlight: when Andre Dubus II, who didn’t know me from Eve, called me on the phone to tell me how much he loved Tim Gautreaux’s stories—after he’d already sent a letter saying so).  A few writers (Jonathan Lethem, I’m looking at you) have won my undying admiration and gratitude not for offering a quote but just for taking the time to say they wouldn’t be able to: either they’re too busy at the moment, or after many years and many blurbs, they’ve stopped giving them.

Harder to hear is a response like the one from a writer who informed me she was no longer providing blurbs.  This is someone who had published exactly one book about a year earlier, a book whose back cover was a solid mass of praise from other writers, and I had not seen any evidence that she’d been blurbing wildly ever since.  My annoyance gave birth to the following Rule of Blurbs, which I gladly share with you here:

  • If you have received blurbs, you must give them.
  • You must give a number of blurbs equal to or greater than the number you have received.  After that, you’re off the hook.
  • If you have received blurbs from Total Strangers, you must in turn consider the work of Total Strangers, and praise when you see fit.

I think you could also see under: Karma.


  1. Betsy
    Posted April 22, 2010 at 8:25 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Dear Reagan Arthur Books Blog:
    My mother always said imitation was the best flattery, so I am indeed flattered to provide you with fresh, cutting edge “ideas” such as: blurbs. Please come back to my blog ( frequently for more great “ideas” such as query letters, rejection, and self immolation. And many, many thanks for the Updike story.

  2. GLS.
    Posted May 6, 2010 at 5:49 pm | Permalink | Reply

    “Reagan Arthur writes like a sober Mary Karr who’s been struck by lightning while eating baked beans and reading Richard Dooling in Portuguese. If you are going to read one post about blurbs, this is the one. Ignore it at your peril; if you do, you will die.”–Geoff Logroller, author of BETSY L., LIZZIE W., AND ME.

  3. Posted May 8, 2010 at 10:09 pm | Permalink | Reply

    I have only been asked for a blurb once, and I had a hard time writing something honest and still positive. How do you handle requests for blurbs on books you discover you don’t like at all?

  4. Posted May 13, 2010 at 11:23 am | Permalink | Reply

    How I handle most blurb requests is to say I am just not sure if I have time or not, so go ahead and send it, and if you do not hear from me by a determined date then I apologize in advance for not having had time to read the manuscript. This offers a graceful blur over the part about my not liking whatever part of the manuscript I read. If you didn’t hear from me, perhaps I never had time to read. Either way, it’s clear and unrude. And I don’t make this offer if I don’t have a good faith intention to read and then offer a blurb if (and only if) I like the book.

    Is it necessary to say that it’s a little icky, for many reasons, to agree to write a blurb for a book you haven’t read?

One Trackback

  1. By On the Getting of Blurbs | Stacia Kane on May 13, 2010 at 8:40 pm

    […] a really cool post on the Reagan Arthur Books blog about blurbs, and the “karma” of them. And I believe there is a karma to them, […]

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