My Blurb Policy

I have recently been asked to enumerate my policy for blurbing books in advance of their publication. My policy is pretty simple:

1. Yes, I am happy to look at books with an eye toward blurbing them.

2. Those blurb requests should come from the book’s editor/publisher, not from the writer him/herself.

For those of you not in the know, a “blurb” is the quote you’ll see on a book cover, recommending the book to you. The blurb is often by another author of similar work. For example, Old Man’s War has blurbs from Cory Doctorow, Ken MacLeod and Robert Charles Wilson. Their presence on the cover tells fans of those authors they might like this book, too. And it works, or at least it works on me, as I can remember more than one time where I’ve taken a chance on a book because I liked one of the authors who blurbed the book. I’m at the point now where I’m being asked to blurb books, which tickles me immensely, because it implies there are people who might base some of their buying equation on what I have to say. Whether that’s true or not, of course, is another story entirely, but I hope it is true, for the sake of the people who I might blurb.

The reason I want requests for book blurbs to come from editors and publishers is simple: The majority of the books I’m asked to blurb I don’t. The reason I don’t is usually because I don’t love the book enough to have my name attached to it (sometimes it’s because I haven’t had time to read the book before a blurbing deadline, but that’s the rarer explanation). Now: telling an editor or a publisher that a book didn’t work well enough for you to blurb it? Not a problem: Editors and publishers know you don’t get everyone you want to blurb a book to sign on. Telling an author you don’t like a book well enough to blurb it? Well, as long as you’re doing that, why not shoot their dog, too? I don’t want to be in a position where I have to tell someone, no, I won’t lend my name to your book, because it kind of makes me feel like a dick to have to say that. That’s why I prefer to have the process go through editors.

Now, maybe some folks see this as cowardice, and I think you can make an argument there. However, I think it would be more cowardly to give a positive blurb to a book I didn’t actually like just because I didn’t want to upset the author, and the fact is I am willing to be a dick if I need to be. After all, it is my name and my credibility, and I don’t want either to be watered down simply to be nice to someone. This is a particularly uncomfortable thing if the book is from someone you know and like — and whose other writing you might possibly also enjoy — and you have to tell your friend that, well, actually, you don’t want your name in little print on their back cover. That better be a strong friendship.

This is why I personally don’t ask anyone for blurbs, particularly writers with whom I am friendly — I pretty much leave it all up to Patrick Nielsen Hayden, my editor, to handle these things. The first I heard about Cory or Ken or Bob blurbing OMW was when PNH sent me a mock-up cover. It’s possible — nay, almost certain – that PNH sent the book to other people to blurb as well, and they said “uh, really, no.” I don’t know who these refuseniks are, and since it wouldn’t particularly do me any good to know, Patrick hasn’t gone out of his way to tell me who they might have been. I endorse this policy of blurb opacity completely, since I can’t be neurotic about what I don’t know (well, I suppose I could be, but then in addition to being neurotic I’d also be stupid).

Naturally I endorse the “let your editor handle all the blurb stuff” policy for every writer. If you really feel you must have a specific other author blurb your book, then you should mention it to your editor and then let them handle it and never pester them about it again. If the other author blurbs you, excellent. If not, you can decide that your editor, in his or her wisdom, decided that other writers were more desirable for marketing purposes, and who knows? It might even be true. It’s better for your sanity, anyway. Seriously, people, this is one of the few times “ignorance is bliss” actually has some relevance.

(And if you’re an editor, for God’s sake I hope you don’t tell your authors when some other writer has decided not to blurb them. “I asked your favorite writer to blurb your book, but he said reading it was like having a cat drag its claws across his eyeballs. So, yeah, we’re not going with that.” Send a nice length of rope with that message, why don’t you.)

If you’re an author and you actually feel strongly that you must ask me personally for a blurb, do so on the assumption that I’m probably going to decide not to blurb your book — because, as I said earlier, I’ve declined to blurb more books than I’ve agreed to blurb. If that’s going to bother you — and really, I don’t see why it wouldn’t — you should rethink asking me directly. Foist the job on your editor. That’s one of the things editors are for. And this way you won’t hate me. And, you know. I prefer people not hate me whenever possible.

Update, 2/15/07, 9:15am: Justine Larbalestier has some further thoughts on blurbing.

39 thoughts on “My Blurb Policy

  1. Let’s say Editor A worked for publishing house R.H., and Editor B worked for rival publishing house P.P. Could A go to B for one of B’s stable (harem?) of writers for a blurb for A’s writer?

  2. Djscman:

    Editors can ask whomever they want, as far as I know. I’ve been asked to blurb by editors from several houses. Also, as a general rule, authors don’t take kindly to being referred as harem members or horses.

  3. “It’s a dessert topping, AND a floor wax!”

    – John Scalzi

    I have no idea why that popped into my head. Excellent treatise John – thanks!

  4. You mean publishing is a business handled by professionals? Shocked. Shocked I am… oh, never mind. I’ve used up my allotment of snark for the day.

    And i’m voting for “Coffee Shop of Authors.” Just because of the wry grin it brings to my face when saying it out loud (and the closeness to “Little Shop of Horrors.”)

  5. Gee, thanks Steve! No I have that tune stuck in my head. In addition to insomnia.
    I hereby threaten danger most perilous on your favourite body parts!

  6. First of all, kudos on using the word “blurb” 30 times in a blog entry! According to MS WORD, that’s about 1 “blurb” for every 32 words. Impressive!

    Secondly, I couldn’t agree more with your policy. Although our fields are not exactly the same, they are quite similar in many ways (I work in tv). I always have everything go through my agent; pitches, offers, potential creative partnerships. I think maybe any time your product is closely tied to your emotions (actors, writers, and most artists), it’s best to let someone else deal with the conversations that could ultimately end up hurting feelings or ego. Sometimes it’s very hard to remember that business decisions are rarely made in consideration of emotions. When they are, somebody is probably risking losing money.

  7. It’s also why we in science have anonymous peer review for the primary literature. Scientists can get pretty tied up personally in their work and writing too. :)

  8. I would vote for “a submission of writers” but then again writers and authors are not the same thing. Some overlap.

    I was surprised that my editor (David Hartwell) is keeping the whole blurbing process hush, but now I know why. The only author I know who read RADIO FREEFALL is Neal Asher, because he told me.

  9. I was bemused by the verb ‘blurb’ in your post, and I kept remembering a quote from Calvin and Hobbes: “Verbing nouns wierds language.”

  10. Good for you not wanting to dilute your blurbage. Having read in the SFF field for years, I know there are authors that have never met a book they wouldn’t blurb, so I am glad you are not one of their number.

  11. I don’t think this has happened to you, but I’m curious: what would you think if your book were blurbed by someone whose work you intensely dislike?

  12. Ellen:

    “What would you think if your book were blurbed by someone whose work you intensely dislike?”

    I imagine I would think that they have remarkably good taste, regardless of their own inability to write their way out of a paper bag.

    On a more practical level, I can’t think of an author (in SF, anyway, which is relevant for blurbage) whose work offends me so much that I would be appalled to have a blurb from them. Nor do I suspect that my editor would solicit a blurb from someone whom he did not feel would put my book at a commercial disadvantage (regardless of the inherent quality of the author’s work).

  13. Blurbs work on me, too, except when someone’s dumb enough to say something like, “[This author] is the next [famous author's name].” I hate that shit. I can rationalize my reaction to some extent, but mostly it’s just a visceral disgust with how shallow and blatantly manipulative that type of blurb is, even as blurbs go.

  14. On blurbs working: I read my way through the entire decade of the 1980s, and well into the early 1990s, reading books favorably blurbed by writers whose own work I disliked–and avoiding books blurbed by writers whose work I loved. This may sound really odd, but it was amazingly reliable. I concluded that, left to their own devices, writers were impressed by, and therefore eager to blurb, the kind of thing they couldn’t write.

    Somewhere in the early to mid 1990s, the whole process of blurbing started to get more organized and scientific. And, okay, this makes things easier, but I think it was more fun the old way, when I picked up everything blurbed by [Joe Hack] and avoided everything blurbed by [Jane Writer-For-The-Ages].

  15. OK, so reading between the lines, here is my question: without mentioning names, have you ever refused to blurb someone’s book to their editor, and them pimped it here on The Whatever when it came out?

  16. What if you’re both the creator *and* the publisher? I self-publish graphic novels, and I was gonna actually send you a review copy of my new book for kicks.

  17. Blurbs are funny things; I read science-fiction for decades completely ignoring the blurbs on the assumption that they came from friends of the author who wanted to help sell books (I know too many authors and artists to be impressed by what one says about another).

    About ten years ago I was wandering through the Powell’s Books (largest book store on the North American continent and great fun to get lost in) store in the Portland airport looking for something to read on the plane, when I saw a copy of William Barton’s “The Transmigration of Souls.” The cover art and the title caught my eye; even though I’d never heard of the author, I picked it up and read a blurb that changed my notions of what blurbs are. It was by John Barnes, several of whose books I’d read in the last couple of years, and it read:

    “People think its dangerous to encounter a new idea, or an honest, open, strongly put exploration of an uncommon viewpoint, are going to be scared out of their fluffy-bunny minds by William Barton.”

    That piqued my interest enough to buy the book and read it right away. I had discovered a new author because of a blurb.

    The moral of this story is, don’t write blah blurbs like “this author’s latest book will enthrall you and change your life.” Instead, say something edgy such as “This book threatens the very foundations of Western Civilization. If there is such a thing as a Galactic Federation, seeing this book will make them send the largest fleet they can to obliterate Earth.”

  18. I don’t pay attention to blurbs at all. I can’t tell which author is being sincere from who is just promotional back-slapping. Not to mention the blurb from Famous Author A given for a book written in 1990 and subsequently used on every book since.

    I can trust your blurb though, Scalzi. Too bad I don’t read SF.

  19. It seems I have been laboring under a misapprehension for many years. I thought blurbs were those plot summaries you find on the back, front flap, or first page. Things like:

    “In this riveting novel of intergalactic suspense, hideous aliens invade the Earth in search of women, and no sheep is safe! Can a diplomat, a dead man, and a computer hacker save Earth from destruction?”

    So what is the name for these?

    Also I’d like to complain about books which only have blurbs from other authors and nothing else, so that you know that all these people like the book, but have no idea what it is about. It could be about golf, or cats, or Nazis, or 13th century Sicily.

  20. I’m not sure it’s wise to post this here and I’m sure I’ll get trounced by your many fans, but…

    Wouldn’t sending them an explanation of your policy personally be more professional than posting them here? I suppose a short, simple post explaining your policy would suffice for turning away future potential submitters. What about the people who have already sent you requests? After reading this, I was left with the feeling that those people unfortunate and desperate enough to have already gone out on a limb and ask for a blurb feel like idiots now and that their work wasn’t good enough to be reviewed.

    Don’t get me wrong, if I was in your position, I think I would adopt a similar policy. I would simply try to walk a mile in their shoes and politely explain my policy to them — in private — and not trounce them in a public forum.

  21. Eric:

    “Wouldn’t sending them an explanation of your policy personally be more professional than posting them here?”

    Not really. Here I only have to write it once, and then if I get asked, I’ll refer them to the piece. Saves me time and aggravation, and this way they’ll know it’s not personal.

    Also, you appear to be making the assumption that I am responding publicly to a private request for a blurb. This is not the case. I was asked what my blurbing policy is by someone else, who is not soliciting a blurb from me.

    Also, I’m not sure why you think you’d get trounced on by my fans for asking a perfectly reasonable question. Are you under the impression my fans are irrational monkeys or something?

  22. Hey Mr. Scalzi; I like you, your blog, and your books very much but I also want to say I HATE BOOK BLURBS. I hate ‘em. As if cost weren’t enough of a reason, I prefer paperbacks because they have synopses on the back rather than a slate of blurbs. (Or, mother help me, a glamor head-shot of the author). Why can’t hardcovers have those too? (And you’d be amazed how many dust jackets have nothing but MORE BLURBS on the inside flap).

    I’m a product of Wikipedia and Youtube, John, I don’t CARE what other authors think of you: If I want community opinion, I can read the comments on Amazon. But when I’m out and about in the physical world looking that physical books in a physical bookstore (and you’d better be happy I still do THAT), I want to know what a book’s about before I buy it.

  23. I agree with those who hate blurbs. I hate them so much that too many blurbs (like, more than one or two) on the cover or inside flaps will turn me off of the book. I go out of my way to buy copies of books that don’t have blurbs prominently displayed on them.

    I think they annoy me for a couple reasons. First, I really prefer, you know, actually finding out what the book is about, and blurbs rarely do that. Secondly, I have a strong aversion to being told to like (or dislike) something, and blurbs play right into that. I want to make up my own mind, dammit, and I read books because the summary (and first few pages) look interesting, not because Author X likes it.

  24. Justine Larbalestier, “Monkeys . . .”

    Monkeys?! Why (the text following this word was performed at such a high pitch the recording device could not capture any sensible text, when in playback mode, birds took flight, wildebeests began their migration a month early, and female humpback whales began lactating, we pick up the diatribe once intelligible human speech resumed). And that’s why, if it weren’t for the fans of Scalzi, the world would be facing imminent destruction by invading zombie unicorns. Monkeys indeed.

    (/mode=”crazy screechy monkey”)

    :)

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