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.