“Dear Dead Author” and Better Ways of Getting Blurbs

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November 2012
by Tad Crawford

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As the head of Allworth Press for 23 years and as the author of 14 nonfiction books, I often saw how important it is to gather blurbs for a new book. I know they lend credibility and may also help identify and connect to the audience for a book. I also know the time to start thinking about them is early in the publication process.

This year, I had my first experience asking for blurbs for fiction, and the fiction was my own debut novel, A Floating Life. Ideally, a novelist will be able to get famous novelists to give their approval to a new title through the affirmation of blurbs. However, I didn’t personally know famous novelists to ask.

Also ideally, famous novelists who provide blurbs will write fiction somewhat similar to the novel to be given the blurbs. A Floating Life is a surreal urban fantasy that doesn’t immediately call to mind the writing of any well-known authors, at least not living authors. Kafka and Beckett would certainly have been appropriate, and I played with the idea of writing to them.

My letter to Franz Kafka, I decided, would include: “A Floating Life is filled with images that surprise and disorient, such as a litigious dachshund, a job interview in a steam room with a one-eyed seven-foot-tall chef, and the nameless narrator’s breastfeeding of the baby he has birthed. Without comparing those images to such superlative renderings as waking one day as a giant cockroach or a sword in the uplifted hand of liberty, I believe A Floating Life will give pleasure to those who love your books.”

And the letter I imagined sending Samuel Beckett said in part that my novel’s narrator and his companions “are trapped by the perils of escape and a formidable bond of love, but is that so different from being trapped by giant urns, taped words from the past, or endless waiting?”

 

Approaching Live Authors

In the real world, I learned from experience that sending advance review copies (ARCs) to authors you have no connection with is pretty much wasting books. So I asked myself who among the people I knew might know the appropriate authors for my novel.

Finding a good go-between creates the possibility of success but no guarantee. For example, a friend knew a very famous author and wrote to ask if he would consider giving a blurb. He replied that he no longer gives blurbs to anyone. I found a very successful novel that I loved and managed to locate an intermediary who knew the author. However, he too was not giving blurbs to anyone.

Finally, with help from my publisher, I managed to gather suitable blurbs for the back cover. Whether I made the overture to the author or it was made by a friend, it was important that the letter be personalized and indicate why that author’s oeuvre made him or her suitable to give a blurb for A Floating Life. Insofar as the authors who gave the blurbs didn’t write books similar in sensibility to my own, at least their blurbs were glowing and identified the qualities worth valuing in the novel. It would have been even better, of course, if the readership of these authors had been the likely readership for A Floating Life.

Certainly this particular experience suggests the value of starting the quest for blurbs as early as possible. The practicality of that may vary. On one hand, most authors likely to give blurbs expect to receive ARCs, and ARCs aren’t usually available until a book is close to going on press. On the other hand, not everyone insists on reading ARCs. Particularly when the author is closely connected to the person giving the blurb, it may be possible to offer a manuscript.

 

Seeking Praise for Nonfiction

In my experience, blurbs for nonfiction are easier to obtain than blurbs for fiction. Often, nonfiction authors know a lot of colleagues in the field in which they write. For example, when I wrote Legal Guide for the Visual Artist and The Writer’s Legal Guide, I knew many people whom it would be appropriate to ask for blurbs. Also, the universe of people who might give blurbs was relatively large, since it included not just authors but also heads of organizations, other professionals, successful artists, and magazine and journal publishers. For some nonfiction, corporate spokespeople are appropriate as sources of blurbs as well.

My book The Secret Life of Money was more of a challenge. Using Jungian psychology, economic history, folk tales, and stories about money to reveal our secret feelings about debt, spending, inheritance, the stock market, and related issues, it didn’t match up easily with the work of other authors.

A long endorsement process ensued, starting with a list of people from a variety of fields who might give blurbs. Still, it was easier than finding authors to give blurbs for my novel, because an unusual book about money is at least about a topic familiar to everyone. So in the end, it was possible to gather good blurbs for the book from authors with widely divergent interests that fell under the larger topic of understanding money and its uses (and abuses).

Once a book is published and reviewed, blurbs can, of course, be bolstered by reviews that give further credibility to the book.

But blurbs are important at the beginning of a book’s life and from then on, so it’s worth brainstorming early in the publishing process about how you will get strong blurbs for each title. In fact, in some cases you might consider the potential strength of the blurbs even before you sign a book, because the blurbs are part of the author’s platform. They indicate the author’s ability to sell books through reputation, traditional promotional techniques, a Website, social media, and personal contacts with bulk buyers.

The sooner you as the publisher can be certain that blurbs will help support a book, the more confidently you can go forward to other aspects of your marketing program.


Tad Crawford is “an utterly fearless writer,” Howard Frank Mosher said in his blurb for Crawford’s most recent book, the novel A Floating Life (Arcade Publishing). The founder and publisher of Allworth Press, now an imprint of Skyhorse Publishing, Tad Crawford is currently active on Facebook and Twitter.

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