[PATH TO PUBLICATION] Lessons from Requesting Blurbs

In May, I posted about my author headshot misadventures. I had fun writing that. What I didn’t reveal then was how playing with that humorous piece helped me face the the next terror of the publishing process: requesting blurbs.

Over the years, I've picked up on some widespread cynicism about blurbing. Many authors hate writing them. And readers often assume blurbers are just buddies, teachers, or lovers whose endorsements can’t be trusted. I don’t have a wide circle of writing contacts. I didn’t get an MFA, am mostly self-taught, and have only attended a few writing workshops (where, just for the record, I have not taken any blurbing lovers). But I also knew there were blurbers like Gary Shteyngart, who made the form into an art. Then, around the time I had to begin asking for blurbs, I read this from Shteyngart in The New Yorker:

Dear Everyone,

During the past ten years, it has been my pleasure and honor to blurb over a hundred and fifty books. It is with deep sadness that I announce that the volume of requests has exceeded my abilities, and I will be throwing my “blurbing pen” into the Hudson River during a future ceremony, time and place to be determined....

I wondered how many others suffered from blurb fatigue, eager to join Shteyngart in a mass throwing of pens into rivers. Still, I made a dream list of celebrity authors who share the concerns of my book (women, South Asia, pregnancy and motherhood, nuanced portrayals of political unrest). Then I made a more realistic list of various authors with whom I had some connection, however tenuous. My editor at Seal Press gently nudged aside my shoot-for-the-stars list and helped me focus in on the other. She also provided some boilerplate language for making the request, which made the task seem more doable. I was simply providing an opportunity for someone to read a galley and to return a brief quote only if they were moved to do so.

I pushed down my fears and crafted e-mails that highlighted the personal connections I had with individuals. I revised for brevity, proofread several times, then sent them on their way.

I waited to see who would would respond. Every time the anticipation of rejection surfaced (about every three seconds), I told myself not to be attached to any particular outcome. But I never got a clear rejection from anyone, just silence from a few. I pictured myself in the non-responders’ shoes: busy winding up teaching terms, evaluating student papers, launching their own books, receiving an impossible number of blurb requests in their in-boxes every week. That empathy helped. I wanted to continue seeing those non-responders as the writers I admire, not those who ignored my blurb requests.

Mostly though, I turned my attention to the wonderful authors who did respond. My first reaction: What? This person actually wants to read my book? How is that possible? Somehow, I found it easier to understand the non-responders. Then I had to wonder at my myself. And with that, I began to see how blurbing might provide more than a public endorsement of a book. At its best, the process can also help an nervous author like myself tap into a stream of enthusiasm and support months before publication.

My editor sent out both print and e-galleys. But we needed to cast a wider net, so she asked a few other Seal Press authors, who agreed. Meanwhile, I decided to act on some unexpected contacts I'd made through social media, especially Twitter, and found more willing readers. The lesson (especially for those who mock social media): don’t underestimate the power of any connection.

As the blurbs trickled in, my fears and cynicism gave way to an overwhelming feeling of gratitude to those who took the time to read my creation and write such thoughtful blurbs. I love how all the blurbs taken together form an insightful picture of what the book is about and the appeal it might have for diverse readers. I've posted the results on my website.

What has your experience been with blurbs: fearing them, asking for them, mistrusting them, writing them for others?

Elizabeth Enslin is the author of While the Gods Were Sleeping: A Journey Through Love and Rebellion in Nepal (Seal Press, October 2014) which won the 2013 She Writes to Seal Press Publishing Contract Contest.

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  • Elizabeth Enslin

    Thanks for your comment, Patricia. I'm wondering if you meant it to be on this recent post: [Path to Publication] That Awkward Promotion Phase.

    I am grateful that my publisher and everyone I've talked to about publishing has made it clear that I'd have to be very involved in promotion. I think it's so much the norm now that I went in expecting all that. It must have been harder when things were still in transition. And yes, you are right to direct the focus to all that our books can give to the world. It can be hard to remember that when we're in the thick on the little details. Onward with the mission!

  • patricia harman

      About promoting your books.  When I had my first book published I had no clue that so much promotion was going to be necessary.  If you self publish you have only yourself, or a PR person if you can afford to employ one.  If you have a publisher, they only promote you for a few months and then they are off to the new publications and you are on your own.  I have had great experiences with my publishers, Beacon and HarperCollins, but I still had to put out the energy.  Here's how to think of it.  You aren't there just for your books.  You are there with a message...whatever it is.  You are there for your readers, to give encouragement.  You are there for other writers, to help them on their way.  You are there for the many independent book stores that are struggling.  In my case, I've become a spokesperson for midwifery and for empowering women.  Don't feel icky.  We have a mission!  

    Patricia Harman CNM, author of The Blue Cotton Gown, Arms Wide Open and the latest, The Midwife of Hope River

  • Elizabeth Enslin

    Thanks, all. It's refreshing to know others had have positive experiences with requesting and giving blurbs. It's so easy to become cynical about many aspects of publishing. I've been pleasantly surprised (or maybe just lucky) to keep falling in with those who find the creative and supportive angles.

    Any other perspectives on blurbing?

  • Fun subject, Elizabeth, I'm fairly new to the topic--just wrote my first blurb, and asked for my first set. I can see both sides--but as a poet, hands down, I took writing that blurb as a beautiful opportunity, almost like crafting  haiku, to write with brevity and clarity in order to capture the core of the book in question. I enjoyed it immensely. For my poetry book, I drew on connections forged at retreats and in person--two are poets, and one is a novelist I share content cross-over with, and all three were extremely gracious and kind. All of us lead such busy lives, but how beautiful that we can stop long enough to support one another's work this way.

  • Rita Gardner

    Elizabeth, thanks for your post on blurbs. I too, experienced the "terror of the ask." But...I did my best to send requests that were true to me and not too fawning (especially to authors I respected and wanted badly for them to say "YES of course!") In one case, the writer I really, really wanted to blurb my book turned me down due to time issues (Julia Alvarez is a Dominican author with a slew of novels and memoir (my book is set in the Dominican Republic in the same era as when she was there.) One of her books, "In the Time of the Butterflies" was even made into a TV movie that showed on PBS awhile back.  Anyway - I thanked her and offered to send her a copy of the book, no strings attached - just noting I thought she'd enjoy it some day, when time permitted. She said yes. About a month later, I started receiving long emails from her with her reaction to the book - and shortly thereafter - a wonderful endorsement. So it was not expected!  I also was grateful for a few of the authors who--while saying no--took time to send personal notes and anecdotes of what they were going through that made it impossible to say yes. Some were quite humorous. The good news is I did get enough blurbs, and relaxed enough to enjoy the rejections!