Friday, September 29, 2006

Cover Blurbs

I'm past the halfway point on revisions, but in a phone conversation with Mom this morning I came up with a killer idea that adds a whole new layer to everything and makes it all make even more sense. I don't think it will take much reworking of stuff I've already gone over, but it is going to take some work. It might also be a little risky, but by now, I hope y'all trust me to know what I'm doing, even if it seems a little odd.

Meanwhile, I've been reading manuscripts for blurbs. By "blurb," I mean that quote on the cover of a book or on the first few pages that goes something like "Best book ever! I laughed! I cried! Read it now! -- Bigname Bestselling Author." My agent's been blogging about the issue this week as I've been reading, so it's on my mind. I've got a varied perspective on the topic as a reader, as someone who has asked for blurbs and now as someone who is asked for blurbs.

I noticed that a lot of comments at my agent's blog said they don't consider blurbs at all when buying a book. My experience has been that my eye might be drawn to a familiar name on a book cover that leads me to at least look at a book. Or if I'm on the fence, an endorsement from an author I like might help me make a final decision about trying a book. It's especially helpful for cross-genre works that I'm not sure about if there are quotes from authors I like in both of the mixed genres. Sometimes, the author quotes merely do a better job of describing what's special about a book than the cover copy does, regardless of who the quoted author is.

As an author looking for blurbs, it's an experience almost guaranteed to send you over the edge into insanity and insecurity. With Enchanted, Inc., I did all kinds of research to try to determine the authors I thought would have the readership most likely to match mine. My editor sent out a number of books to these authors. We were only able to get two blurbs, one from an author who's a personal friend of mine and another from an author my editor had worked with before. That had me absolutely panic stricken before the release of that book because I was sure it meant all those people had read the book and didn't want their names associated with it. I was afraid that meant readers would hate it, too, and my career was doomed. It was easier with Once Upon Stilettos, since the authors who gave blurbs had actually contacted my editor about loving the previous book, and they then were eager to get a look at the next book. I guess it's about the time I should be thinking about finding people to blurb Damsel Under Stress, and I'm at the point of just not wanting to deal with it. By now, I've got tons of good review quotes and an established readership. Will an endorsement blurb really do me much good? I'm sure I could get a number of people in the fantasy and paranormal romance arenas, but chick lit authors have proven very unresponsive to blurb requests in the past, and that's the audience I need to reach out to more. Heck, I even got turned down by one whose name is on almost every chick lit book, and she's someone I know personally! (And thus the insecurity, though supposedly it was a deadline issue.)

So, here I am getting requests to blurb other people's books, and that's made me a little less insecure because seeing things from this perspective shows me that there's a lot that goes into the decision. Giving or not giving a blurb may not have much to do with how good a book is. There are a lot of other factors at work. One of those is what the blurbing author gets out of it. Yeah, there's some pay-it-forward stuff at work, helping others the way other authors helped us, plus it's cool to help promote something you really believe in, but there's also the fact that giving an endorsement blurb is a lot like buying advertising space on someone else's book, especially when you're someone like me with a small but devoted fan base who's moving gradually from the bottom of the midlist to the middle of the midlist. Yeah, there are a few thousand people out there who might see my name as a reason to pick up a book, but there are a lot more people out there who've never heard of me who might be exposed to my name by seeing it on another book, especially if the book is by a hot new author who's going to be more heavily promoted than I am, or if it's an author's likely "breakout" book that's going to get a big push.

That's when you have to think like an advertiser and consider whether or not the book in question fits your "brand." Are your target readers likely to find this book appealing -- or might they be turned off by it? Think of TV ads and how the products are associated with the content of the series and with the demographics the series draws. I doubt there were too many airline ads aired during the pilot for Lost, which prominently featured a plane breaking apart in mid-air. That's not subject matter an airline would want to have associated with its brand. You're also not likely to find the various Disney princess DVDs advertised during something gritty, dark and adult like Battlestar Galactica. I'm very conscious of the subject matter of the books I blurb, since my books are cross-marketed to the young adult audience and I get lots of e-mails from people talking about sharing these books with their daughters and granddaughters. I feel like it would be sending mixed messages for me to have my name as an endorsement on something that's got NC-17 content. That doesn't mean I don't like or enjoy more adult stuff as a reader (though I'm really not a fan of the steamier erotic books) or that I don't think any of my readers might enjoy it, but it does mean that's not my brand identity, and I'm not going to do something that confuses my brand identity.

Another thing that came up in comments on my agent's blog was the suspicion that the author blurbs are like qotes from movie reviews that show up in ads, where they pull out the good stuff to use. If an author doesn't like a book, he or she won't provide a blurb, and it won't be used on the book. It doesn't work at all like the way reviews are used. If an author responds to a blurb request by saying, "This book stinks to high heaven!" you won't see a quote from that author on the cover saying, "Heaven!" In fact, I've had publishers ask my permission to change or remove one word in a blurb I've given so it will better fit in the space they have. I've even had a blurb I gave rejected. The one I sent was probably pretty generic. I could have told you in a conversation what I liked about the book, but I was at a loss for putting it in a few pithy words. They asked if I could come up with something a little more enthusiastic. At the time I was fighting a lingering case of bronchitis that was probably on its way to becoming pneumonia, and the constant coughing was keeping me from getting any sleep. The only things I could get enthusiastic about were breathing and sleeping. I guess if I'd really been wowed by the book I might have been able to come up with something, but the way I was feeling, the manuscript could have been delivered by angels, and it could have shone with a glory so bright I had to wear shades to read it, and the most I could have mustered would have been, "A really cute book." As a result, my name didn't go anywhere on that cover.

Now, there are some reputed "blurb sluts" whose name is on the cover of every book ever printed. Some of those may be genuinely nice people who like helping others and who do read everything they endorse, but there are also a few who are known for giving a quote based on a summary or a few pages without reading the whole book. As a reader, you start to recognize the names you see all the time, and they cease to have much meaning. I'd also be less inclined to trust a blurb from a relatively new author because it's so overwhelmingly exciting just to be asked when you still feel new and insignificant that I probably would have given a quote for any book that didn't make me physically ill (though there are very specific things that linger in my mind as special from the first books I blurbed, so I doubt I'd change anything even now).

One other thing to be aware of is that the author giving the blurb may not have had the same reading experience you'll get. The author probably isn't reading the final version of the book. The book is most likely in manuscript form and hasn't gone through final copy edits or proofreading. That could mean that if the author was able to overlook any errors or clumsy wording to be able to endorse it, the final book is even better, but I know I tend to automatically think of something in manuscript form as something that will likely be improved, so I might cut it more slack. There are things I can accept in a manuscript that would bother me in a typeset book I'd bought. And that's another thing -- you might have different expectations of a book you paid for than you have of a book that someone sends you for free.

Now that it's become less of a rare thing for me to be asked for a blurb, here's my pledge to you, my readers: If you see my name on the cover of a book, you can be assured that I have read the whole thing. I treat an endorsement blurb as the next best thing to me standing in a bookstore and telling everyone who looks at my books to give this book a try. I take it very seriously as a responsibility to my readers. While I may endorse books that are a little more adult in content than some of my books are, I probably won't veer too far away, since my tastes run to the sweet side. I would hope that readers would have the sense to be able to tell from the book's packaging and shelving if this is something suitable for a younger teen or pre-teen. I try not to steer someone horribly wrong, but it's not up to me to decide what's suitable for your kids to read.

Because I do take this so seriously and will be very selective about what I choose to blurb, I prefer to only take blurb requests through my editor or agent or through the other author's editor or agent rather than directly from the author. It's a lot easier to tell an editor or agent "I'm sorry, but this isn't for me" than it is to say that directly to an author, and it's still really, really hard to make myself do (and then I worry that I'm making a powerful enemy for life who will blackball all my books in the future). If I had to say it directly to an author, I'd probably just go into hiding. The exception might be if the author is someone whose work I already know who's also a personal friend. Then I know up front if I'm probably going to like the new book, and I feel more comfortable saying something like, "You know I love you, but hello, your character had a threesome with an otter in chapter three! I can't blurb that when my books are sold to teenagers! I don't care if it's funny and has magic in it. And seriously, do you really fantasize about otters?" I'd also hope a friend wouldn't then get pissed off at me and then immediately start a "Boycott Shanna Swendson" web site if I didn't give her a blurb. When I get requests directly from authors I don't know personally (and that means more than just being on the same e-mail group), my response is usually that I'm on deadline and too busy.

And now I have to get to work on my book, since this is a big night of Dr. Who!

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