Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Book blurbs

Lately I've been thinking a lot about blurbs as I've collected a couple for my next book of poems and advised a friend on obtaining some for his. In seeking blurbs, I've encountered unexpected (while hoped for) generosity and earnestness. For my pamphlet/chapbook Subterfuge for the Unrequitable (Potes & Poets, 1998), I approached via email two poets I'd never met or had previous contact with, Cole Swensen and Ron Silliman. I'd admired Swensen's work for years and was delighted when she provided a lovely blurb. With Silliman, I only had the virtue, by way of introduction, of bringing out the pamphlet with a publisher who had also produced some of his own works (and he's had quite a few publishers over the years), and yet he too kindly gave me a blurb for my pamphlet. 

The blurbs did more than provide the pamphlet with something to put on the back cover and perhaps persuade a few people to buy it. They heartened me greatly. Indeed, to this day rereading their remarks encourages me. 

I had a similar experience with my first full collection, The Tethers (Seren, 2009), approaching Robert Crawford, whom I'd only met briefly at a conference, and Rosanna Warren, whom I'd never met but whose work had influenced my aesthetic since I was introduced as an undergrad to her work.

I understand some poets are bombarded by so many requests for blurbs that they have had to set down rules: they don't do blurbs for students or they only do blurbs for students; they only do them for people they know personally; etc. I feel grateful to all those poets who make time to comment conscientiously on a younger or less established poet's work and thus help it find a readership. My thanks go out to them all.

8 comments:

  1. I think on the whole it’s the publisher’s rather than than author’s job to ask for quotes from other authors. This depersonalises the situation. Yet I always feel awkward when asking: I feel I’m putting the person I’m asking under an obligation, which I don’t want them to feel. At the top end there’s certainly a dodginess to the whole practice (I’ve seen letters going out from a mainstream publisher actually suggesting what the author being asked might write). I’ve known authors who do not want a quote from X or Y, because they blurb ‘everyone’, so it becomes meaningless. So I respect authors who have a rule about not blurbing at all (just as I also respect reviewers who have a rule about not reviewing the books of their friends). But ideally, if A really does like the writing of B, asking A for a quote is enabling them to express their admiration and encouragement in a very practical and helpful way, and they are pleased to it.

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    1. Thanks for your comment, Charles. I guess I assumed I was responsible for garnering the blurbs as that's what I'd always heard was done and none of my publishers ever volunteered to go after them. Perhaps, too, I wanted particular people who probably wouldn't have occurred to my publishers.

      I've heard instances of the dodgy side of blurbing and experienced a little myself, with one poet who told me she didn't do blurbs then appearing on others' books thereafter--but those may have been at the instigation of the publisher; I don't know.

      Regarding what you say about respecting "reviewers who have a rule about not reviewing the books of the friends" (I myself have such a policy), I'd be interested in your thoughts about reviewers who do review the books of their friends.

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  2. Oh, the reviewing-books-by-friends thing. It's hard. There are little pockets of the lit scene in which everyone seems to know everyone else, so it's always cropping up. (See, for example, the Private Eye comments on the current Forward shortlist. Always the judges on these things will know personally some of the writers whose work they are judging.) And how to define 'friend' – inclusive of people you work with, have taught, have enjoyed a couple of drinks with? I don't think it's always a no-no.

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    1. Interesting--belated thanks!

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  3. Interesting! I was very lucky with blurbs for my books and didn't have to fish around too much. I sent off a couple of hopeful letters to writers I admired and voilĂ ! Like you, I was moved by the kindness and feel uplifted to reread their comments. My publisher is small and timestrapped so I was quite happy to go out foraging myself. Best, Catherine

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    1. Thanks for sharing, Catherine! That's all good to hear.

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  4. There IS a danger of appearing on too many back covers and thus no longer being taken seriously. These days I only do blurbs for poets whose work I already know I really like, In the nature of things, many of those are friends and/or ex-students and I don't see why one should refuse on those grounds - I know some of those books really well and feel better qualified to write on them than on something I don't know and have read purely for the purpose of reviewing it. Conversely, I won't usually agree to blurb someone who's totally new to me because it'd just be too embarrassing if it turned out to be something I didn't like enough. (I'll review books I am averse or indifferent to, but honestly, and I can't write a dishonest blurb either). Besides, if you take it sriously, which I do, it's a lot of work. I wouldn't write a blurb without reading the collection at least twice, carefully, and I'd rather do that for someone I know. When I do write them, however, I rather enjoy it; it's fun trying to make up soundbites.

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    1. Thanks, Sheenagh--I appreciate reading your views.

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