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Monday, April 16, 2001

American Gods Blog, Post 36

The whole process of getting and giving blurbs is an odd one.

(Minor side note. If memory serves, BLURB as a word was created by American humorist Gelett Burgess (who also wrote the 'Purple Cow' poem). It means, basically, the puff stuff on the back of a book that tells you you ought to read it. The other word Gelett Burgess tried to introduce was "huzzlecoo" meaning, I think, to schmooze. It failed to catch on.)

I've met people who assumed that the whole blurb-giving process was one that authors were paid to do. Not so.

Generally blurbs mean one of two things; either the person giving the blurb really liked the book, or that complex networks of favour and obligation have been called into play.

It's seldom simple logrolling -- normally the reason why two authors say nice things about each other's stuff is that they like each other's stuff. But the process of getting something read, and of getting a quote can mean anything. It could mean that you have the same editor or agent or film producer as the book author, and they pressed you to read it. It could mean that the author is somone who did you a good turn once. And normally the favour is in getting the book read -- anything after that depends mostly on whether or not the reader liked the book.

A very few blurbs make a difference. Clive Barker's career was given a huge leg up by Stephen King's "I have seen the future of horror and it is Clive Barker" , and I think Sandman was given a huger boost than I ever realised from the Norman Mailer quote (although, oddly enough, DC has never run that on anything except SEASON OF MISTS). I doubt that they actually changed anything for either of us; they might have sped up processes that would have happened anyway, though.

Most of them probably don't do a thing. But in book publishing (as with movies) nobody knows anything. So they put them on the book jackets anyway and they hope.

Most successful authors could make a life's profession simply reading books and giving blurbs -- in any given week I get two or three books arriving with nice pleas from editors to read their book and say nice things about it. Also I get a couple of things from authors.

As to what I blurb... It depends a lot on what gets read, what I have time to read, whether it's something portable and booksized or a huge heap of paper, sometimes even if there's anything I have to say after reading something. It also depends a lot on whether or not I liked it once I have read it, if I did read it.

Sometimes I wind up reading something long after it's come out in paperback and just feeling faintly guilty, especially if I did like it a lot. But there is only so much time, and there's stuff I buy to read I never get time to settle down with...

It is good blurb etiquette, as an author, to say, if you cannot give a blurb, "I am sorry, I am too busy." This could mean that you are too busy to look at it, or that you looked at it and wish you hadn't.

It is not good blurb etiquette to do as an unnamed comics genius -- oh, what the hell, it was R. Crumb -- did when sent a reading copy of GOOD OMENS, over a decade ago, which is to write a several page letter to the publisher telling them not only how much you hated it but also imploring them not to publish it. (Or so my editor said. She didn't send me the letter, which I thought a pity, nor did she run it on the back cover, which I thought might have been fun.)

It is good blurb etiquette if you're hoping someone will blurb your book to send it to them (or have your editor send it to them) and then not to bug them, unless you're heading for the deadline and you want to politely point out to them that unless you get a blurb from them soon it won't be used even if they did like it.

It's lousy blurb etiquette to bug an author. Saying things like "Well, why don't you read a chapter and if that's okay write something nice -- one chapter, one lousy solitary chapter, is that asking so much?," and "Hey, no problem, if you're that busy I'll write the blurb, you can just put your name to it" are not usually ways to endear yourself to an author. (And yes, I've had both of them, and yes, I said no thank you.)

Because you're asking for two things -- you're asking for time, and you're asking for some kind of endorsement. Mostly in an attempt to try and tell people what kind of book something is, in a kind of abbreviated word of mouth -- "Gee. Maurice X. Boggs thinks this is an amazing book and Maurice X. Boggs is my favourite author, I should pick it up". This works best, I think, as a kind of positioning -- Stephen King tends mostly to give blurbs to things that adjectives like "Gripping. Relentless" can be applied to. He might enjoy reading a heartwarming novel about a funny skunk named Zonko and how he melts the heart of a crusty old widower... but publishers are unlikely to send him that book with a begging letter asking him to read it and to say something nice about it.

Some authors stop giving blurbs. Every now and again, I stop doing blurbs, and every now and again I stop writing introductions. (And last year I was extremely unimpressed when a blurb I had written was actually printed by someone as an introduction.) The hiatus lasts for a year or two, and then I feel guilty or someone asks me at the right time, and I relent.

Some authors don't relent. Harlan Ellison stopped doing blurbs years ago. If publishers start dunning him for blurbs he lets them know how much he charges by the hour as a readers fee to read the books, and makes sure they understand that there is no guarantee at the end of the reading he will feel moved to say anything at all, and in fact, he probably won't. I don't think any publishers have taken him up on this, which means that Harlan, as he takes great pleasure in telling people, doesn't give blurbs.

There are other problems with the whole blurb thing....

Once I was given a book by an editor I liked, by an author I liked. it was the editor's first major book. It was the author's first book in some years. It was a big deal for both of them. I didn't like the book. I wanted to, but I didn't. But I didn't want to let them down. So I wrote "When Thaddeus Q. Bliggins (not his real name) is writing at his best there's no-one in the field that can touch him" and felt that honour was satisfied.

My favourite how to blurb a book you don't like story was one my agent told me, about a writer she had at the start of her career, who was a good friend of A Famous Author, and was confident of his ability to get a blurb for his book -- and certain that with a blurb from a famous author his manuscript would immediately be snapped up by a publisher after a franzied auction. He handed over the manuscript to his friend, and the blurb came in. It was short, effective, enthusiastic... and entirely unusable, this being the early 80s, and the blurb being entirely composed of profanities, as enthusiastic as they were obscene. The book was never published.

For AMERICAN GODS, the books for blurbs went out to a fairly select band. Authors I thought would like it or respond to it who somehow seemed to map onto parts of the book.

For some of them I wrote personal notes to go with them. Partly because I know I respond well to notes from the author, and partly because it was fun to say some hellos. (In a couple of cases I even got to cheat and write a fan letter, or an "I've not seen you for ten years -- howthefuckareyou?" letter). For some I didn't. For a few people I sent e-mails. The others went out from Jennifer Hershey, my editor, or Jack Womack, the book's publicist at harpercollins (and a wonderful author in his own right).

And, as you've already seen if you're reading this journal, blurbs came in -- most of them accompanied by letters saying that they really really liked the book (just in case I was worried that they were only saying nice things about it from a sense of duty).

As the deadline for the book jacket to be finalised approached, we made a few calls to remind people. (I phoned Terry Gilliam, mostly because I like talking to Terry Gilliam, to discover that he was on holiday for two weeks somewhere far away from a telephone. So no luck there.)

(A minor anecdotal interruption here: in 1989 Gollancz sent Terry Gilliam a copy of Good Omens for a blurb. Somewhere the letter and the book got separated and Terry read the book assuming it was something he'd been sent as a possible movie... and now, twelve years later, he's gone on holiday having just finished the second draft of the Good Omens movie script. Proving that the world is an odd place, but not unpleasant.)

The blurb deadline has pretty much, I think, come and gone on American Gods -- if people say nice things about it now we can use it in the advertising, but they may have to wait for the paperback until people know that they liked it. However, one that I'll really try to get onto the hardback cover arrived out of the blue today, entirely unsolicited. Not just unsolicited but accompanied by a phone call reminding me that the party in question does not give blurbs.

"Gaiman's new novel walked in the door on Friday afternoon. By Saturday
evening I had eaten it in one gulp. AMERICAN GODS: alarming, charming,
even winsome; Gaiman: serially inventive, surprising, purely remarkable.
And, oh, is it well-written."

Harlan Ellison
16 April 2001

...........................................................................................................................

I signed the sheets of paper for the limited edition from the box of 750 sheets. I signed and I signed. Eventually I asked my poor assistant if she wouldn't mind counting them, because I was sure I'd signed a lot more than 750 sheets. Turns out the box contained 2,500 of the things. Mostly I'm just signing them. Sometimes I'm drawing eyes, too. Very occasionally I've started doodling and drawing, mostly so far drawings of a very crusty Uncle Sam. And most of the time I'm using other colour inks than black, so that the people who pick them up don't go "Oh, they just print those signatures". They don't. It's me.

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