Friday, July 1, 2011

Blurbs for Sale?

Here's the latest: Amazon has their own imprint that's geared toward publishing previously self-published books that have sold well. They're asking published authors to write reviews of these books -- blurbs from those reviews will also be used for promotion at Amazon's discretion -- and, in exchange, the blurber is offered extra promotion of their work on Amazon. The full story is here.

I balked at this immediately. It feels wrong -- getting paid for something that should be above payment? I mean, if we started paying blurbers, where would it end? How much would a blurb from a National Book Award winner go for? How about an author who'd only made it to the final round? Yes, I know that it's not actual dollars that Amazon is offering but the offers do likely have a dollar value. And once word is out that endorsements can be bought in the literary world then what do blurbs mean to readers?

But then I argued with myself -- well, blurbers have always gotten an extra promotion for their own work when they blurb -- their name and the name of their recent book goes on the back of that book. And yet, let's be honest; no author really thinks this small mention is going to sell a bunch of copies of their book.

In many cases, I give blurbs because people took a chance on me -- once upon a time -- when they didn't know me at all and were willing to take a look at my work. I feel obliged to pay that forward. (In fact, I know one very famous poet who has a blurbing policy of only blurbing first-time authors' collections.) And then there was a former professor who helped and a friend of a friend, here and there, and now I've dwelt in this community for so long that many more people are friends or friends of friends. And I enjoy reading people's books -- why not read them early, when there's some way to help? Still, the vast majority of blurbs that I ask for are from those whose work I admire but have never met. And I really and truly and deeply respect bestselling, critically acclaimed authors who still blurb many books a year. Many don't -- in that world of friends of friends, it gets too personal; I understand that line in the sand -- but those who do? We're all thankful. Those blurbs feel particularly generous.

So someone outside of the industry might say, Well, those friends and friends of friends are biased. You're an insider. What if Amazon is simply giving outsiders an insider's advantage?

My answer is simple. Amazon should help those new authors contact the authors they deeply admire. Let them write a letter/email that's genuine -- where they get the author's gender right, at least (see article).

It actually doesn't help the new writer to be outside of that process. When I write another writer for a blurb, it also acts as a letter of admiration. I usually tell the author that I know how busy they are and that, if the timing just doesn't line up, that they should accept this letter as simply what it is: fan mail. (There are certainly times on my end when I simply can't blurb -- deadlines and commitments... )Amazon's corporatization of this process doesn't allow new authors to build those relationships. As an author who's been around for a while, I like not only reading the up and comers, I also enjoy emailing with them, getting to know them a little. And there are those moments when I've blurbed a book by an up-and-comer that has completely and utterly taken off, which is satisfying, even though my role is small.

But then I' thought -- wait. What if I don't think of this as blurbs for sale but reviews for sale? Historically speaking, reviewers are paid, especially well-known ones. Amazon is asking for reviews, technically speaking, and reviews have always been able to be turned into blurbs.

Well, the catch is that Amazon seeks the reviews. If someone reviewed with a rougher edge in exchange for some product placement, that author would likely stop being asked. Right?

I really enjoy Amazon's other cross-promotional angles. I love their Customers Who Bought This Also Bought ..., for example, and the Author-to-Author Q and A's. But I don't want to waltz around the Amazon's reviews, see an author's name and wonder what he/she got in return. I think of the lovely reviews that two novelists posted on Amazon for a recent book of mine -- they reviewed the book because they'd read it. Nothing in return. But if this new policy continues -- and even though I'm not published by an Amazon imprint -- how will those authors appear to readers? Suspect?

As I get toward the end of my argument, I think that maybe I'm just being babyish. I don't want it all to feel rigged, and I hear someone like the Big Lebowski in my head say, "But the world is rigged, man. Don't you know that?"

Weirdly, though, the publishing industry feels so unwieldy, so big and unpredictable, that it hasn't felt rigg-able to me. Sure, there are celeb books and bestselling authors who happened to have the right champions at the right time, and luck -- a lot of crazy luck, good and bad. I mentioned something to a novelist-friend once, something about "Why don't they ..." they meaning the publishing industry, and he said, "There is no they."

Here's the thing -- and I'm about to come full circle -- books with all the backing in the world can fail and books with no backing can succeed. It is IN FACT these CRAZY successes -- self-published authors -- who were the start of this conversation in the first place. They are the prime example of the unwieldy, they-less, wildness of the industry.

At a certain point, the argument has to die. The fact is that the books themselves have to open something up inside of readers -- each one, reader-by-reader. The most important blurbs haven't changed and never will. They are the ones that one trusted readerly friend gives to another. That blurb is simple and timeless: "You have to read this."

Bonus Material:

Blurbs aren't easy -- especially for new writers. I understand this, deeply. And so I'll end with this (comedic) poem "Blurbs," written before I'd ever hunted down a blurb, back when I dreamed of what blurbers would say -- if only given the chance. (It's been reprinted in 180 More Extraordinary Poems for Every Day, edited by Billy Collins.)


I don’t want to be a national treasure,
too old-codgery, something wheeled out
of a closet to cut ribbon. I prefer
resident genius, or for the genius
to be at least undeniable.
I’d like to steer away from the declaration
by far her best. Too easily I read,
the predecessors were weary immigrant stock.
The same goes for working at the height
of her powers, as if it’s obvious
I’m teetering on the edge of senility.
I don’t want to have to look things up:
lapidary style? I’d prefer not to be a talent;
as if my mother has dressed me
in a spangled leotard, tap shoes,
my hair in Bo-Peep pin curls.
But I like sexy, even if unearned.
I like elegance, bite. I want someone
to confess they’ve fallen in love with me
and another to say, No, she’s mine.
And a third to just come out with it:
she will go directly to heaven.

(This poem is part of my first collection THIS COUNTRY OF MOTHERS, which is free in pdf, if you make a request at