Mike Jakeman runs a stunning, vital and urgent piece into blurbing.
Here’s a question: what links literary luminaries Colm Tóibín, Edmund White, Tessa Hadley, Sarah Hall, Patrick Gale, Elizabeth Day, Joan Bakewell and actor Gabriel Byrne? The answer is that they have all, alongside several others, written glowing blurbs about The Promise, a novel by South African novelist Damon Galgut. White calls it the most important book of the past decade. Hall, similarly breathless, praises its ‘extraordinary skill, truthfulness and sensitivity’. The platitudes occupy two full pages on the inside cover.
The ‘absolutely huge number of endorsements’ was brought to my attention by Kris Doyle, outgoing editorial director at Picador. Mr Doyle is broadly a fan of blurbing – the practice of sending advance proofs of forthcoming titles to famous authors in the hope that they will provide some stirring words to catch the eye of the press, booksellers and readers alike – but many in the industry are more dubious. When surveying the publishing world about blurbing, it was variously described to me as ‘a big game’, ‘a circle-jerk’, ‘an arms race’ and just plain ‘horrible’. Is it a way for authors with influential voices to lift up others? Or another aspect of an already insular industry that rewards the well-connected? Or does it do both of these things at once?
Blurbing is a relatively new phenomenon. Mark Richards, publisher at Swift, remembers the task of getting blurbs being considered optional in the early 2000s. He recalls laughing at books from the US that came with blurbs from ‘one or two from quite good names and another 10 or 12 from people you had never heard of’. But British publishing has since moved closer to America in this regard, and blurbing is now widely considered a necessary step, particularly for debuts, in order to give a book its best chance of garnering attention in a ferociously competitive marketplace.
Here’s how it works officially. Once a manuscript is finished and edited, editors make contact with the agents of authors and other public figures with some sort of connection to the book and its subject to see if they would be interested in offering a quote. Editors hope that some of those targeted will find the time to read it and write a detailed response, from which a sentence or two is lifted to sit on the cover or on the accompanying publicity. Doyle reckons he approaches around 40 authors for each book he edits: his hit rate is between four and ten blurbs.
Here’s how it works unofficially. Rather than approaching people cold, editors stand a greater chance of success by targeting the authors’ friends and those signed to the same publisher. Those whom the author has blurbed themselves could also be nobbled for a quid pro quo. Whether blurbers read the book or not is a matter of personal choice. I was told of a top-tier American thriller writer who would shout out three adjectives – ‘gripping, thrilling, highly entertaining’ – if the author seeking a blurb was a friend. (Those he didn’t know were refused.) For editors, it doesn’t really matter if the quote is the product of considered thought or three words sent back via WhatsApp, as one senior insider explained: ‘As an editor, you’re publishing the book because you love it. You so want to believe that everybody else loves it as much as you do, which means you’re quite happy to turn a blind eye to whether or not a quote is genuine. There’s plenty of bad faith going on.’
If editors want the endorsements, and are also willing to suspend their disbelief about their veracity, then this puts the onus on authors to uphold the ethics of the blurbing process. Canvassing opinions from authors revealed a whole psychodrama of interconnected considerations. Will Wiles has written three novels alongside his work as an architecture critic. Like many authors, Wiles is grateful for the blurbs he received for his first novel from Michael Frayn (whom his publisher approached cold) and from Lee Rourke (who was an existing contact). Convinced that these blurbs gave his book a good start, Wiles wants to blurb others, especially writers from small presses and debut novelists.
But, as he explained, it is always more complicated than this. Blurbing plays directly into authors’ already heightened sense of their place in the pecking order. ‘If I was asked to blurb something by someone who I regarded to be more famous and successful, then that would be a very tempting thing,’ he argues. ‘It can be nice to be asked to blurb something by an author who you regard to be of slightly higher ranking because that kind of puts you on the same level.’ Séamas O’Reilly, a columnist, memoirist and in the interests of full disclosure, The Fence’s own features editor, believes there are also self-interested benefits to helping out newer voices: ‘There is probably a little ego boost. “Look at me, the benevolent God-king, coming down from my lofty perch to bless these smaller writers.”
None of these considerations, readers will note, have anything to do with whether the book is any good. Both Wiles and O’Reilly admit that the most awkward aspect of the blurbocracy is committing to comment on a friend’s book only to discover it is a dud. O’Reilly continues, ‘I’d like to think I’d let them down gently and say, “Oh, I’m not able to do that at this point.” But I fear that I would just not respond to the email and pretend that I had the flu or something’. Wiles adds, ‘There’s a feeling that one gets when you are sent a book written by a friend where you almost don’t want to read it because what if it’s bad? The little kind of splinter in it or a hangnail that means you don’t want to get around to it.’
Blurbing fatigue is a real thing. When the same names appear at the top of every book on the shelves, if feels like their words lose some of their potency. John Self, who reviews books for the Irish Times and the Guardian, says that he disregards most blurbs because ‘some writers provide so many that it must be a full-time job, and the value of their praise is diluted by the frequency with which they seem to grant it’. I heard similarly jaded sentiments from a former book buyer for a major chain. Alex Christofi, editorial director at Transworld and author of Dostoyevsky in Love, puts it diplomatically: ‘When it comes to some of the super-busy people, you do wonder where they find the time to give all the blurbs that they give’.
There is an alternative view, which is offered by Tom Holland, the author of a series of books on classical history. Like Wiles, he recalls how his first non-fiction book, Rubicon, was given ‘a huge boost’ by blurbs from fellow historians A. N. Wilson and Andrew Roberts, neither of whom Holland knew. ‘I’ve never forgotten it,’ he continued, ‘and I vowed that I would, if ever in the same situation, do something similar.’ Where other authors expressed some concern about the critical reception of books they had blurbed – that praising a dud could make them look intellectually isolated – Holland waves those worries away, insisting that he always backs his critical judgement. Instead, he says with confidence, ‘I don’t want to adopt the mercantilist position of assuming that there are only a finite number of good books. If the books are good, then they’re worth promoting.’
Ironically, no one is able to say whether all of this effort works. There was consensus that it is impossible to ascribe a value to a blurb in the publishing process. When a book succeeds, the blurbs are just one of the contributing factors that make it fly. Instead, everyone does it because everyone else is doing it. Indeed, many publishers are making blurbing an even more important part of their operations. Employees at two publishers – one major, one indie – confirmed that for some titles they will send even earlier proofs to a smaller group of potential blurbers whom they feel sure will offer a quote so that when they target the larger pool, authors in the latter group will feel more pressure to provide their own endorsement as momentum is already building. And momentum is, ultimately, the thing that matters most. Because, as you may know, The Promise won The 2021 Booker Prize.