Monday, September 27, 2004

Buried by the blurb

September 27, 2004

BY MIKE THOMAS Staff Reporter Advertisement

High above the city, author-attorney Scott Turow walks slowly and with some difficulty down a hallway at his Sears Tower law firm. Schlepping a weighty stack of books pulled randomly from his always chock-full office shelves, he looks a bit like one of those ESPN strongmen lugging large concrete spheres. Minus, that is, the freakish muscles.

Turow is powerful, but not in that way. As a perpetually best-selling author (he's sold millions of books, and first printings of his legal thrillers run about 750,000 copies), he is deluged with manuscripts and galleys and early hardcovers penned by pals, associates and total strangers eager for his expert feedback in the form of blurbs -- nuggets of glowing verbiage that act as convenient, on-the-spot reviews.

Pick up almost any book published in the last two decades and you'll find them. Nowadays, they appear almost without fail on the covers and flaps of first efforts, and are typically crafted by -- or at least credited to -- big-name authors, powerful politicians or well-known celebrities, mostly the former.

Arthur T. Vanderbilt II, whose own well-blurbed though sales-challenged The Making of a Bestseller: From Author to Reader contains a chapter on the phenomenon, says it originated sometime in the '60s, but began in earnest during the late '70s or early '80s. Over the years, it has become an increasingly crucial part of literary marketing, kept alive and thriving by famous wordsmiths like Turow and his high-profile ilk. In the early '90s, Spy Magazine published a monthly column called "Logrolling in Our Time," which skewered authors who swapped slathering reviews much in the same way they trade blurbs.


Ever since Presumed Innocent attained blockbuster status and propelled him to stardom in the late '80s, Turow has been one of the country's most sought-after blurbologists. Seventeen years, six hit novels and two well-regarded works of non-fiction later, the tide shows no signs of being stemmed. He dearly wishes it would.

"Once you blurb one book," he says, "it's like giving to charity. No good deed goes unpunished. That is the first law of blurbing. As soon as you're kind enough to do this for somebody, then everybody in the world is there with their hand out or a manuscript."

In 2001, noted that "serial blurber" Frank McCourt had "doled out at least 15 blurbs since the publication of Angela's Ashes in 1996." High? Perhaps. But not anomalous.

"You have to understand, this is an avalanche," Turow says of his onslaught, which he smilingly agrees is indeed "part of my junk mail." "It is no exaggeration," he adds, "to say that there are several requests every day."

Of the scores of tomes he receives (more than 300 of various genres currently occupy space in his downtown office), Turow reads through, reads at, or attempts to read perhaps 50 of them per year, "with the idea that if I like what I read, I'll do it." Relatively few -- around one in 50, he estimates -- get his stamp of approval.

So as to make time for family and his paying pursuits of law and writing, he's long had a system for handling the flood. Friends come first; in general, one blurb per author. And if a book fails to grab him immediately (like, in the first few pages), tough luck.

Sometimes, though, his hands are tied.

"There are certain relationships where, whether I like it or not, I feel like I've gotta say something," he admits. "Now, I think you can put Turow blurbs side by side and the discriminating reader can detect the enthusiasm level."

A small group of mates from his grad school days at Stanford University's Creative Writing Center get special treatment and are excepted entirely from Scott's Rules; he'll blurb them ad nauseam. "As far as I am concerned, lightning could have struck any one of us. It happened to have struck me. This is just part of the redistributive principle, to say nice things about their books. And most of them happen to be good writers."

Those who've aided him professionally are tops, too. "Anybody who helped me along the way in my career, that's it, you're golden," he says. "I'm not gonna read with too critical an eye."

After that, "there's almost nobody."

"Generally speaking," he says, "if you see a blurb by me on a book, it tends to mean that somebody -- the author, the editor, the publisher -- is a friend and got me to read it in the first place."


For Turow, stumbling across unexpected gems is the chief reward of what is otherwise a hugely time-consuming "chore," a burden with which he'd rather not be saddled. Blurbing, he explains, is part of his duty as someone who's made it.

These days, his books virtually sell themselves sans author endorsements. But that wasn't always the case. Way back when, he, too, was a newbie looking for handouts. Therefore, he tries his utmost to give back.

"It's such a terrible, vulnerable experience," says New Yorker scribe and best-selling author Susan Orlean (The Orchid Thief) of a greenhorn's quest for big-shot bons mots. "And usually you're asking people who are more successful than you are, because that's the whole point of asking them. You're asking them to both read your book, like it, and be willing to basically act as a celebrity spokesperson for it. So it's a really vulnerable moment, and the trade is a very crummy arrangement."

By "the trade," Orlean, who decided early on never to blurb friends, is referring to the fact that while established writers may feel the pain of their budding brethren, the empathy isn't always mutual. "The fact is, I don't have unlimited leisure time to read," she says. "And frankly, when I do, I'd kind of like to read the books that I want to read."

Still, even turndowns get a response, often in the form of a carefully worded letter. She's gotten quite good at those.

"I do try to be very sensitive when it's a first-time author. And [I realize] how much it does mean," she says. "I think if people pick up a book, they're not sure about it and they flip it over and they see blurbs from a couple people they respect, I think they're more likely to buy it."

"Blurbs help when it's the right author talking about the right book," says Random House editor-in-chief Jonathan Karp. With novice works, he says, they're absolutely crucial "because readers have no prior knowledge of the novelist, obviously, so the best way for them to get a sense of whether that writer is on their wavelength is to come across endorsements by writers they admire."

And Karp agrees with Orlean and Turow that back-scratching is simply part of the game, not to mention the right thing to do.

"Everybody has to start somewhere," he says, "and if you ever received a blurb, I think that it is karmic justice to return some. I think that otherwise, you could be accused of selfishness, and the accusation would be just."

Blurbing unbridled, however, can backfire.

"I think it makes you look promiscuous," Orlean says. "Because in a way, it also says, 'I'm important enough to be used as an endorser.' ... But I do also think there's a point at which it becomes embarrassing."


Second-generation bookseller Adam Brent, proprietor of Brent Books and Cards on West Washington, has repeatedly seen blurbs cast their spell on prospective buyers. At a recent book fair, he says, a woman to whom he'd recommended a title then glanced at its cover, which bore a quote from lauded author Alice Sebold (The Lovely Bones). "And she said, 'Oh, I'm reading The Lovely Bones right now, and I think it's fabulous,'" Brent recalls. "So she took it. Sold."

Blurbs, Brent thinks, are a quick and effective way to facilitate browsing in today's glutted marketplace. "You come into my store and there are 5,000 different titles on the subjects that you're looking for, and [customers] want to know which is the best one, which is the most accessible -- things like that," he says. "And it's just another way of helping people make a decision to buy that particular book."

There are, of course, countless clunkers that don't live up to the words that praise them. The moral: Readers cannot and should not live by blurbs alone.

"My advice to readers, in general, is to ignore blurbs," Turow says. "There's too much personal political complication in how these advance comments are secured."

Instead, he offers, read reviews and heed word-of-mouth buzz. In short, arm yourself with substance.

"If you know nothing else about a book and see only blurbs, I would say to most people, 'You don't know anything about that book at that point. Except that somebody had a way to get to Scott Turow.' "

Buried by the blurb

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