Sunday, August 24, 2008

No Point in Whispering when You Want a Shout

OK, so I looked up Blurbings.com, the service providing book blurbs (by which they seem to mean puff quotes), which has apparently caused some outrage. And thanks to Tania Hershman I found the hilarious article by Rebecca Johnson on Salon.com exposing the fact that nothing could be more potentially corrupt than the traditional way that such cover quotes are obtained.

Blurbings.com tells us:
Normally, a blurb will cost an author and/or publisher $14 - $23, which includes printing of the galleys, packaging and mailing fees. The standard 30 – 50 blurbs expected per book can range from $420 to $1,150. It is also very time consuming researching and contacting prospective authors as well as conducting follow-ups during the duration of the process.
Notice any figure missing? A fee to the poor 'blurbing' author! As Rebecca Johnson says, it's also a time-consuming business for the endorsing author, who is expected to do it for free. Once, I remember, the winning novel of a competition for which I'd been on the judging panel, which was now to be published by a small publisher, was sent off for a quote to a famous novelist well known for her left-wing feminist views. How amazed and shocked the publisher was when she wrote back that she didn't do quotes for free. But you know, in reality, it's their shock which is shocking.

Here's my own recent cringe-worthy experience, my search for a cover quote for my recent story collection. Would I ask people I knew? Would I heck! How could I live with myself (and them afterwards) otherwise? So what did I do? I sent initial queries to the agents of short story writers I didn't know personally but whose work I respected. Guess what? Back came nice polite letters from the agents telling me that their clients were fiendishly busy but wished me all the luck.

What next? OK, I would bite the bullet and ask a well-known short story writer I had met not so long ago. But I wouldn't put her on the spot by ringing her up, or suggesting the coffee we had vaguely mooted. Instead I sent her a postcard, in which I insisted (repeatedly) that she must refuse to do it if she didn't want to etc etc, she didn't even need to answer this card if she didn't want to.

Guess what? She didn't answer the card. I didn't get a quote, and yet I still may have spoilt a beautiful potential friendship...

What next? Well, there's that mega-famous author who's really close friends with some really close old friends of mine, and I've met her at their house more than once... that wouldn't be so bad, would it. I mean, it's pulling strings, but I can hardly be said to know her, and she wouldn't feel obliged to give a good quote whatever... So I email my friends and ask them what they think. Well, they'll read the stories first and decide whether to ask her. I email the stories. One of my friends reads them over a week on his train journey to work. He really likes them, he thinks his friend the mega-famous author will like them. He'll contact her and ask.

Days go by. Weeks. A month, two... I give up. (Nine months later, when the book is published, I'm at a party at his house - the mega-famous author isn't - and he tells me she never answered his query.)

Meanwhile, I have caved in completely. I have rung up my good friend who has agreed to look at the manuscript, and there I am in his kitchen on Sunday afternoon, handing it over and cringing inwardly, not nearly as sure as he seems to be that he'll like the book when he reads it... But then we're saved the embarrassment: for my publisher decides it's better he doesn't do it anyway, since he's already just provided a quote for another of her books.

I was lucky in the end. I walked into the foyer of MMU for a reading, and Livi Michael, writer of wonderful novels for adults and children - and of brilliant short stories, one of which we published in metropolitan - came sweeping across the tiles to greet me. Livi! Perhaps I could ask Livi! But does she know my work? Would she hate my work? How could I put her through the embarrassment of saying no if she didn't like it? No, I can't ask Livi!

She sees the look on my face. 'I know what you're going to ask me,' she says, 'and the answer is Yes!' Turns out she did like my work already: turns out she loved the book.

Even so, it's not the easiest thing in the world, coming up with a quote that sums up and yet does justice to a book. Wouldn't surprise me if Livi, like so many of my writer friends, has since declared herself a blurb-free zone.

And I did only manage to get one shout.
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