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No, I won’t give you a blurb. Here’s why:

March 24, 2012

Sometime next month I’ll sit down with The Cocktail Waitress, an unpublished novel by James M. Cain. Hard Case Crime’s Charles Ardai, who’s published many worthy novels (not a few of them mine), unearthed Cain’s manuscript, edited it with his characteristic sensitivity, and will publish it this fall.

I expect to enjoy it. But, like it or not, I’m sure I’ll give it a blurb.

It’s been around fifteen years—maybe closer to twenty—since I stopped giving blurbs. I made the decision for a couple of reasons. First, I was getting more manuscripts and galleys than I could possibly have read, even if I did nothing else, even if I were a certified graduate of Evelyn Wood’s speed-reading school. Giving blurbs, after all, is like feeding pigeons, and every time you say something nice about somebody’s book, five more editors add you to their list of prospects, and ten more ARCs turn up in the mail.

Nor did I want to be stuck with the choice of saying something nice about a book I didn’t care for or indicating my dislike of the thing to its editor or author. The only way to avoid that particular no-win situation is to steer clear of the whole business. Hence, no blurbs.

This is a stance many writers adopt sooner or later. A rush of blurbish generosity is a not uncommon response to success, and both Stephen King and Mario Puzo were at one point accused of never having met a book they didn’t like. I never knew Mr. Puzo, so can’t guess what he did or didn’t read and did or didn’t like, but I’ve had enough contact with Steve King to doubt he ever blurbed a book he didn’t care for. He takes his responsibilities too seriously for that. But he’s always been an avid reader, and his enthusiasms are considerable.

Mario Puzo died in 1999, but well before then his fervor for blurbing died down, as did Stephen King’s. At one time or another, though, most writers get caught up in the game. One wants to give one’s friends a helping hand, one wants to do some cheerleading for a really outstanding book—and, less altruistically, one can see how one gets a blurb for oneself every time one gives one to somebody else. (“Outstanding!” —Jeremy Puddler, author of Red Sky at Midnight)

Once I’d established a firm no-blurbs policy, life became simpler. I had a ready response to requests, and over time editors and publicists got the message. The volume of ARCs decreased sharply, and what got through was easily handled and dismissed. The downside, of course, was that periodically a good friend would write a book I really liked, and I had to deny him some heartfelt public praise.

I broke my own rule a couple of times. Two friends each self-published a book of poems; while I couldn’t imagine how my endorsement could boost their sales, I saw no reason to withhold it. (And I did in fact like the poems.)

And, just before my first appearance on his program, Craig Ferguson sent along the manuscript of his novel, Between the Bridge and the River. I loved the book, but felt torn. Wouldn’t it be awfully whorish for me to give a blurb to someone in a position to do so much for my own career? But wouldn’t it be stupidly self-destructive say no? I went to a friend for counsel. “Give the blurb,” she advised, “and if anybody bugs you about it, tell him you’ll happily blurb his book as soon as he gets a national TV show of his own.”

One effect of my policy has been that I’ve felt honor-bound not to seek blurbs from other writers. When Mulholland was preparing to publish A Drop of the Hard Stuff, my editor had a batch of prominent writers from whom he wanted to solicit blurbs, and when he asked me for additions to the list, I explained he’d have to abandon the whole project; if I wasn’t going to give blurbs, neither was I going to seek them, or even use them if they dropped unsummoned out of the heavens. I did encourage him to send copies to a great many friends and colleagues, but with a letter explaining that no blurb was sought. Several of these good fellows, perhaps unable to believe that they’d been sent a book for which no quid pro quo was desired, sent along blurbs anyway. They warmed my heart, but I didn’t use them.

Before I stopped giving blurbs—indeed, before I was much asked for them—I received some generous quotes from Stephen King, Martin Cruz Smith, Jonathan Kellerman, Tony Hillerman, and Evan Hunter. Publishers still trot them out, dust them off, and slap them on books of mine. Tony and Evan are gone, I’m say to say, but if any of the others wanted a blurb from me (and I can’t imagine why they would) I’d be hard put to say no.

Which is why I’m sure I’ll find something good to say about The Cocktail Waitress. Back in 1974, when Dell was about to publish the first Matthew Scudder novel, my editor Bill Grose asked me if I could think of anybody with real name value who might be persuaded to give the book a blurb. “I don’t know him,” I said, “but how about James M. Cain?”

I’ve no idea what made me think of him. He was, of course, one of the founders of hardboiled crime fiction, with two of his books, Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice, adapted as classic film noir. I admired Cain, certainly, but I hardly saw him as Scudder’s literary Godfather; I’d have been more likely to cast Ross Macdonald in that role, and never even mentioned him to Bill.

Cain’s star was fading at the time, and maybe I thought of him because I figured he probably didn’t get many requests of this nature. At any rate, Bill sent him the manuscript, and to our mutual astonishment Cain wrote back with something we could use. (He also offered some suggestions for improving the book, which Bill and I agreed we could safely ignore.)

And so when The Sins of the Fathers appeared as a Dell paperback original, there was a brief but laudatory quote from James M. Cain on its cover. That was in 1976. I should certainly have written to thank him, but of course I never did, and a year later he was dead at age 85.

Now, three and a half decades later, I get to return the favor.

I can’t imagine that my blurb will have much effect. I’m sure The Cocktail Waitress would sell just fine without it. And I have to wonder what good Cain’s gracious blurb did for Matt Scudder’s debut. The book didn’t sell well at all, and, being a paperback original, got virtually no press attention.

I’ve never been convinced blurbs make much of a difference. It seems to me that people sufficiently sophisticated to go out and buy books (or stay home and buy them, for that matter) are pretty good at screening out the hype. “Ah, those are his friends,” they’ll say. “And he and this one have the same publisher, and isn’t he married to that one’s sister?”

It’s not hard to see why editors and publicists like to push for blurbs. Unlike almost anything else that might be called upon to do for a book, blurbs are essentially free. If you send out a book and get a blurb, it looks as though you’ve accomplished something. If you send out a book and don’t get a blurb, it still looks as though you’ve been busy.

As I’ve said, I’ve reduced the flood of galley to a trickle. But, with the rise of the social media, it’s a rare week when I don’t get half a dozen requests from authors. I get emails, I get Facebook messages, I get tweets, all with the inevitable request.

I’m sure a lot of writers just ignore these requests, but just as the new media facilitates the requests in the first place, so does it make it easy to respond. I always do, and I always say no.

Some writers assure me that they aren’t looking for a blurb, that they simply want me to have a copy of their book. This might be disingenuous, but I’m willing to believe them, as I can recall sending books of mine (unwanted, and I’m sure unread) to John O’Hara and Arthur Koestler.

Would I supply an address, so the writer/fan can send a book? It’s a little harder to say no to that, as nothing’s being asked of me, but the fact of the matter is that I spend very little time reading these days, that I rarely finish the books I do pick up, and that the last thing my apartment needs is more books in it.

Ah well. I’ve always liked the way Robert B. Parker would respond when some hopeful young writer would ask him to read his new book, and, um, if he liked it, um, supply a blurb.

“I’ll do one or the other,” Bob would say. “You decide which.”

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29 Comments
  1. Lewis Burchett permalink

    When do we get the next broadside? I have Mick Ballou and Burglar’s Eye-View. I assume only 2 have been produced to date. They look great on my office wall. A third one would look even better!
    LEWIS BURCHETT

  2. Thomas Pluck permalink

    I already thanked you in person for writing “Telling Lies for Fun and Profit.” I think you’ve done plenty for thousands of writers you’ve never met, by writing and being so generous with your time.
    I also agree about blurbs and awards being of little use.
    It might make me take a look, but it’s the synopsis and the opening page that cinch it for me.
    Writers should spend more time writing a solid synopsis and less on blurb hunting, in my opinion.

    • The first page is vital. The writing either invites one in or it doesn’t. Mickey Spillane used to say the first page sells the book and the last page sells the next book.

      • stunatra permalink

        You write great hookers, Larry.

  3. Funny, funny stories, Larry. I rarely read blurbs, but maybe once or twice a blurb has influenced me to give a new author a shot. But I usually reserve blurbs for after I finish a book (or not) to see who shares my exquisite taste in literature (if I liked/loved the book) or wonder who had a bout of temporary insanity in blurbing something awful.

    Just because you’re blurbing Cain’s book, I’m going to make an effort to find it. There! Proof that marketing works. Heh.

    (is blurbing a word?)

  4. juliabarrett permalink

    Um, I hate to admit it, but, uh, I’ve never read a blurb nor bought a book based upon a blurb that I haven’t read… Yikes.
    Guess I should have been reading those blurbs you used to write. I’ll definitely pay attention when I buy The Cocktail Waitress.

  5. stunatra permalink

    If I come across a book by an author I’ve not read before and see a blurb by, say, Stephen King, I’ll be more likely to pick it up. If Steve King likes something, I tend to like it too. He hasn’t let me down yet (hell I enjoy the stuff he writes, so why not the stuff he reads?). I’d suppose the same would go for a fella named Lawrence Block. If he liked it, I’d wanna check it out. The blurbs don’t really do much for me if I don’t know the people, and I’ll just ignore it (or them), and let the title and premise, and perhaps that first page, decide whether I wanna spend some time with the book.

  6. Camille LaGuire permalink

    I agree — blurbs aren’t necessary and they just make people uncomfortable, really. (Although we are often such insecure beasts that blurbs FEEL so validating and important.)

    Glad you get to return the favor for James M. Cain, though. I’ll be looking forward to the book (and your little blurb too). 🙂

  7. Tony Rabig permalink

    I’ll second stunatra’s comment — if I see a blurb by someone whose work I’ve enjoyed praising a writer I haven’t read before, I’ll give that writer a closer look, and I’ve seldom been disappointed. (And I was one of the readers who noticed that Cain blurb on the first Scudder book.)

  8. Amazing Article

  9. Rick Ollerman permalink

    I once picked up a debut by someone whom Neslon DeMille had given a lavish blurb. The book was god-awful, and though I finished it, I railed for weeks at all of the problems with it. Sometimes bad writing can be motivatingly offensive. Anyway, I had never read DeMille and after that debacle I never thought I would. How on earth could anyone worth my time have supported *that* piece of dreck? Eventually I read a DeMille book and now have them all, but it’s been nearly twenty years and I still haven’t forgiven either of them.

    • A cautionary tale indeed!

    • Rick, I am a HUGE DeMille fan (even forgiving his bizarre little quirks) but I have learned that if he blurbs a book, I know I will hate it. So I guess it is good he blurbs since it gives me a head’s up.

  10. Hmmm…Bob Parker gave me a very nice blurb for CORDITE WINE. Now I have to wonder…

  11. My favorite scenes from the TV show Castle are when he’s talking about book business…playing poker with Cannell et al, doing signings, etc. But one of my all-time favorite snippets was him getting a set of ARCs and his mother asking when he would have time to read them — which of course he had no intention of doing. He put one up to his head like Kreskin and said, “A tour de force — Richard Castle”.

    Other than the reasons you mentioned above (favoritism, quid pro quo, bias, etc.), I remember thinking once that I had never seen a blurb that was long enough to tell me anything. They are always so short so as to be devoid of context and meaning — yet it doesn’t seem to stop Twitter from surviving! 🙂

    PolyWogg

    • I suspect some writers deliberately furnish short, lame, or generic blurbs in the hope that they won’t be used.

  12. Did I do all this? 😉

    Really, though, I think it’s cool you’re going to get to return the favor to James M. Cain after all these years. But wouldn’t it be a hoot if you ended up hating the book? Joking. I’m sure it’s great if Charles is releasing it.

    I’m fairly new to publishing, but it seems blurbs are part of the business and aren’t going away soon. So, along with every other newbie trying to make his or her way, I’m stuck with the unenviable task of asking literary superstars to give up a substantial amount of their time to read my book. Several popular authors were kind enough to give me a blurb for my first novel. The lovely and talented Tess Gerritsen was one of them, and now another big (BIG!) name has agreed to give me one for my second. I think blurbs probably do boost sales and credibility, and I will forever be grateful to these guys for their help.

    That said, I certainly understand and respect those who choose, for whatever reason, to decline such requests.

  13. Arthur Koestler! ‘Heel of Achilles,’ book, non-fiction, essay, 1968. Don’t worry, Lawrence, I’ll just write my own blurb.

  14. S. Miletus permalink

    I find blurbs are more useful for non-fiction books, being one of many factors I take into consideration to sift the wheat from the chaff. (Sorry, I’m old enough to know that academic degrees or resumes do not always separate the kooks from the intelligent.) Other factors include publisher, how often the work is cited in the relevant literature, quality of the bibliography, & so forth.

    On the other hand, my favorite blurb for any book was (IIRC) by Harpo Marx: “I laughed from the moment I picked up his book to the moment I set it down. One of these days I ought to read the darned thing.” And he was sincerely thanked for the blurb.

    • Well, it was Groucho, but the wording’s close.

      I don’t know about blurbs, but I’d say reviews are more useful for non-fiction than for fiction. And, when one’s interest in the subject matter is not all that great, a good review can provide as much information as one wants. (OTOH, I remember the response of a professor, the incomparable Louis Filler, to a student who admitted that, while he hadn’t read Moby-Dick, he had read several critical articles on the subject. Quoth Filler: “Isn’t that like eating menus?”

  15. Barbara Piper permalink

    I am … close to the Cain estate (and I am sitting at Cain’s last desk, as I write this), and for many years a huge fan of all work by Lawrence Block, so I wanted to dash off a quick note to thank you for the kind gesture of a blurb for Cain’s next, and probably last published novel. Oddly enough, I just this morning finished reading the last of your Chip Harrison stories, which was great fun — the stories and the writing stand up, even, what? 40 years later? I can scarcely hope for the same from The Cocktail Waitress, I’m afraid.

  16. You spend very little time reading??

  17. “A post that is both interesting and amusing – a must-read!” – Neuroskeptic

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