Ursula K. Le Guin, photo by Marian Wood KolischBlurbery
by Ursula K. Le Guin

After the sixteenth request last month to blurb a book, I lost count. They kept coming; there must have been about thirty in the month of October. Five of them came in the form of the novel itself arriving unsolicited in my postbox with a cover letter from the author or editor. The others are letters, mail or email, describing the book and requesting me to read and blurb it. They all express admiration of my work, and most seem to be familiar with it, though some sound as if their familiarity was limited to my name.

Is something wrong here?

Am I not doing my duty by my fellow writers? Should I have read a novel every day last month and blurbed each one as the shatteringly brilliant gut-wrenchingly thrilling replacement for Game of Thrones/Girl with the Whatsit Tattoo/War and Peace?

If I did, what good would it do?


As you know, Jim, commercial publishing is collapsing into the production of bestsellers by the publishing subsidiaries of international corporations, who focus their PR on books expected to sell big & quick. And as newspapers and other traditional carriers of book reviews also collapse, reviewing dwindles into Kirkus, bestseller lists, informed or uninformed blogs, and amateur online ‘interactivity’ such as meaningless ‘likes’ or the ‘reviews’ at amazon dot com, much of which is mere self-promotion.

But what can authors do, if their publishers won’t do PR for them — or won’t even publish them, so they have to self-publish — what can they do but self-promote?

The how-to-sell-yourself guidebooks tell you all about the wondrous results of shamelessness. Uh-huh. Boasting works, for a while. Then it hits resistance. Self-praise is always rightly suspect. A crowd of people all shouting I Am The Greatest! at each other? Useless, boring. . . . Hence the frantic search for the blurb.

A blurb-seeker of even middling intelligence won’t approach bestseller celebrities, knowing the request will be simply dumped or brushed off by a staff-person employed to dump or brush off. But many writers consider giving a fellow writer a blurb as part of their job if they can do it honestly; and a moderately successful author, having no dump-and-brush-off staff, may be approachable.

So the self-published author hopefully makes a list of useful established authors and writes them blurb-me letters. And even the author who has found a publisher may discover that the days when the editor wrote the blurb-me letters are gone: the publisher now expects, demands, that the author write them. It’s all part of the prevailing idea that authors should sell themselves while publishers do more important things.

The trouble is, these days, that any moderately successful author who ever blurbed a book is at this very moment being approached by other authors and probably some editors — and not two or three of them a month, the way it was ten years ago, but many, many, and from all sides — like a lone impala on whom are converging a pack of wild dogs, a horde of hyenas, a pride of lions, three leopards, two aardwolves, and a leopard in a pear tree.

This is not a workable PR system. This is no way to publicise or sell books.

While standards of publication, reviewing, and advertising on the Internet remain incoherent, and while corporate publishers refuse to spend money to publish or publicise anything but the safest bets, we’re supposed to pretend that authorial self-promotion and the relentless inter-exploitation of writers for blurbs can maintain the whole business of literature?

Well, it can’t.

Meanwhile, this impala wishes to say to every author and editor and aardvark who has sent her a book to blurb or a please-blurb letter this month — and all those who will send her their book or their please-blurb letter in coming months — Thank you! I am honored by your confidence in me and very sorry I cannot reply in any way but I have urgent business about thirty miles away across the Veldt right now, goodbye!



Blurbery — 14 Comments

  1. Yes! To every word. The only thing I would have added is that publishers, by passing all the promotion chores to authors, are making themselves completely unnecessary. How can they compete in the book-production field, when an author can upload their book to Smashwords in a morning’s work?

    There’s an obvious niche out there for ‘smart marketing’ – people who specialize in finding and promoting books of a particular focus and quality, and who develop relationships with authors who are interested in reading and blurbing books in that area. I wonder if anybody is trying to fill it?

    • publishers, by passing all the promotion chores to authors, are making themselves completely unnecessary.

      Hear, hear.

  2. I’ve had writers contact me to review their books solely because I’m a writer. One of the worst was this writer who read that I was an action-adventure thriller writer and asked if I would review his action-adventure thriller. I went in to look at a sample of the book. It was, indeed, identified as an action-adventure thriller, but the cover kind of said fantasy. I read the sample chapters, and it was pretty clear it was a fantasy/mystery/detective — without much action. It wasn’t what he had billed it has, and I would have taken that into account in the review. I just told the author “Not for me.” He demanded to know why, along the lines of accusing me of claiming I wasn’t writing the genre I stated I was writing. I finally told him that it didn’t have enough action for me, and he had a meltdown. This is that same frustration about getting noticed in a world where it’s cluttered with everyone else doing the same thing.

    The same writer has stopped writing novels due to cost and is just doing short stories. He had 8K of Twitter followers, who were eager to converse with him, but not so eager to buy the books.

  3. Hi Linda:
    This guy asked you to read and praise his book — to work for him. Your answer was civil and honest: this job wasn’t for you. He could have said, “Sorry it didn’t work out — thanks for your time and thought.” You owed him nothing, he owed you something, yet he made demands and accusations. What a jerk!

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  6. Ursula, I was tickled to find a blurb by you at the top of Patrick Rothfuss’s back cover blurbs for Name of the Wind. It had no influence on my decision to read or purchase his book, but it delighted me nonetheless to know that you and I had enjoyed a book in common. I don’t know how you choose what to read from among the many books offered to you freely, or those you pay out of pocket for. But having very much enjoyed Kent Haruf’s works which you recommended, and having agreed wholeheartedly with your thumbnail opinion of Rothfuss’, I would love to have access to list of blurbs you do give out to other authors. Even when I worked at a brick-and-mortar bookstore, with dozens of avid readers for coworkers, it was extremely rare to find someone whose opinions on multiple books matched my own. Readers are so very particular in their tastes! So if you do offer blurbs to other writers, I hope you will consider sharing those blurbs with your readers via your blog.

  7. The sad thing is that a similar phenomenon affects the refereeing process in the scientific publishing business. The “publish or perish” pressure results in a weaker quality control. Vanity was always an important factor but now the whole system gets corrupt – if you do not yield to its rotten rules, you are not allowed any longer to exist on its margins: you will be named an uneffective loser and get eliminated soon.

  8. I am a small press publisher in Central Minnesota and have been for a while (the press was started in 1969). That’s important to know because I’ve seen a great deal of change in how publishing—and book promotion—is done. North Star publishes 70 to 80 books a year. That’s a lot for a small press, but we have a crazy good staff and a huge passion for books. The biggest change in publishing is that publishers can’t do all the promotion alone anymore, not small press, and not New York (though I’m not sure they know that). The biggest change in recent years is exactly HOW we buy books. I remember times when we weren’t in recessions when I’d go into bookstores and actually brouse the novel shelves, hoping to find another author to “fall in love with.” Nowadays, people go into stores and look for their favorites, only—reluctantly—looking at authors they don’t know if all their favorites crap out on them and don’t have new books. Why? Because money is still tight and books, for some reason, are considered luxury items. I don’t get that, but I’ve heard it enough to believe it. What this means is that novels have to have “faces,” and that face is the author, not the publisher. Knowing that this is true, North Star provides a wealth of material for authors, lists of stores, libraries, gift shops, etc., to make the job of finding places to approach easier; we put our authors in touch with each other so that they can feed of each other’s successful approaches; we encourage new authors to pair up with experienced ones; and we take care of all the “behind the scenes” issues we can, like dealing with distributors and making ebooks and fulfilling orders. The time when authors, even well-published ones, can sit back and wait for the royalties to roll in are long past, not when ten years ago 300,000 books were published a year and in 2012 15,000,000 were. We’re in a new world of publishing, and it’s a pretty scary world at times, but publishers and authors have to adjust to it if we want to stay in business and keep writing, and, personally, I want to do both. North Star has had to reinvent itself over and over in the last 40-some years, and I know we’ll keep doing that for our authors. Our passion demands it.

  9. Just too clear about a thing, Ursula. And so often a pleasure, even if you are (rightly) critical.

  10. I read this article with a sense of despair, for you are right that the self-publishing world is mostly about self-promotion, and it’s a competition between a roomful (more like an auditorium full) of people all shouting, “I’m the greatest!” Yet I can’t see any other way for self-published authors to get the word out about their books. The self-published author writes, edits, publishes, and reviews his own work, or if he’s a little more honest about it he finds people to read his books and post reviews in his place. Ideally, yes, we would all write novels that would gain us the attention of editors and agents, and they would bring marketing muscle, and the author would sell a zillion copies and make a killing and revel in his success. But the simple fact of the industry is that supply far outstrips demand, which means that a lot of very good writers go unpublished by the professional publishing houses, because their work is buried under the weight of thousands of other writers and never sees the light of day. So I’m sorry, Ursula, but I feel quite mercenary about the self-publishing world. I say, review your own damned work, or get someone else to read it and review it in your place! Don’t expect anyone else to do it for you. Just as you wrote and edited and published it yourself, it’s up to you to find reviewers for your work, including your friends and family and interested friends of friends. It’s up to you to find amateur reviewers, running their own little blogs, who will read your book and give it a friendly review. I live in San Diego, and here in SD there’s an annual contest called the San Diego Book Awards, which awards cash prizes for best book in each category. So far I haven’t won, but I shoot my books out there every year.

    If you work hard and bust ass and do your best, odds are only overwhelming that you’ll be ignored and marginalized. If you do nothing at all, odds are total that you’ll be ignored and marginalized. I keep reading these advice books from successful writers, on how to get published. None of them tell the truth, that competition is ferocious and your odds of success are slim to none. They all try to tell you that if you just try a little, you too will be a published success. What bullshit. You’re facing long odds, incredibly long odds, and you can be at this for decades without making significant headway. Do whatever you can to move yourself ahead, whether it’s self-publishing or doing your own reviews. If the industry professionals won’t recognize you, you’re in it for a labor of love, and you should be utterly ruthless in how you move ahead. My two cents.