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!