Storyville: How to Ask For, and Give, Book Blurbs
Do you have a book, short story collection, or anthology coming out sometime soon? Would you like to get a ton of excellent blurbs for your project? Not sure how to go about it? I have some thoughts.
Also, have you had some success, and now people are asking you for blurbs? How do you give one? What’s to be expected? I have thoughts about that as well.
What Is A Book Blurb?
In case you’ve been living under a rock, a book blurb is a relatively short, succinct endorsement of a novel, collection, or anthology that tries to sum up the appeal of your project. It can speak to flavor, voice, genre, vision, experience, talent, similar titles, and more. Here is one of the very first ones I ever got, for my novel, Transubstantiate:
"Transubstantiate is an intricately-woven dystopian thriller, with every thread pulled tight. This is a solid debut from Richard Thomas."
—Craig Clevenger, The Contortionist's Handbook, and Dermaphoria
What I liked about Craig’s kind words here is that it speaks to the vibe of what I was trying to do. Dystopian thriller? Yes, I’ll take that. In my comps I called it Lost meets The Truman Show. Intricately-woven? Wow, thanks. With seven POVs that means a lot. Solid debut, sure, that works. Would have preferred something more than just “solid” but I’ll take it. In this context, I was very happy.
How To Ask For A Blurb
When you have a book ready, and I mean ready—it’s been written, you landed an agent, it’s been sold to a press, you’ve made edits, and are about to send out ARCs and put it in front of reviewers—how do you go about asking for a blurb?
For big names, I’d give them the most amount of time possible. MONTHS, we’re talking here. If you can find a contact, via their website, or if you know them, then reach out early, and ask politely. Sometimes you may have to go through an agent. I just email, if I have their information, or go to their website to make contact. Make a list of 10-20 names, and expect that half will pass. I had about 12 requests go out for Transubstantiate, and only got five. Ouch. But, they were pretty good. And then the next time I had a book (Disintegration) I came back to the people that passed, adding a few more, and about 75% said yes. That means I improved.
Sometimes the press will reach out for you, and contact big names, or anyone you don’t know. Sometimes they’ll leave it up to you, if you have a lot of contacts. I’ve done both. I don’t mind reaching out, as it allows me to send a personal note, to see how people are doing, and to express my gratitude if they say yes. I sent out 30 requests for my upcoming short story collection, Spontaneous Human Combustion (Turner Publishing, releasing on 2/22/22) and so far I’ve gotten two back, 18 yesses, 4 maybes, and 6 nos (too busy, or maybe they have a policy of one blurb per person). Here is the one I just got from Chuck Palahniuk:
"In range alone, Richard Thomas is boundless. He is Lovecraft. He is Bradbury. He is Gaiman."—Chuck Palahniuk
Wow. So Chuck speaks to my range, and for a collection, I really like that. And to be compared to Lovecraft, Bradbury, and Gaiman? Insane. Three voices and/or styles that have really influenced me. And from Chuck, no less? An honor.
What To Say In The Letter or Query
Start with something informal. Ask how they are doing, and maybe inquire about a recent project—speak from the heart, but be honest and sincere, don’t blow smoke. What you say here may differ in depth and intensity based upon how long ago it was you spoke last. If you saw Paul over the weekend, it can be less formal. If you haven’t spoken to Don in two years, maybe say a bit more.
Then just mention the project—title, date of release, press, brief synopsis, and any other important information about the book or collection. Most of the time you’ll send out PDFs/DRCs, instead of actual printed copies, but if you are doing both, ask which they prefer. Again, give them a deadline, and as much time as is humanly possible. Think months, not weeks.
If you can speak to the project, and why you think they might like it, do that. In my last round of requests, I included a small excerpt from the foreword, by Brian Evenson. And then thank them for their time and consideration. KEEP IT SHORT. Usually, I just attach the PDF when I request the blurb. Be prepared to hear no a lot. Be professional and polite and understanding. This is a big chunk of time that they are committing to here.
Do not harass people, give them time, send a polite nudge if the deadline approaches and you haven’t heard back, but always be nice, always be understanding, and expect that a lot of the time it just won’t work out.
Who To Target?
For me, when I start thinking about who to ask for a blurb, here are some aspects of that thought process, and what to possibly consider:
- What authors do I know personally, that might enjoy this?
- Who are the dream blurbs, and do I have contact information?
- Have I gotten a blurb before and do they have a one blurb policy?
- Who are similar voices, based on genre?
- Who are similar voices based on style?
- What authors have blown up since my last book? Who is hot, and emerging?
- What authors do I know that have a large following?
- What authors do I think might actually promote this?
- What authors do I think will have time to do this?
- Think broadly—across sex, race, genre, voice, city, country, culture, etc.
- What authors are kind, supportive, and easy to work with?
- Bottom line—who do I think will really enjoy this? Who gets my style and voice?
I honestly don’t want to waste time sending an arctic horror story to my good friend who writes cozy mysteries. For my next collection, it’s a mix of fantasy, science fiction, horror, magical realism, and neo-noir. So I thought of authors that write in similar genres, who might appreciate what I did.
Take The Shot, But Also Look At Tiers
By all means, try to get to Stephen King. It probably won’t happen, but you never know. The blurb that Chuck sent me, I was like 99% sure that he’d pass. In the past I’ve had my work in front of him, and he didn’t like it. I didn’t get into Burnt Tongues—three stories got nominated, but none made it in. (Including one that got into Cemetery Dance years later.) But I took the shot, and got one hell of a blurb. I mean, I may have cried a little. You don’t know until you try. It’s all so subjective. Sure, King, Gaiman, and Barker may pass, but the worst answer you’ll hear is no. Or maybe you just never hear back at all. My dream blurbs for this one were Chuck, Jeff VanderMeer, and Irvine Welsh. Chuck said yes, Irvine passed (too busy), and I haven’t heard back from Jeff yet. And that’s totally okay.
So set up that dream tier, and then set up the second tier as well. Here I’d put the biggest authors you know, that are successful, have large followings, and write in similar genres. And then set up the third tier, for close friends that are most certainly going to say yes, but they may not be as big a name. At least, not yet. It’s like applying to colleges—a few reaches, a few appropriate targets, and a few safeties.
What About Writing Blurbs?
So, maybe you’re in the position now where people are asking you for blurbs. Congratulations! That means you’ve had some success. So, now, just flip it to the other side and ask for the same things that you’d provide authors when asking for blurbs—when is this due, how long do I have, do you have a synopsis or dust jacket copy (if not included), etc. And then make the time to read it.
What are you looking for? You’re looking for the vibe of the book. I usually read the synopsis and/or dust jacket copy first, then the first chapter, and then the last chapter, and then I dig in. You get a pretty good sense of what a book or collection is going to be early on. I like to look at the chapter openings and endings, as well as story hooks and endings (if it’s a collection). What am I looking for? I’m looking at the voice, the genre/s, the themes, imagery, character, emotion, and experience. Because what I’m trying to do is sum up my experience in a sentence or two. I’m trying to whittle it down, and get to the essence of the book. What did it feel like? What should readers expect? Here are a few examples.
The comparison blurb: "Bayou Whispers is a haunting, touching novel that blends the horrors of everyday life with that of the supernatural. Tapping into the tension and setting of films like Angel Heart and True Detective, this is a hypnotic story told from a place of loss, community, and resolute hope." Here I speak to two projects that popped into my head while reading, Angel Heart and True Detective. Sometimes it’s a book, other times it’s a film or television show.
The experience blurb: “I’ve been a fan or Joseph Sale for many years now, and Dark Hilarity may be his best work to date. This visceral novel is unsettling in the way it gets under your skin, ominous in tone and mood, haunting in both the concrete and the abstract. Shades of China Mieville and The Weaver tripping across the sprawling web of reality are mixed with the atmosphere and tension of The Howling to create a powerful and immersive but ultimately hopeful experience.” Here I speak to emotions—visceral, unsettling, ominous, and haunting.
The collection blurb: “Kate Jonez is one of the most innovative authors working in contemporary dark fiction today. She is more than horrific, speculative, or transgressive. She takes the heart, uncertainty, and longing that burns within us all and shows us the many ways that these emotions and actions can lead to our transcendence, or our demise. This is a powerful collection of truly original stories.” Here I try to speak to the range of stories, and the overall vibe of the collection.
And a short one (as I tend to write long blurbs): “Daunting and poignant, filled with love and loss, the weight of these resolutions echoes out into the darkness with a heartbreaking permanence.”
Find your personal style, get a thesaurus (yes, I know I say haunting a lot in my blurbs, LOL, sorry, I’m trying to mix it up), and work on blending emotion, experience, comps, and impact. And most importantly—have fun with it!
I hope that my notes and thoughts here help. If you have other questions, by all means, post them below. The bottom line is that if you’re polite, understanding, and patient, there’s no reason you can’t get some nice blurbs for your book or collection. The better you get as an author, the more you help others, the more time you give people—the better the results.
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