The Perils Of The Pre-Sale, Pre-Pitch Blurb Request

In the last year or so, I’ve gotten an increasing number of blurb requests for books that are not yet sold to a publisher. They’re “done,” in that the author has completed a draft of some iteration, and gotten an agent with that draft. But the book ain’t really done.

No editor has likely touched it.

No publisher has put the seal-of-approval upon it.

And yet, the author — or, likelier still, the agent — wants a blurb.

(A blurb, to clarify the language, is the marketing text on and in a book where another author says, “ARGUS VAN DORN IS AN AUTEUR TO WATCH. THE SHEPHERD’S WINEBLADE, BOOK ONE OF THE DECIDUOUS CYCLE IS A TOUR DE FORCE MASTERWORK WITH HUNKY FUCKABLE DRAGON CHARACTERS AND TICKLISH, GIDDY PROSE.” A blurb is not, in this instance, meant to discuss the flap-cover or back-cover copy.)

So, why are agents/authors/editors asking for pre-sale, pre-pitch blurbs?

My guess is that having a named, extent author give a pre-emptive seal-of-approval will either help the agent sell the book to an editor, or will help an editor sell the book through to acquisitions. (For those not in the know on this one, an editor wanting to buy the book isn’t enough. They need a lot of acquisitional sign-off, meaning, the publisher needs to wink and nod that they know how to, and are willing to, sell this book. An editor’s love for it surely carries some weight, but is not in any way the deciding factor. The industry thrives on love, but runs on money.)

This may be a bit of a bleed-over from non-fic, where one’s platform isn’t really about general sales reach but also about expertise and connection within the community of a given topic. But I’ve started to see it across fiction, now, too, and uhhh. Ehhmmm.

Let me be indelicate, here:

This fucking sucks.

Now, when I say, this fucking sucks, note that I am speaking for myself, and not for any other author. Other authors might not care about this, or hey, maybe they’re even into the idea.

Me, not so much.

Let’s go through why exactly this is some fucky business.

First, blurbs are already fraught.

Okay? We don’t know how much they matter, and we’re often given almost no time to read the book and write them. Further, the fear is blurbing the wrong book, a fear that applies to both sides of that authorial equation. If I blurb a book that is far outside my own genres and literary comfort zone, will that author’s readers be turned off, or mad at me for it? Will I poison that author’s book by creating in my readers an expectation that their book is very much like my book, even though it’s not at all, and is in fact just a book I really liked? Then there’s the problem of, some authors don’t even read the books they blurb. They just fuckin’ blurb them, or have agents/editors write those blurbs. (For the record, I read the books I blurb. I don’t always read them as well as I’d like, because of the aforementioned too-tight timetables, but I read ’em. And so do the authors I call friends.)

Second, what the hell happens after I blurb it?

Maybe it goes onto get published — yay! Except then it’s going to surely be edited, because a pre-sale book will almost certainly need editing. (Be wary if they tell you it’s all good, ready to publish.) So, it gets edited and… then what? They just take your blurb, a blurb you wrote for a different version of that book, and slap it on? That sucks, because a blurb is a kind of endorsement. And sometimes, books change wildly between the pre-sale draft and what ends up on shelves. (And by the way, this is a good argument for why authors should never, ever blurb without reading the book first. Amazing we have to say that, but seriously, read the books you blurb, okay?) Imagine now that this pre-book you pre-blurbed goes to print with some heinous fuckery in its pages? Or what you like about it was edited out of it? Or it’s taken on a whole new genre? Ugh. Buuuuuut, if they’re not gonna automagically use your blurb, it means you have to read the book again, to re-deliver a new-ish blurb. Or or or, if they’re not gonna use your blurb at all, what was the fucking point?

Third, here’s Katherine Locke and Fonda Lee tweeting some wisdom:

They’re right. It’s weaponizing platform for fiction authors and continues to consolidate power for those authors who are in some way “influential” — influence then breeds influence, and further, influence breeds careers. Now, I’m not a mooncalf, I know that’s already a thing. This isn’t new. But this definitely helps to sharpen it to a finer point, thus forcing newer authors to first and foremost either be good at social media or have penmonkey pals in high places. Which leads to, and here again I’ll let Katherine Locke tell it true:

Hey. Psst. Guess what?

People aren’t ladders.

It’s not that we don’t want to help. We do. And authors should always, as I’ve said in the past, offer a hand-up to those climbing behind them. We should at the least leave a light on and the ladder out. But that doesn’t mean we’re the fucking ladders. Like I said, blurbs are already fraught — introducing a new, interstitial BLURB PHASE just makes the whole thing all the more suspect.

Listen, I get it. This is a hard business. I understand that we all crave an edge, and I grok that agents and editors are the ones who may be pushing neophyte authors to seek that edge. But this ain’t it. This can’t be it — and I really, really hope this isn’t the type of thing that becomes so populous it’s normalized. This is a punishment for everyone.

It’s bad for the authors having to seek the blurbs, because they’re potentially exploiting relationships with other authors very early on, possibly even burning bridges. It’s also awkward as hell — “Hey, I wrote a book that we haven’t even sold yet, wanna read it and give me some MARKETING FRIENDLY AUTHOR PROPAGANDA?”

It’s bad for the authors having to write the blurbs, because, as noted, we have no idea what the point of the thing even is. It’s demanding our time for something that hasn’t even been vetted yet and makes us wonder how our words will be used for this book going forward.

It’s bad for the whole damn industry because, hey, it’s supposed to be about the book, and uhh, oh, I dunno, how good it is. I know once again I sound like a bleating mooncalf, but the more we can focus on the book and not the author and her connections, the better. The pure relationship is, author brings a book to an agent –> the agent loves it, reps the writer –> author sells book to editor who buys it because it’s a good book that people will want to read. The end. Huzzah. We shouldn’t want books to become more about who knows who, and who’s the better clout vampire — right?

Further, this creates a vulnerable fracture ripe for exploitation and bigotry. You think marginalized authors will have an easier time with this system, or a harder one? You’ve created a new point of failure, a new door to close. And you think there aren’t already creepy-ass male authors who haven’t viewed this as a way to extract sexual favors? That may sound extreme, but don’t kid yourself. Some creepy writer dude is out there right now feeling that opportunity in the well of his foul, monstrous gut. Even if it’s not that overt, you can be sure it would be used for grooming young women in need of that marketing push. Any introduction of doing favors is a place where those with lesser power can be exploited by those with more power.

So, to sum up —

This is gross, and we shouldn’t want it.

Kill it now, kill it with fire.

Again, I’m speaking for myself. Other authors may like this.

But for my mileage, it’s way too problematic, and should be avoided. I’ll say no if it comes to me, and I hope you’ll say no, too, and will push back against it. If you’re an author whose agent has told them this is how things are done, please know: it’s not usually how they’re done, and you should push back on them. If they continue to insist, it may be time to find a new agent, one who is actually willing to put in the work themselves toward gasp selling the book to an editor instead of letting you turn other people into ladders. And if you’re an agent who thinks this is the way forward: please don’t do this. Please? Pretty please? Pretty please with a witty blurb on top?

Now please buy my book which earned its blurbs the old-fashioned way, which is by leaving mysterious sacks of money upon the doorsteps of prominent writers.

* * *

WANDERERS: A Novel, out now.

A decadent rock star. A deeply religious radio host. A disgraced scientist. And a teenage girl who may be the world’s last hope. An astonishing tapestry of humanity that Harlan Coben calls “a suspenseful, twisty, satisfying, surprising, thought-provoking epic.”

A sleepwalking phenomenon awakens terror and violence in America. The real danger may not be the epidemic, but the fear of it. With society collapsing—and an ultraviolent militia threatening to exterminate them—the fate of the sleepwalkers and the shepherds who guide them depends on unraveling the mystery behind the epidemic. The terrifying secret will either tear the nation apart—or bring the survivors together to remake a shattered world.

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