Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Art of the Blurb - The Asking

One of the odd things that comes with getting a book published is getting blurbs.

I will be honest here, asking for blurbs is probably my least favorite part of publishing a book.  For me, asking for blurbs feels like a special, personal way to open the door for rejection.  Not just the rejection of a poem or manuscript, but the rejection of support.

I know I should not look at this way, but because it's always been hard for me to ask favors of others or ask for help, getting a blurb feels a little like mailing my metaphorical heart to someone and seeing if they hold it in their hands gently, ignore it completely, or mail it back to me with a note, "Return to Sender."

Yes, I am over-dramatic about the blurb request because it makes me feel 
a) vulnerable
b) needy
c) bothersome


I was HUGELY thankful that White Pine Press got me a blurb from Carl Dennis as he chose my manuscript and is a poet I deeply admire and respect as well as whose poems I enjoy as a reader myself.  And his blurb still makes me happy when I read it.

But getting other blurbs, yes, I had to ask poets for them and again it brought up deep insecurities of me-- Would they say yes?  Would I be rejected?

Sometimes the idea of emotional pain is worse than the actual pain itself.  Still, I try to protect myself.

For me, I only ask poets I know on a personal level for blurbs.  While I would LOVE a blurb from Bob Hicok, I do not know him except for my awkward neanderthal meeting where I said something like, "Me have your book. You sign?"  And because of that, I only asked poets I know on a personal level, poets whose work I love, and poets I feel I have a decent relationship with.

So who did I ask?

Peggy Shumaker (author of Gnawed BonesUnderground Rivers & Blaze as well as the memoir, Just Breathe Normally)  - I asked Peggy because she is probably one of my favorite all time people.  She is someone I admire, respect and feel incredible safe with.  I was not afraid to ask Peggy because she is a poet who will hold your heart in her hands and not drop it.  Ever.  Yes, she is that wonderful.

Jeannine Hall Gailey (author of Becoming the Villainess)  - In a funny way, asking J9 for a blurb was like asking a favorite smart rich aunt for a blurb as I knew that 1)  she would always come through for me  2)  she knows me & my work better than most and sees insights that others miss  3)  she is extremely generous and would write a blurb I would love.

Jeannine is one of the best readers of poetry I've encountered.  She catches the themes and nuances in work that others miss (Annette Spaulding-Convy, my co-editor at Crab Creek Review) is the other incredible poetry reader in my life.  Anyway, I felt good asking J9 because she always comes through for me.  I knew she would & she did!

Carolyn Forche' (author of The Country Between Us & Blue Hour) - Carolyn has always been one of my favorite poets.  Having worked with her at a Centrum class & finding her incredible kind & inspiring, I spent a week with her (as well as poets Susan Rich & Jennifer Lawrence) at Hedgebrook. Carolyn is incredible in so many ways.  She is both smart and beautiful, inside and out.

I was nervous asking Carolyn because if she said no, I knew I'd feel hurt, but I risked it and she in her generosity, came through for me with wonderful words about my book.  I feel quite honored and thrilled to have her support of my work.

Albert Goldbarth - (author of The Kitchen Sink: New and Selected Poems, 1972-2007 & Budget Travel through Space and Time: Poems)  This is where the lovefest, happy-ending ends.  Of the 4 poets I asked, this was no, my non-response.  I worked with Albert for a year in my MFA program and is someone who I both admire as a poet and honestly like as a person.  I know a lot of people are annoyed by him and his wit/sharpness/humor/insensitivity.  But I have never found him to be anything but kind.

Asking Albert though is never easy as he lives in a world that exists in about the year 1987.  There are cellphones in his life, but not computers or emails.  He types his letters and writes only through snailmail.

I have Albert's phone number and could have called him to ask for a blurb, but was too nervous about being rejected over the phone and mailed him letter.  That was 4-5 months ago.  This was the heart that was not returned, but ignored.  I know Albert is ridiculously busy, but normally, he responds to letters, so this is my blurb rejection.  This is the one that by not saying no, said no.

So it's a 75% yes rate, with extra credit points for the Carl Dennis blurb I didn't have to ask for.

4 blurbs, which is great.  Enough to feel as if I have some hands holding me as I enter into into the big poetry world, the sea of books floating around.  The ones who said yes are my life rafts, something I can hold onto if the waters feel choppy.

If I could give you my advice when asking for blurbs, it would be:

1)  Ask poets you know and whose work you love & admire, don't just ask "the big names"

2)  Ask with the hope of yes, but not with all the emotional drama that I carry, that if the poet says no, do not take it personal -- (Yes, this is a do as I say, not as I do advice.  Honestly, I do not recommend viewing asking a blurb as giving someone your heart, that's just not healthy to do-- you can trust me here).

3)  Give the poet PLENTY of time, at least 2 months.  That gives one month to procrastinate and one month to get it done.

4)  Make it easy on them, get them what they need  - mail them the mss if they prefer to read off of paper instead of a computer, ask them if there is anything they need from you to make it easier.

5)  Say thank you sincerely when it's written.  Send a handwritten note (and not an email) and maybe even a little token of your thanks (a bookmark, etc.) and definitely mail them a copy of the book when it's done.

I've written blurbs for people and it can be difficult and timely.  Make sure you acknowledge what they did for you and your appreciation for it.


Also, if you don't like the blurb, I honestly feel that is your problem and it shouldn't be rewritten to fit your needs.  The correct answer is always-- thank you for your time.  Not a critique of the blurb.  Be grateful, not judgmental.

~

I'm kind of amused at myself for writing this post given how terrible I am at asking (but I do ask) and have definitely mastered the "thank you."  But I thought maybe you'd like to hear the behind-the-scenes crazy emotions I feel in regards to asking as well as knowing that it doesn't always work out perfectly or at all.

As my book moves closer to publication, sometimes I still have hope Albert will respond too (no, I have not written again, I suck at being pushy or assertive sometimes).  And it gives me a reason to check my mailbox.  But even with his no, or his no response, I'm over the stars about the blurbs I did get.  As hard as it was to ask, I'm glad I did.


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12 comments:

Barry Napier said...

Yes, I feel the same. It's hard especially when you don't really know the people. My book comes out in just a little under a month and I have so far reached out to 4 people, all of whom have been gracious enough to spend their time to read my book and provide blurb (that's a subtle shout-out to you, by the way...)

There are still a few that I need to contact but like you said, it's just a very weird feeling...

Anonymous said...

Yes, Albert lives in about 1987, with his wife (me), who does not. Being savvy about all things internet and very interested in all things Goldbarth, I have Yahoo alerts when his name is mentioned.

You feel vulnerable, needy, and bothersome about asking for blurbs because blurbs ARE about an uncreative, crappy part of publishing.

He gets blurb requests, recommendation letter requests *daily*. And you're right, he is nothing but kind about these requests. If yours was overlooked, it likely was because my husband didn't get it, lost it in the heaps of stuff that comes his way, or he responded and you didn't get it or lost in heaps of stuff at your end.

The kinder thing for you to have done, instead of alerting cyberspace, would have been to gently repeat your request. You know how he operates, phone or snail mail. Good luck ~ Skyler

Kells said...

Hi Skyler,

Thanks for your note.

I wasn't alerting cyberspace to point out anything bad about Albert, in fact, I've only ever had good things to say about him. If you read, it's *my* lack of assertiveness/follow-up that affected the blurb, nothing on his part.

I mentioned this on my blog not to be unkind (not at all), but because I wanted to be truthful about not getting every blurb that I asked for.

It *is* painful to me -no matter what the reason- and it would have inauthentic of me to pretend that I live in a perfect world where the blurbs just arrived with bows tied around them and everything fell into place. I want others to learn from my mistakes--not following-up, being passive, etc. I was accountable here (I know this), not Albert.

Anyway, I'm hoping you get this comment. If you leave your email or email me - kelli (a) agodon.com I'll follow-up with you personally and would know that you received this comment.

I do appreciate you responding.

All best,
Kelli

Kells said...

P.S. If my blog post came off as unkind, it definitely was not my intent.

Jessie Carty said...

I definitely don't think this blog post was unkind! It was very honest. It is a stressful thing to get blurbs.

My husband got a great one for me for my first chapbook as a surprise not knowing my publisher wouldn't use it. A friend did my second chapbook - we just did one and then my publisher found one person for my book and then I found the other.

I'm already thinking about the second book and who I could ask because I don't want to use the same people and I'm going to stick to two again. Oh the decisions!

I've done one blurb and I turned down one offering instead a review because the book was out of my area of expertise (more of a poetry therapy book) but I'd love to do more of them when I have the time :)

Jeannine said...

Thanks for your kind words, Kelli.

This reminds me of my own recent blurb-seeking. I am always very grateful to those who do provide, and, sad to say, very hurt when people refuse. Human nature I suppose!

I did want to tell you a story - a very good poet asked me for a blurb, and I said yes. I sent him the blurb via e-mail, but he never got it, and never asked about it (probably for the same reasons you didn't contact Albert G.) so his book came out without the blurb. I have been heartbroken about it ever since, especially because I like his work very much. This is a good reminder to everyone to follow up, especially with e-mail, which can be unpredictable.

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Michael said...

Kelli:

One of the very reasons that I love reading your blog and recommend to others, is the fact that your shared wisdom/insight/experiences are always so honest. I can certainly understand Mrs. Goldbarth’s response; I could picture my wife given similar circumstances writing roughly the same kind of reply.

Kelli, reading this post I didn’t see your comments at all in a negative light – you well stated your respect for Mr. Goldbarth personally and you made room for very plausible explanations but still related your personal feelings of disappointment all the while you acknowledged you could have picked up the phone and called him. Your post demonstrates how heart wrenching this process can be and by this very example provides a lesson to learn.

I hope there is no feeling of grief or second guessing on your part for writing on this subject in such a forthright manor. Like with your poetry, readers get the genuine Kelli. I know that’s why I keep reading.

Elizabeth Austen said...

The top of my "to do" list tomorrow is to write to ask for blurbs for my first full-length book -- your post could not have come at a better time. My stomach has been in knots over the prospect for days. As ever, I HUGELY appreciate your honesty and insight - I will re-read your post before beginning! Many thanks.

Anonymous said...

The blurb topic is so fascinating. I've been on both sides--asking for a blurb from someone you admire is so emotion-crushing . . . even when the outcome is positive, it's like high-school anxiety all over again. Then being asked to write blurbs is usually pretty awful too. Part of my dislike about the whole thing is that blurbs are just about entirely meaningless--they are pumped full of hyperbole and I can't remember the last time I read a blurb and actually believed it. The only exception I can think of is when a contest judge writes a short, frank blurb to explain why the MS was selected. The blurb is a very odd species of writing, with so much emotional baggage. I wrote a found poem just using blurbs from the backs of poetry books I had on hand--it helped me see how crazy they can be! Why do blurbs persist? Who will stop the insanity? --Nancy

Kells said...

Thanks everyone for your comments - and esp. for the good (read: supportive) words.

Nancy, I've decided to stop the insanity. I've been thinking about this since I wrote this post & actually decided that I would like my next book of poems not to have blurbs on the back of it. I'm not sure if my publisher will like this or not, but this is my goal-- a blurbless book of poems. Imagine.

I don't even like the word, "blurb" - it sounds like what happens after someone eats too much garlicy pasta with a couple mugs of beer.

Anonymous said...

Let's see what the publisher says about going blurb-free! I've always loved Dave Eggers' book title "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius" because it seems to spoof blurbs. I also hereby coin the phrase "blurbage" in reference to the hyperbolic language of blurbs. Nancy

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