Is asking fellow writers for blurbs making you sick?

The art of giving (and getting) puff quotes for your book

Pick up just about any nearby book -- go ahead, I'll wait -- and you'll see a brief quote or two on the cover trumpeting the book's value. I have Teva Harrison's memoir In-Between Days here on my desk, and it features quite the quote:

One of the most stunning memoirs I’ve ever read.
— Joseph Boyden

My goodness. It's one of the most stunning blurbs one might find, and it certainly does its job of catching the reader's eye.

Did you know that for the most part, it falls to writers to solicit the blurbs for their books? Oh, yes. Eek City.

Pick up just about any nearby book -- go ahead, I'll wait -- and you'll see a brief quote or two on the cover trumpeting the book's value. Did you know that for the most part, it falls to writers to solicit the blurbs for their own books? Oh, yes. Eek City. Here's everything you need to know about the blurbing process.

Once my editor and I finished with my book, Cheers, Somebody, my publisher sent a list of tasks she needed from me three or four months before publication. That list included:

  1. A consultation on the cover -- which I feel really fortunate to have been afforded, as many if not most writers aren't given the opportunity to have a say about their cover
  2. A 100-word author bio to be published in the book
  3. A dedication or quotation at the book's beginning
  4. A book description for the jacket copy
  5. At least three puff quotes from other authors

#5 made me feel queasy. Asking writers to do me the mega favor of reading and responding to my work felt like an enormous ask. I've learned a thing or two about the blurbing process, from what business these quotes have on your cover to how you come about them to -- yowza! -- what it feels like to have an author you admire take time to champion your work.

What is a blurb?

A blurb or puff quote is a short quotation from fellow writers and publishing pros to be used on your cover, in advertising and for online promotion of your book.

Why do you need blurbs?

Blurbs can serve to sell unknown authors to interested readers. For example, if a reader is intrigued by your book cover and spots a high-five from his/her favorite writer Jonathan Franzen on the cover, he/she is more likely to give you a try.

It also serves to promote an unknown author to advanced readers, book bloggers and bookstores.

Who should you ask for blurbs?

Start with writers in your immediate circle. Who do you know from a local writing center? Who is in your writers group? Which writing professors from your undergrad or MFA program served as your mentors?

Then look at writers you've connected with. Who did you chat with after a book signing? Which writers do you regularly interact with on social media? To whom have you written fan letters (and received responses) in the past?

Expand to writers in your genre. If you've written a short story collection, which other short story writers could you see your book displayed with? For historical writers, who else is covering your time period? Keep in mind that this group of writers, who you don't know, is least likely to respond or take the time to read your work, unless you share an editor or agent.

And that being said, ask your editor or agent if they will tap into their connections for authors to solicit for blurbs, too.

OK, for Pete's sake, how do you get blurbs?

Here's the Eek City part, dearhearts: YOU HAVE TO ASK FOR THEM. Is it totally awkward? It can be.

Or, like any time you decide to come from a place of YES instead of OH, GOD, ANYTHING BUT THAT, it can be an opportunity to tell your favorite writers how much you love them. I opted for this approach, and after a day or two of hand-wringing and cringing in front of a blank new email, I began the process.

First, like the wackadoodle, organized person I am, I created a new Google doc to track who I wanted to solicit and what their response, if any, was. (Here's how I track pitches and creative writing submissions, if you're interested!) The columns read:

Header columns for puff quotes

If that's too teensy for your eyes, they are:

  • Date sent
  • Reviewer/author's name
  • Email address: I sent most messages seeking reviews via email instead of social media or asking in person; a couple, I sent through authors' websites' online forms. I did go to Parnassus Books, Ann Patchett's local bookstore here in Nashville, to see if she was around and I had the guts to ask her in person. She wasn't there, so I went to Plan B: I took photos of the Local Authors shelf to figure out which ones I had connections with. I thought it more likely to get yeses from neighborly writers than those I'd never met or interacted with before. I'm so glad I did this and highly recommend it, if your bookstore also features such a shelf.
  • Link to reviewer profile or blog
  • Special requirements: Some writers specified their blurb stance on their website, though this column was mostly to help me with book review blogs, as I anticipated reaching out to these publications soon, too.
  • Response
If you hear back from them, do a backflip. If they read your work, triple somersault. If they actually blurb it, book a ticket for at least the nearest satellite. But if they don’t blurb it, don’t worry. And don’t hold a grudge. Half the time they don’t even open the mail, mea culpa once again. The rest of the time they are busy chasing blurbs of their own; it’s a back scratcher’s world.
— Colum McCann, Letters to a Young Writer

Second, my publisher sent me a version of my manuscript to share with potential blurb readers, and I included the document in each initial email to make it easier on those I asked.

The biggest advice I can give in asking writers for blurbs is to take your time crafting these emails, just like you do with a query letter. This was not a quick process, and I did it over the course of five days.

Here's the paragraph-by-paragraph format I used for each solicitation email:

  1. Who I am and why I've connected with their work: I loooved crafting this paragraph for each email. It gave me the chance to revisit each author's work and remember why I loved it. It's also imperative that you reach out to writers you do have a connection with instead of randomly spraying writers on your bookcase. Who does it make sense to blurb your work? Who's in your genre? With whom have you crossed paths?
  2. Why I'm writing to you: This is where I popped the big question. The paragraph was similar for most emails, covering all I needed to pack in. Here's how it read for one local author I reached out to: I have my own short story collection called Cheers, Somebody being published this fall by Vine Leaves Press. There are 20 stories, a few of which center on the 2010 Nashville flood. I wonder if you might do me the honor of lending a quote about my book to be used in its promotion. I know it's a huge ask, and I'm so grateful for any time you can offer! I've attached the uncorrected proof and would love to hear from you, either way, by May 16.
  3. Wrapping up with well-wishes

What were the results? I sent 25 emails, heard back from 13 writers and got two maybes, seven noes and four yeses. The noes were always kind, explaining how they, too, were on deadline, at a writing retreat or busy wrapping up a semester teaching. Not one person who replied said, "How dare you! Who are you? Why would I want to do this? You're wasting my time!"

How do I give a quality blurb?

At some point, writers who ask their fellow writers for blurbs are also, at some point, solicited to provide quotes themselves. Remember the kindness shown to you when you went through this process. Part of that kindness is not only being gentle with the requester but truly evaluating whether you have the time to read and respond to their book.

Will you be cramming your reading/writing time between other tasks and deadlines?

Based on what you know about the writer, their genre and style, does it make sense for you to promote their work?

But when the good blurb comes, the truly generous one, the one that captures the essence of your book, it’s not a blurb anymore, it’s a shout-out, it’s a violin note, it’s a drum crash, it’s a barbaric yawp across the rooftops of literature that you have written something that has got under the skin of another. Cherish it. Enjoy the feeling. Soon you will be writing them.
— Colum McCann, Letters to a Young Writer

What other questions do you have about the blurbing process?

Want to receive news and blog posts straight to your inbox?

Sign up here!

As a special gift, you'll receive my free study on the 15 things that only writers know.