WHEN BLURBS GO BAD: A famous writer agreed to blurb my book. Then they changed their mind
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After reading the email a half-dozen times I still couldn’t believe my good fortune: A prize-winning writer (and I mean all of the prizes) whose writing I admired had agreed to blurb my debut novel, which was slated to be published by an independent press. Per the blurber’s request, I sent off my manuscript and waited for the accolades to roll in. In my mind, I would hitch a ride on the coattails of the blurber’s immense talent and soar past the gatekeepers to literary greatness. Once inside the fortress, others would see what the blurber had seen, and soon the prizes the blurber had won would be mine. Or something like that. (I won’t name the blurber, so if you’re here for the scuttlebutt, please move on.)
A few weeks later, the writer wrote back with unfortunate news. The blurber would not be able to blurb the book after all. The writer reported enjoying the book up to a point, but beyond that point, not so much. They even provided a page number where things went awry, in case I wanted to revisit the story; and if the revision led to major changes in the manuscript, the blurber would be happy to take another look.
I couldn’t believe what I was reading. Major changes to a book that was just six months away from publication?
I prepared to type out my reply with the rage of a thousand furious trolls, but I didn’t know what to say. It’s okay? I understand? It wasn’t okay and I didn’t understand. I felt as if I’d been poleaxed. It would have been better if the blurber had declined to read the book when I emailed in the first place. To receive an endorsement only to have it withdrawn after they’d read the book was like being declined for a second date after having sex on the first.
I’d worked hard, sacrificed much, blah blah blah, and after years of rejection — and a good deal of personal struggle and sacrifice — the book was finally being published. This was my moment of triumph, not an occasion for more rejection. Didn’t the blurber understand that?
This was unfair. This wasn’t how it was supposed to work. This was fucking unacceptable.
This wasn’t my first setback. I remember very clearly the day my agent fired me. We met at a restaurant in Los Angeles to discuss my novel manuscript: a book I’d worked on for years and had waited all summer for him to read. Instead of coming up with strategies for revising the book, I’d spent the weeks leading up to our meeting self-medicating with tall boys of beer to erase the hangovers created by drinking Irish whiskey deep into the night. I didn’t want to think about the possibility that my agent wouldn’t like the book, so I hit the bottle hard. Now I’d finally get to hear his thoughts and I was a nervous wreck. I didn’t want him to just like the book. I wanted him to love it.
I don’t remember all the things he said. There were things he liked and things he didn’t. There was one character that really captivated him, but that character didn’t appear until the novel’s last act. That, I thought, was a bad sign. It was about to get a lot worse.
My agent thought the book had a lot going for it. It was right for someone, he told me, just not him.
I had a cold with mild symptoms but an irrepressible cough, so these awkward pauses punctuated the conversation, gaps where all I could do was sputter and cough, and he’d ask me if I was okay. “Yes,” I’d gasp but I was anything but. I numbed my throat with whiskey. I was on my third when my agent gave me the news. Between the whiskey and the cough and my high anxiety, his words didn’t quite register. I didn’t grasp what he was telling me until he encouraged me to explore other opportunities.
Even then it didn’t sink in, such was the strength of my denial. I thought I could fix what was wrong with the novel. I thought I could bring my agent around, make him change the way he felt about the book. I needed to make him love me again, because if he didn’t love me, what chance did I have with the publishing houses, whose love would lift me to the promised land?
Afterwards, I called a friend and told him what happened. “You’ve been fired,” he said. I felt like I’d been kicked in the gut by a mule. I could no longer fool myself into thinking that this awful thing hadn’t happened, because it had, and I wanted to jump into a barrel of single malt whiskey and slowly sink to the bottom. This was my finishing move in those days: to drink until I felt nothing, which was a terrible place for a writer to be.
My friend said all the right things. He gave me a list of tasks to complete: busy work that would outlast the soul searching I needed to do. He told me that although this didn’t seem like a good thing, it was. I would find another agent, the right agent, and he would sell my book. He was right about the agent, but wrong about the book. I shelved it and haven’t shown it to anyone since.
Reading the reluctant blurber’s email brought back all those feelings of disappointment and rejection. This can’t be happening to me… again. I needed to do something about these feelings before they morphed into something more substantial like writer’s block or colon cancer.
I don’t drink anymore. When I get down I look for other ways to change my outlook. The next morning I went to the gym. A little loud music and a lot of sweat did the trick. By the time I hit the showers I had a new perspective. What would be better, I asked myself, a mediocre blurb for all the world to see, or a polite and private “no thank you”?
I took this line of thinking a step further: just because someone decided to read my book didn’t mean that they would like it. In fact, it was a sure bet that some readers would hate it. The story wasn’t for everyone. I knew that, but if I was going to get my nose out of joint over a blurb, what was I going to do when the book was published and readers and reviewers started weighing in? How would I react when it got panned?
My novel, I realized, didn’t belong to me anymore. It belonged to those who invested the time to read it. Once a person got ahold of my book, it would become part of his or her experience of the world, not the other way around. It was unreasonable to expect every reader to shower me with love. In fact, it was unreasonable to expect it from anyone. A book isn’t a vehicle for validation. A book’s readers don’t owe its author anything. The sooner I made my peace with that, the better.
After this realization, I felt a lot better. The negativity was never really about the blurber in the first place, but about me. I’d been carrying those feelings of rejection around for a long, long time, and I needed to let them go. I came to see how difficult it must have been for the blurber to write that email, knowing how disappointed I would be. The writer could have lied and said they loved the book when they didn’t. They could have dashed off something vague and insincere — everyone exaggerates a little bit in blurbs, right? — but the blurber didn’t play those games. What had felt like a colossal letdown was actually a valuable lesson in how a professional writer conducts him or herself with integrity.
Although a woman on Amazon who’d given my novel two stars also awarded five stars to a Granada contemporary elongated one-piece toilet with dual flush, the negative review I am destined to receive hasn’t materialized, but I know it’s coming. Thanks to the reluctant blurber, I am ready for it. Blurbs and bad reviews lack the power to make or break a literary career, but they can mess with your head if you let them.
When the bad news comes, I won’t treat it like a setback, but an opportunity to learn about one reader’s response to my work. Nothing more, nothing less. Someday, if I’m asked to blub someone’s book, I’ll bring the same honesty to the work that the blurber who got away brought to mine.