Diary of a Trade Book (Newton and the Counterfeiter) 9.0: Blurbs redux

So, when we last left this journal, I promised to get to the point on the dark art of blurbing. 

Newton and the Counterfeiter (Amazon, Powells, Barnes and Noble, Indiebound) is by far my  best-blurbed book, boasting enthusiastic and generous praise from a very diverse crew of luminaries — (David Bodanis, Junot Díaz, Timothy FerrisBrian Greene, Walter Isaacson, Sylvia Nasar, and Neal Stephenson).

This follows, as I wrote last time, a much sparser field of those who promoted my three previous books.  How — and why — did I go for this level of long-lead pre-publication encouragement?

The how first:  I began to contact potential blurbers as I was finishing the editor’s revisions to my first-submission mss.  That’s nine months before publication — four or five months earlier than I had in the past, following publishers’ schedules of bound galley production.

Again the reasoning behind this can be found in diary entry 8.0 — basically, if you plan to ask busy people for a favor, best to do so in a time frame that gives them more of a chance to say “yes” than plead the press of prior commitments.

What this choice meant was that I was sending a version of my book that was at least two, and really three passes short of being done.  It wasn’t typeset.  It did not possess the form factor of a book.  All of which meant that I was asking a double favor:  that someone should read my work and that they should do so  in an inconvenient form.*

So, step one was simply to render my mss. as readable as possible.  Book Antiqua font, printed double sided at 1.5 line spacing, a photocopy of the cover design to front it inside a Kinko’s black spiral binding with a clear plastic front  — i.e. a pretty standard “I’m trying here” manuscript package.

Step two was to identify a couple of people who might be willing to read with charity — knowing that what they were seeing was still unfunished.  That means personal friends and/or those who have made it clear that they are supporters of my body of work and this project.

Critically:  the ask has to be open-ended, imho:  you enquire of those already well-disposed to you if they are willing to do you an unusually large favor (large with reference to this favor-space), or whether they would prefer to wait until the galleys come along.  Minimize the chance that they will say no to your first ambition, in other words, in a way that will make it more difficult to come back at a later date for help from someone reasonably inclined to deliver.

So that’s what I did, with three folks on my short list.  First up was David Bodanis, author of E=MC2, and much else besides.  David and I met about five years ago at an Aspen Institute event celebrating the Einstein miracle year centennial, and it was one of those instant friendships.  He’s a great, funny, incredibly smart-and-quick guy, and we share a lot of the same interests and personlity tics (for good and ill…but that’s a different story).

He and I are serendipitously-met are personal as well as professional friends, in other words, and that made it possible just to call him and ask him both to read the mss. as a fellow writer, providing a reality check, and, assuming it wasn’t in his eyes a disaster, to give me a very early blurb.

A call from my then-editor Rebecca Saletan made the timing more important than I had first expected.  Despite the usual wait-for-it counsel I had already received on blurbs, when I told her in early September, 2008, that David had liked the mss. she immediately asked for his blurb so that she could use it in her presentation to the sales conference for HMH’s spring list.

And that gets to one of the “whys” of blurbing

Sales conference is the moment when your editor presents her/his books to the sales and marketing force, those who will take the publisher’s list out to the buyers for the chains, the big box stores, indys and the online booksellers.  These form the voice and advocates for titles from the publisher to those who make decisions on how many books to order and how much marketing muscle to put behind any given title.

What is this all about?  My editor decided that early praise from an author with a track record of success in popular history of science would help her sales force make the case for the book.  She hadn’t solicited this aid, but if it were available to her, she could make use of it.

The moral:  blurbs matter not just because they may influence someone flicking through the book in a store or reading down the webpage of an online retailer, but because there are a number of constituencies for a book that need to be persuaded — and timely support matters.

This effect persisted, at least for Newton… Next up came Walter Isaacson, who had read  Einstein in Berlin, liked it, and on that basis invited me to the Aspen Institute event at which I met David.  Walter is an intellectual network-builder, as well as a biographer of note, and he was happy to take an early look at Newton with a view to giving it, and me, a boost.

Then Junot Díaz weighed in.  This was another case of good fortune and personal connection:  Junot’s a colleague in the Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies at MIT, and a good friend.  I actually did not seek a blurb from him on my first reading request.  I had hoped to use some of the structure and techniques of fiction in making my historical story go, and I wanted help and criticism from the best writer I could find in line-of-sight.

Junot kindly read an emailed draft (now there’s collegial support), and wrote back “I love this fucking book.”

I proposed that as the text of a blurb to my editors, and while my British (Irish) editor, Neil Belton leapt at the thought, Becky was less enamored of the idea.  Click the Amazon link to see Junot’s final version.

These were the three who delivered on my hopes for pre-galley input.  Walter’s and Junot’s hit in October and November — and they had impacts similar to David’s.

These are obviously high profile people, and they captured my hope that the book would appeal to a wider range of audiences than a pure science text might, but the significance of the timing was to keep my publisher excited.

I was meeting with p.r. people their at the time, dealing with designers a bit (more on that in the next post — a tale of two covers and the woes therein), trying to pass messages to the marketing folks and so on.  Each time some other name that people in the book business would recognize weighed in, it made the case Becky and I were trying to build internally to HMH that much stronger.

Just to wrap up the process.  I did contact a couple of other potential blurbers in the pre-galleys stage: Brian Greene and Neal Stephenson).  I knew both of them through professional contacts; I admire both greatly, unsurprisingly (I’m re-reading Cryptonomicon right now, as it happens, and my big summer reading pleasure will come from my at-last encounter with the Baroque Cycle…and I’m about to put  Brian’s latest, a kid’s-book retelling of the Icarus story with a black hole standing in for the sun, in front of my own nine year old).

To round it all out — Tim Ferris is both a personal and professional friend, and he was ready to weigh in; Sylvia Nasar I have never met, but was e-introduced to her by a mutual friend and colleague, Robert Kanigel, and she was both gracious and generous in her response to what was then a bit of deadline pressure.

But I didn’t have the history of personal association with either of them that I did with my first three, and I was very gratified when both agreed to look at Newton. Both then chose to wait for galleys — but I’m reasonably convinced that asking them early helped slot the work into their schedules.

Was it awkward to ask the all of these folks?  A bit.  It’s an imposition, and there is always the sense — at least I feel it — of pressing a claim on people that have better things to do with their time. I always try to phrase such requests to make them easy to refuse…for example, some writers have a policy of never blurbing, and in my emails to the good and the great I offer that as well as simple time-pressure as escape hatches.  But still, there is no doubt that I’m asking a favor it is difficult for me to repay in some commensurate way, and I don’t like that feeling.

But, but, but…(a) its part of the business, and as long as those on the receiving ends of such solicitation do have a graceful way out, it’s o.k. and (b) the way to repay a gift is not, or at least not necessarily, a simple reciprocation.  Lke a lot of writers I feel an obligation to do something for the craft of writing; if I can move the process along for others (this series…?) then that’s my job.  And I do blurb, when asked, when I can, and when the project is something I may reasonably have an opinion about.

So that’s about t.   One last thing, though:  don’t take “no” as either personally or as a measure of your work.

For example, Dava Sobel answered the inquiry put to her by another mutual friend/MIT colleague, Marcia Bartusiak, by saying that she had just finished judging the Pulitzers and she was burnt out on other people’s work.  She meant no reflection on the quality, good or bad of my book, and I took no such implication.  This is simply part of the game, and any list of solicitations has to assume some reasonably high percentage of people who have lives.

A couple of others accepted a galley — Neil deGrasse Tyson for one, Lawrence Krauss for another, but (having warned me that I would need to bug them to get them on the case), were (a) unbugged and (b) didn’t get back to me.

Why didn’t I bug them?  Because there is only so much room on a book jacket…and by the time I was coming close to the cover closing, we had enough strong blurbs so that there was no reason to go back and try to force the work to the top of people’s piles.  Save favors for when you need them…

That should do it for now… More to come tomorrow.

*One of the reasons I am fascinated by the prospects of a Kindle or a Kindle-like device is that such machines would make it easier to share such early versions of works-in-progress.  I don’t think that the software for Kindle is ready yet for the uses I have in mind, but it doesn’t seem to far off (or do-able now with work-arounds like the Savory** patch for PDF functionality).

**Please note:  I do not own a Kindle yet, have not used Savory myself, so none of this is to be construed as an endorsement.  Also as Savory’s author, Jesse Vincent, notes:  the use of unsupported third party hacks may have negative consequences for your $350 box — up to and including bricking your reader.  YHBW.)

Image: Margaretta Angelica Peale, “Catalogue — a Deception,” 1813.

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