Diary of a Trade Book (Newton and the Counterfeiter) 8.0: Catching Eyeballs 1 — freelancing and blurbso

Apologies for the gaps in this series — let my advise any would-be writers not to try to close on a house whilst publishing their books. (As for the wisdom of buying a house at all amidst global financial meltdown…that’s another story. If I could count I wouldn’t be in this business…;)

There are a lot of stray threads on publishing as a general proposition and some specifics as to what’s happening right now with Newton and the Counterfeiter, (Amazon, Powells, Barnes and Noble, Indiebound), so my plan for the next couple of days is to mix some background with some of the right now in a few, hopefully shorter posts.

This one is about the most basic task an author has to accomplish, besides writing the thing in the first place.  You have to put your book in the best possible place to secure an audience.

That’s it.  Books unread are books forlorn.

I don’t write for myself.

I do the writing for me.  The play of language, the pleasure of finding things out, the puzzle solving, the sheer daunting “I’ll never get this done” terror to be overcome, all of it — this is what gives me happiness on every most some one or two working days.

But the work once written is for others, and if those others don’t see it in sufficient quantities, what’s the point?  A journal and a commonplace book would be enough for solo pleasure.  I write to engage in conversation with others, and for that  you need eyeballs.  And they can be hard to find …which is what this series is all about.

So, first, full disclosure:  on the record so far, I’m crappy about doing this part of the book-writer’s job well.  My books have emerged to a whimper of public outcry for the most part.  I have all kinds of excuses.  (Have I mentioned that you shouldn’t publish a book of serious trade non-fiction about Albert Einstein three weeks into a then popular war?  Oh, I have?  Sorry.)

But excuses aside, not only am I reasonably bad at attracting attention to my own work, so are almost all authors, and, increasingly most publishers.  I’ll write more about my experience with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on Newton, but the short form is that while I think they are working hard and are ahead of some others in making the transition to a publishing marketplace in which the power of print reviews has waned enormously, they have some way to go yet.  (And I’ll promise you that’s about the most measured a sentence as you will ever get out of an author about the amount their publisher is doing for their book.)

But that said, it’s still pretty clear that there are some things that always benefit a book.

The first is the hardest:  that’s the need to keep your name, voice and as much of the project as possible (without giving awaythe store) in the public eye throughout the writing process.

Writers who write books in the context of an ongoing shorter-form publication (and/or if the venue is large enough, bloggging) build audience.  It’s easy to think of folks who do this well — Carl Zimmer, Natalie Angier, Richard Preston, Jonah Lehrer….and so on — there are many others, many of them friends of mine, who in the rush of blogging escape my brain.  May they forgive the oversight.

These are all well established writers who emerged as authors of books out of journalistic careers.  A couple of them blog (Carl and Jonah — I’m not sure of the others) and they remain in the public eye, often if not almost always writing on themes and specific subjects that will animate their book length work.  Two folks coming up with their first trade books in the next year or less who do the same are Rebecca Skloot and Sean Carroll.

All of these people build audience — and even more, relationships with their potential book-readers.  It’s invaluable.  I can’t tell you how much a publisher will celebrate signing a writer with a known base of interest.

I’ve never been able to get it together to write short form stuff while I’m doing a book; I can’t multitask that way.

More, given the fact that I’ve always had either my current day job or the pressure of another project, usually my next film, bearing down on me, I haven’t taken advantage of the several months between submission of the mss. and the rush to publication of the book to kick out half a dozen or more articles, all of which note that a new book is coming.

So don’t do what I do, but what I say.  I mean it.  There is no substitute for a profile in as much of the mass media as you can reach.  Plus, it seriously helps pay the bills.

What does this means in practice for true first timers?

The usual:  there is a hierarchy of media out there, from alt-weeklies to The New Yorker, and from niche (the news front of the book for Nature:whatever subdiscipline we can sell into) to true mass — Time, The Wall St. Journal, The World Weekly News.

Think about which ones you like to read, and which  kinds of stories within them hold you, and pitch stories like those to the publications that put them out.  (I know — a PGO. But the suggestion to read –carefully– the venues in which you would like to publish comes as news to some of my students every year, so I thought I’d just put that out there here).

Now what about the other modes of reaching and exchanging with readers who may then want to buy your book? Clearly blogging, first, and then twittering and all the other modes of creating a two way street, or sense of of one at least, with a readership are of value.  I’m going to talk about what I think I’ve learned as something (only that? –ed) of a latecomer to these media in one of the next posts…but here, let’s get to the one that I have found out — by doing it wrong — that you can’t leave late, and you can’t leave to your publisher.

That’s the blurbs, those quotes from hopefully famous people who will swear that your work is the one, the only, the absolute necessity for your eyeballs.

Publishers ask you for a list of potential blurbers, and your editor will often suggest some people that she or he may know or know-people-who-do.  You’ll supply them, a few whom you know, and then an increasingly fanciful wish list.

(I included Paul Krugman on mine for Newton … Why not?  There’s a lot of economic history in there, and some of it links up nicely with the predicament we’re in now.  But I did not have, or at least, I did not exploit what connections I could have made through MIT’s econ department to get a direct line to Nobel Paul…so no luck; but about this, more below).

Then your editor will write a nice letter asking the list if they would kindly take a look at this wonderful new book about polychrome widgets and the transformation of western civilization.  Then they’ll wait.

What will they wait for?  Bound galleys or what are called ARCs — Advanced Reading Copies — which are just bound galleys printed on better paper and which boast glossy covers illustrated with your final cover design.

The problem with this is twofold. First of all, it means that if you are not already very well known, you are in effect attempt to break into the brain-space of very busy and successful people who don’t know you from Adam.

Second, you’ll be asking those influential strangers to help you at double time.  The gap between the production of bound galleys and the lock date for your cover copy is small — a few weeks, five or six at the outside.  Imagine you are in the middle of all of your various tasks and a package hits your mailbox containing 100,000 words by somebody you don’t know asking you to read it and put your reputation behind it in public…in a month.

It does happen.  Just not often, and not always with the degree of enthusiasm that produces a quote that propels the book.

This is why my first book had, I think, just one blurb.  My second was a bit better, and Einstein in Berlin a little better still — but it wasn’t until Newtonthat I organized myself to get the job done right.*

There are two keys to what I did. The more important is the fact that I’ve been at this a while.  Over the years, I’ve had the good fortune to meet many of the writers I admire, those whose work I value and whose good opinion I hope to earn.  That gave my list of potential blurbers a much larger group of people who would at least know who I was and what I do than my early tallies had.

The second is that I ignored protocol and got started early…really early.  I got in touch myself (itself something of a delicate manouver) with the first of the people I really wanted on the book jacket in September, 2008, five, maybe six months, maybe a bit more, before bound galleys were scheduled to arrive.

Given the length of this “shorter” post, I’ll talk in detail about the blurb campaign in the next post…but for here, I’ll just say it was not just my most successful, but, according to my various editors (three on this project, remember), as good as any they’ve yet seen.  You can see here what, in alphabetical order, David Bodanis, Junot Díaz, Timothy FerrisBrian Greene, Walter Isaacson, Sylvia Nasar, and Neal Stephenson, had to say about the book in advance of publication.

Also in the next post: do blurbs matter? (quickie answer — yes they do, but in ways that may not be obvious.)

*I hope its obvious that the failings in my blurb quests for my early books is not a reflection on the blurbers, who were both generous and wonderful.  They included people like Tim Ferris, who has been a strong supporter of my career for a long time; Diane Ackerman, with whom I share a love of chocolate; and  Hilary Putnam, who is both perhaps the smartest man I will ever meet (how many  have both shared in the solution to one of the Hilbert problems and produced the philosophical thought experiment that lies behind The Matrix trilogy, anyway?), and one of the wisest and kindest as well.

The blurbs were great, in other words.  There just weren’t enough of them, and they weren’t designed (more on that next post) to corral the full range of those potentially interested in each project.  And that’s all on me.

Image:   Johann Heinrich Füssli “Tiresias appears to Ulysses during the sacrifice,”  1780-85.

Explore posts in the same categories: Name dropping, Newton and the Counterfeiter, Publishing, Self-aggrandizement, Uncategorized

6 Comments on “Diary of a Trade Book (Newton and the Counterfeiter) 8.0: Catching Eyeballs 1 — freelancing and blurbso”


  1. Great stuff, Tom! I hope you write that post about your blurb story soon … I’m nearing blurb point now and I keep hearing that I should wait to contact people. But my gut says I should start reaching out soon so people can get it on their schedules.

  2. Susan Greco Says:

    Tom,
    I heard you interviewed by Ira Flatow on SciFri and enjoyed the interview a great deal. I was so taken in by the story that I’ll be buying your book and adding it to my summer beach reading pile. After having gone to the SciFri website to make sure I had your name and the title of the book, I somehow stumbled here next. I look forward to reading much more!

    Be well,
    ~Susan~

  3. Eric Roston Says:

    Oh, man. My hands are shaking from flashbacks just reading this post. I gotta lay down.


  4. […] up in his ongoing series about the writing and publishing process of his new book, this one about generating publicity. At this point, he’s gone past what I’ve experienced so far, but this is fortuitously […]


  5. […] up in his ongoing series about the writing and publishing process of his new book, this one about generating publicity. At this point, he’s gone past what I’ve experienced so far, but this is fortuitously […]


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