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 Ferris, Brian 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