From A. J. JACOBS
My friend, the writer Andy Borowitz, sent me an e-mail that said: “I had the strangest experience today. I went into Barnes & Noble and saw a book that you didn’t blurb.”
I have a reputation.
I’ve blurbed so many books that they fill a bookcase in my apartment. The exact number? Hard to say, but certainly in the triple digits. I’ve given a workout to adverbs like “tremendously” and “incredibly,” and adjectives like “brilliant” and “fascinating.” I have blurbed memoirs, novels, comic books, children’s books and a half-dozen book proposals. I accidentally used the exact same blurb on two different books.
My blurbing problem got so bad that the New York Times book critic Dwight Garner tweeted, “Half the crap galleys I’ve seen in the past year were blurbed by one human: A. J. Jacobs.” His hashtag: #timeforanintervention. Within an hour, both my agent and my editor did intervene. In a state of great concern, they told me I had to take a vow of endorsement abstinence. So for almost a year now, I’ve been a prude. I’ve been shut down, I tell potential blurbees. I apologize, and explain that my former life of free literary love is over.
The whole career in blurbing began because I’ve written several books with the year-of-doing-something theme. Every subsequent author in that genre has sent me his or her manuscript. “I’ve written a book about my year of wearing clogs. Would you consider endorsing?” I also wrote a book about the Bible, which has resulted in a multitude of requests from religious authors. Before my gag rule, I blurbed about half of the books I was sent, maybe more. I did this for three reasons.
First, publishing is a cruel business. Every month, 40 good books come out and 37 of them slip into oblivion. I’m not even sure if blurbs make a difference in sales, but I figured, if I can help a bit, I should. My fellow prolific blurber Gretchen Rubin, whose book “The Happiness Project” I extolled as “filled with great insights,” puts it this way: “When, as a new writer, I was suffering the uncomfortable process of asking for blurbs, I swore that if anyone ever asked me, I’d blurb that book if I possibly could. Plus, while I don’t really believe in karma, I sort of believe in karma.”
Second, even if I don’t think the book is a masterwork by the next Steven Pinker, one that will alter Western society’s intellectual history, there’s often something to like about it. Worst case, I can always compliment the choice of typeface.
Third, frankly, it’s good for my wobbly ego. I enjoy getting praise for my praise. (My line that “I would read Mary Roach on the history of Quonset huts” elicited a lovely e-mail from Roach.) I get a thrill from seeing my name scattered throughout the bookstore. Malcolm Gladwell, a noted and talented endorser, pointed out this self-aggrandizing side of blurbing when I reached him. “People always ask me why I don’t tweet,” he said. “And my answer is that I blurb. They are, after all, conceptually identical: the short, targeted judgment in which the initiator draws attention to himself while seeming to draw attention to something else.”
But even before my publisher stopped me, I was starting to notice the dangers of overlavishing. Because of my reputation as an easy blurber, my request pile started to grow exponentially. A handful of readers complained that I’d led them astray. One TV producer chewed me out because he booked an author interview based on my blurb (which seemed to be placing way too much trust in my taste); the guest turned out to be a snooze. I actually thought the book was interesting. Then again, I have a lower-than-average bar of what counts as interesting. (Example: I have watched a documentary about origami — twice.)
My standard blurb was an adverb-adjective phrase (“wildly creative”) followed by a mildly to barely amusing comment about the topic (“Thou shalt read this book,” for one about the Bible). After a while, I started running out of modifiers. In fact, I once praised a book called “No Impact Man,” about a guy who tried to live a carbon-neutral life: “Buy this book. Read it. Compost it.”
Not a bad blurb, I thought to myself. Until I looked at my files and found that I’d used the identical joke a year before on a book called “Farewell, My Subaru,” about a guy who ditched city life to live off the grid. I e-mailed the publisher to change it. Too late, he said. For a few months, I fretted I’d be mocked on Gawker for plagiarizing myself. I even prepared my defense: “In the spirit of the books, I just recycled. We must conserve our precious joke resources.”
Luckily no one caught me. But I got plenty of general ridicule from my fellow writers. One suggested I at least make some money off my habit, charging $25 per adjective. Another asked if I was working on a project about blurbing every book published for a year.
I didn’t blurb every book. I was once sent a book about the history of the Bible and planned to blurb it, until I got to Page 3, where it mentioned my own Bible-themed book: “Not that it wasn’t an entertaining read, but the project had some real problems.” I drew the line at endorsing books with condescending remarks about my own work.
I’m not the only writer with a reputation. A literary blog once created a word collage out of all blurbs by the novelist Gary Shteyngart. “My blurbing standards are very high,” Shteyngart told me. “I look for the following: Two covers, one spine, at least 40 pages, ISBN number, title, author’s name. Once those conditions are satisfied, I blurb. And I blurb hard. I’ve blurbed about a hundred novels in the past 10 years, nearly every one that landed on my desk. Due to some horrible mix-up I didn’t get the chance to blurb Téa Obreht’s excellent first novel. It’s the one that got away.”
Shteyngart sees an end to his blurbing career. “Statistically, most of the books I blurb actually do worse in the marketplace. People roll their eyes as if to say, Even Shteyngart blurbed it. Someday publishers will realize this and stop sending me manuscripts. Until then, I will continue to ruin many young careers with my so-called promiscuous praise.”
I haven’t completely retired, much to the chagrin of my agent and publisher. Like George Foreman (who knows from endorsing, incidentally), I come out of retirement and make an occasional appearance, especially if the book in question was written by a friend. That’s partly why I wrote this. If I can’t write endless blurbs, at least I can write about writing them. Speaking of which, I showed this essay to Shteyngart, hoping for a blurb. He responded: “The fact that A. J. Jacobs wrote this in 20 minutes, hung over in bed and dressed in his rubber-ducky pajamas, bespeaks of his superior talent.”