I’d Be Grateful for Your Blurb: Making the Ask (a little) Less Awkward

February 3, 2022 § 15 Comments

By Mallory McDuff

Oprah. Terry. Cheryl. Janisse. Brené. Liz.

It took ten seconds to write their first names on a blank index card, as if I were brainstorming party invites or recalling past lovers. I was a member of their virtual paparazzi, following these famous authors on social media, not to suck up, but because I thought of myself as a close friend of their work.

When my editor later reminded me of the deadline for endorsements for my book, Our Last Best Act, about revising my final wishes with climate and community in mind—I started with my pie-in-the-sky list. Typing out the names, I used the heading “long shots.”

“I realize this list is aspirational,” I wrote, apologetically. “So I’ve included writers within my reach in bold.”

The word “blurb” was first used by the late humorist Gelett Burgess, whose 1907 book cover featured a photo of a woman he named “Miss Belinda Blurb,” shouting affirmations. These days the requisite “ask” can feel like a request to sit at the adult table.

My list included climate experts, writers specializing in grief, practitioners of green burial, and those long-shot authors and influencers. Blending memoir with on-the-ground research, my book stemmed from the tragic mirror-image deaths of my parents—and my father’s lifelong intention to have a funeral that relied on family and friends without harm to the Earth.

I’d spent a year researching end-of-life options like conservation cemeteries, aquamation, death doulas, green burial, home funerals, and even human composting. My 15 and 22-year old daughters gave input about each choice, since they would have to implement my plan.  

So the story was personal. But as a professor of environmental education and a single mom in the mountains of North Carolina, I didn’t have time during the pandemic to get existential or insecure about asking for blurbs. The process became relational, small points of connection for the long haul. Here’s what I learned that made the task feel a little less awkward:

Rejection now might lead to connection later.

While I didn’t hear back from Oprah or Cheryl Strayed, I received lovely rejection notes from several well-known authors or their PR people. Making a human connection felt like a win, even if it didn’t result in a blurb. One writer hadn’t responded to my e-mails, yet she discovered my request in her inbox months later and asked me to be a guest on her podcast. A climate scientist who declined to blurb offered to share my book on social media. Given her platform, I considered her offer a win.

Social media can be a viable way to engage and even follow up.

I’m a social media addict who doesn’t own a smartphone—for a reason. But communication with authors on social media was a vital way to connect, through comments about their posts but also direct messages. Long before writing this book, I’d been an authentic presence on their feeds. Literary citizenship felt like a positive use of time online.

Endorsers may give critical feedback before the book goes to print. 

One of my endorsers who was an expert in green burial also sent three pages of single-spaced feedback, which were vital for my final edits. While I would have loved her suggestions earlier in the editing process, her input at that stage still proved invaluable.

Our shared humanity connects us—even in the awkward practice of asking for blurbs.

One of my dream endorsers wrote me at 10:30 pm as I graded papers on my laptop in bed. That night, we exchanged messages about the challenges faced by our teens in pandemic times, the struggles that held our hearts much more than a blurb or a book launch. I’ll never forget the last line of her e-mail that night: Drink some tea. Go for a walk. Take care of yourself.

Another A-game writer couldn’t commit to a blurb until she read the entire book. The hard copy arrived at her home the weekend before her family planned to gather with her elderly father—to talk about his final wishes. None of my strategic lists or Instagram fangirl comments could have anticipated the depth of that shared experience. Some trust in the serendipity of the universe reminded me of the mystery beyond my control.

Despite these lessons, asking for blurbs may remain one of the “most dreaded parts of writing books,” as an Episcopal priest wrote after asking me to blurb her forthcoming book. Decades ago, my parents had been on her “discernment committee,” a group who provide guidance to someone considering the priesthood.

“I was thinking about how much I adored your parents and how meaningful they were to my beginning life as a priest,” she wrote me. “That’s some wonderfully godly stuff—that in my life as a writer, I meet you.”

Writing about life, death, and Earth—in a climate crisis in a pandemic—made me see the people whose endorsements I sought as fellow travelers discerning the next best path. Brené Brown says it best with her book, I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn’t): Making the Journey from ‘What Will People Think?’ to ‘I Am Enough.’ We’re all trying to create meaning with our stories. Asking and giving help along the way is one small gift we can share.

___________________

Mallory McDuff is the author of four books including her most recent: Our Last Best Act: Planning for the End of Our Lives to Protect the People and Places We Love (Dec. 2021, Broadleaf Books). She teaches environmental education at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, NC. Her essays have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, WIRED, and more. @malmcduff

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§ 15 Responses to I’d Be Grateful for Your Blurb: Making the Ask (a little) Less Awkward

  • rachaelhanel says:

    This is karma! I’m sending a letter this very day to a dream blurb-er. What’s the harm in asking is my philosophy. As you point out, you don’t know what other connections might stem from that ask. I was already nicely turned down by another dream blurb-er but he couldn’t have been kinder.

    • Mallory McDuff says:

      Best of luck to you! As you said, what’s the hard in asking? And we know it’s the game we play for now. I just read about an author whose publisher let her mother blurb her book (she was a central character). You just never know!

  • Oh, my. What excellent advice all around! (I even needed to find “Drink some tea. Go for a walk. Take care of yourself,” which was my own pet line back in the day.”)

  • Flo Levia says:

    I love the increasing acceptance the author has developed for how her requests have landed with people who don’t know her, but she already has a relationship with, through their books! Whether they write back or not, or maybe even touch base later, she is planting seeds in the people who seem most likely to resonate with the values in her book. I have been working on promotions and marketing for my own first book, with much trepidation and hand-wringing. She has inspired me to have more courage and equanimity in following my intuition for my “asks”, no matter what comes back. It’s just planting seeds…

    • Mallory McDuff says:

      I can relate to the hand-wringing for sure! I think the fact that I was so busy with parenting and teaching in pandemic meant I couldn’t overthink it! And it helped me to think about these writers as my literary friends. Of course, I couldn’t access some of the big, big names, but it was fun to try!

  • kperrymn says:

    I love this article. It reminds me that we’re all just people, after all. It’s connecting to one another that matters. Thank you!

  • I’ve had the need for blurbs in the back of my head but I’d kept it there until reading this post. The detailed plan for my book didn’t include anything about it, even though I knew I needed it. Obviously, I was struggling with even the thought it! Thank you, Mallory, for changing my perspective about what this ask really is.

    • Mallory McDuff says:

      Thanks for reading the essay, Donna! It helped me to think about people whom I was fairly certain would agree and then add names as “reaches.” Thinking of it as a bit of a game and a mystery helped me out. In many cases, just figuring out how to contact folks was the hardest part. That’s where it helped to have established some connection already via social media. But in the end, people are busy, and the search takes a lot of time for those of us who aren’t big-name writers! May the games begin though! Best of luck to you!!

  • peaceandconversation says:

    I Love this article

  • JanisseRay says:

    Writing a blurb for you was one of the easiest things I’ve ever done. What a great writer you are. And such a good book.

  • stellasavoy says:

     Hello Brevity Blog,

    I have noticed over the past few years that you rarely, if ever, publish people of color in your blog. Judging by the photos, your guest bloggers are almost exclusively white. I wasn’t going to say anything, talked myself out of it many times, was worried about how it would be received. I am not a blog writer I have no agenda. I only wonder if this lack of diversity is something you are aware of and are working on.

    I come in peace!

    Most sincerely, Michelle Pilar Hamill

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

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