We are exactly 75 days out from the release of The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini! Let’s talk blurbs!
Well, wait, first here are the obligatory preorder links.
OK, enough of that. Let’s get back to blurbs.
Blurbs are those sentences of praise you will generally see on the back (and sometimes the front) that look like this.
“Scary!” — Stephen King
“Really scary!” — Bram Stoker
“I can’t even believe how scary this was!” — Mary Shelley
“I pooped myself!” — Edgar Allen Poe
You may wonder: How did those blurbs get there? This is actually a great question because blurbs tend to look like natural occurrences … like Edgar Allen Poe happened to be walking through a bookstore, saw this book, and read it, pooped himself, and alerted the publishing house that he wanted to say something.
But, alas, this is not how it happens. Authors go out get the blurbs.
Do blurbs sell books? This is a point of contention. There seems to be a constant battle between the writers, who have to secure them, and the publishing houses who, mostly, do not.
In the past few years — through no particular achievement of my own — I have become a blurber rather than a blurbee. That is to say that maybe three or four times a month someone will reach out to me and ask if I would be willing to read and blurb their book. This is both flattering and trying. It is flattering because they actually think that my words can help them and they would like me to share the cover of a book they have worked so hard to write. I mean, that has to make you feel good.
It is trying because, honestly, who has the time to read extra books?
I do try. I have blurbed a lot of books. But, alas, I will admit I turn down more blurbs than I pick up because I made myself a promise that I would never write a blurb without reading the whole book. And there just isn’t enough time to read them all.
I will say this: I have enjoyed every book I’ve agreed to blurb. I’ve been lucky that way. My praise for these books has always been sincere; if you happen to come across a book I blurbed, well, I really meant it.
In any case, I have been on the blurbing side of the game for so long, that I almost forgot what it is like to ask people to read MY book in the hopes that they might offer a kind word. It’s hard. It’s gut-wrenching. It’s nerve-wracking.
But I did do it for The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini. We all agreed — including all the good folks at Avid Reader — that for this one we needed some other voices because, let’s face it, Houdini and magic is a whole new world for me.
So I thought carefully about which three people I would ask.
One, I wanted someone who is an icon in the Houdini world. In this spirit, I asked John Cox, who runs the impossibly comprehensive and lovingly crafted Wild About Harry blog and is one of the true Houdini experts on earth. John is a world-class guy, but I was still nervous about sending him the book, nervous that he would say (in the absolute nicest way possible) “Yeah, you made 2.4 million mistakes in here and you got Houdini and magic all wrong.”
Instead, he offered this blurb that I re-read often to make myself feel good.
“Joe Posnanski has produced the most informative and moving book ever written about Harry Houdini. It separates fact from fiction but also tackles the larger question of why the great escapist is still so loved (and hated!) in the magic community today. The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini is a remarkable journey into the heart of Houdini World.”
Second, I went to a hero, David Maraniss. I sometimes think we need a Wins Above Replacement system for writers, not so much to rank them — I don’t think ranking people is WAR’s great strength — but to help us appreciate those who do MANY things well.
That’s David. He’s the Clemente of writing. He’s a brilliant reporter, a graceful writer, a great thinker, an impossibly organized force (I’ve seen a little bit of how he works) and he’s probably an above average baserunner. He has written brilliant books on Presidents, on cities, on his own family — and then, why not, he jumps into the sports world and his biographies of Vince Lombardi and Roberto Clemente are the absolute gold standard. I was super nervous about what he might think of Houdini.
He offered this blurb that I re-read often to make myself feel good.
“Whatever mystical inspiration drew Joe Posnanski to the story of Harry Houdini, readers will be forever grateful. Joe’s writing about the mysterious and mythical magician is touched by its own stunning magic.”
And, then, I asked a friend, the brilliant Linda Holmes, radio star, PosCast Special Correspondent and author of the runaway New York Times bestseller Evvie Drake Starts Over, which is so funny and so full of heart that if I didn’t love Linda so much I’d be a puddle of jealousy. I honestly did not want to ask Linda for a blurb because I knew that she was right in the middle of this wild and exhausting ride that comes with writing a runaway New York Times bestseller (I mean, she got to No. 1 on Amazon!).
But I so desperately did want to share this experience (and the cover) with Linda … so I asked.
I re-read her blurb often to make myself feel good.
“As wise in its insights as it is thorough in its research, The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini is more than just a terrific Houdini biography. It is also a book about how we create and regard legends. Like all essential cultural histories, it concerns itself not just with what happened, but with why so many of us have cared so much.”
I mean, what can you do after reading that except blush joyfully.
In the end, I don’t know if blurbs sell books. I really don’t. I always look at them when I’m in a bookstore, but mostly I do so I can note the curiosities … like, why did DJ Khaled blurb “Everyday Pasta Dishes” or why did Sally Jessy Raphael blurb “101 Things A Broncos Fan Should Do Before He/She Dies?”*
*These are not real.
I don’t know that I’ve ever bought a book entirely based on the blurbs. But I’m sure that I’ve picked up a book that looked interesting, seen a cool blurb on it from a cool person, and thought, “Yeah, I’ll give this a shot.”
Anyway, that’s my best hope, right?