“Because I Might have to Read some of Yours. . .”

- by Elaine Isaak

The poet and essayist Alexander Pope used this reply when a friend asked why he never gave him any of his work to read before publication.  While I think in many cases, Pope’s reply is a rather harsh and definitely arrogant, I do think that some caution must be taken for the professional novelist, particularly in the special circumstances afforded by his or her position as a published writer.

I try to make it a policy to purchase the first novel of any friend who gets published.  I don’t guarantee I’ll buy the second one, and I don’t always get around to reading the first one, alas.  Often times, I give them to friends with more time to read, or a special interest in that kind of book.  I hope it helps my writer-friends to find a good audience.

However, there are two occasions when I, or any novelist, might be asked to read the work pre-publication:  recommendations to my agent or editor, and the infamous blurb.

I try, when possible to help out other writers.  There were writers who helped me (Allen Steele, Robert J. Sawyer, Barbara Campbell) and I think the best way to return this favor is to pay it forward to the next group of writers.  So I don’t mind recommending them to my agent or editor when appropriate.  For me, this means I know the other writer and think he or she will give a positive, professional impression.  I think the newbie will be hard-working, open to editorial comment, not vindictive, and (hopefully) still be my friend even if the connection doesn’t work out.  I like to read at least part of the work in question, to get a feel for whether it’s really ready to submit, and would be appropriate to the recipient.  If not, then I’ll need to apologize and say no.  I may offer some remarks as to why.  This is the part where I hope he or she will still be my friend later. . .

But blurbing is worse.  Blurbs are those little quotes on the cover of a book written by another, more well-known writer.  I don’t get asked very often, in part because I’m not that much more well-known, but it happens from time to time that someone I know thinks their work would appeal to my readership, and that my name would help.  Again, I’m happy to give it a try.  But the stakes are higher now.  The author has already committed to the publication of this work.  Feedback is no longer required, or even appreciated–no matter how desperately I might like to offer it.  Presumably, if the book has already found an audience in the editor and publisher, then they will go on to discover the right readership for it.  That just may not happen to be me.

Many authors give the automatic caveat that they are very busy, don’t have much time to read, may not get around to reading the book in time for blurbing.  Aside from the fact that this is often true, it’s also a handy out.  If you start to read the book and don’t like it, don’t get it, or don’t feel comfortable having your name associated with it, all you have to do is set it aside and let the author assume that you never had a chance to read it.  (This is one reason it took me 18 months to find out the blurb copies for my first novel had never been sent: the last thing I wanted to do was to put my prospective blurbers on the spot by asking why I didn’t get their blurb.).

What to do if you want a published author buddy to read your book for recommendation or blurb?  First:

1. Make sure that the author’s connections are the right ones for the book.  Does her agent or editor handle your genre?  Does her readership likely overlap with your target market?

2. Make sure the book is really ready to go:  unless you are looking for critical feedback and the author knows it, then the author should not be the first reviewer of the finished work.  Try your critique group, wise reader or knowledgeable friend before you go to the pro’s.

3.  Be twice as polite as usual.

4.  Keep your expectations low.  I know, this is one of the really hard parts of our business.  At some point, you’ll write the book you think is your *best*work*ever* and even that book will not appeal to all readers.

5.  No matter what happens, say thanks!

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