In Which I Wrestle with Social Distancing in the Writing Industry
Updated: Mar 26, 2020
While Making Plans for the Glorious Future
First of all, before I dive in, you should know that my upcoming debut, The Mostly Invisible Boy, will be a big success. My ten-year-old, Ezra, has confirmed this. He had a dream about it. So consider that settled.
Now, on to darker and more twisty paths!
Last week, my upcoming book received an endorsement from Andrew Chilton, author of The Goblin's Puzzle. Exciting, because I really enjoy his writing, and my kids are tearing through his book too. Andrew was courteous, a pro, and a pleasure to interact with. If you're not familiar, I recommend him highly.
This caused me to reflect on my experiences in the industry. (Lots of time to reflect while on lockdown, right?) An ironic, funny thing about writing is that while 99.9% of writers are introverts, a big part of getting published is approaching total strangers and asking them to do things for you.
You ask other writers to edit your work. Ask agents to represent you. Ask published authors to write you blurbs. Ask people to buy your books. Ask bookstores to stock your books. And so on.
I've written before about how searching for an agent is like sending messages out into the cold, dark reaches of space. It can drag on for months or years. Replies, when they arrive, are form notes with a name at the bottom: I like this, send more. This isn't working for me, good luck. (There are rare exceptions.)
It makes sense, because publication is not only a business but a battle of ideas. Every agent has a preferred point of view, a set of values. Often, showing up on an agent's wishlist has more to do with who you are before you touch a keyboard than it does with what you write.
I found myself thinking about this dynamic when I began my quest for author blurbs. Here's how it works: You find someone who's written something good, tap them on the shoulder and say, Hey, I admire what you've done. Would you be willing to say something nice about me as I try to accomplish something similar?
It's humbling, of course. There's a possible conflict of interest. There's the fact that anyone who's written something good, let alone a bestseller, probably gets dozens of blurb requests a year. Hundreds? I don't know; I'm new here.
The upshot is, it's a lot like querying. Probably I should've seen this coming. This childish naiveté will kill me yet. But when you send an author a note, you don't usually hear back.
It makes sense. An unknown writer from an indie press sends you an email—carefully personalized, but still—and says, Hey, would you consider taking a look at my story and considering an endorsement? It's asking a lot.
And there's a troubling question. Let's say you, the published author, says, Sure, send it over. And they do. And to your horror, you find yourself looking at, in the timeless words of Princess Bride (the perfect quarantine movie), a miserable, vomitous mass.
In that case, you most likely say nothing and hope the problem goes away.
But I've found that most authors skip straight to that last part––no interaction, no reading pages, no response. Which I think is understandable but kind of sad—or maybe more to the point, kind of dissonant.
In the pages of our books, underdogs get second and third chances, initiative is rewarded, and everyone is significant, especially if they start the story alone. In our industry...social distancing has been the norm for years. Starting at the top and trickling on down. The sharp contrast between real and imagined is pretty weird. Maybe I'm lacking in perspective. Maybe I'm missing something obvious. Maybe...hey, enough maybes.
Here's where the glorious future comes in. Ezra the prophet says The Mostly Invisible Boy will transcend the recession, we'll build a tree castle, and, you guessed it...new authors will start asking me for blurbs.
How would I handle that?
Well, I'd like the IRL writing world to have more warmth and creativity. And until I can buy a majority share in HarperCollins or start a lit agency, this is one small corner of it I can touch.
So if I got blurb requests, I'd read them. Some I would ignore—the ones with no manners and bad grammar. And the others...I'm not sure what percentage we'd be talking, or how many requests per year, but...I'd entertain them.
I'd send a note back with an acknowledgment and a few caveats, and say, Hey, I'll take a look at this. I'll give it a few chapters, and if I like them, I'll read the whole dang book (I like reading) and maybe ask my kids what they think. And if things go well, I'll send you that blurb. Fighting chance, ok?
If the demands on my time became too much (a great problem, right?), I'd probably hand the process over to my kids. You think I'm kidding. I'm not. They read a lot and they're smart. They rattle off great blurbs all the time.
So as you can see, I've got this all worked out. In an industry where social distancing is the norm, I think we can do better. With some honesty and effort, we can make connections like the ones that light up the pages of our books.