Publishers to Authors: Find Your Own Endorsements?


For a Halloween party back when I was in graduate school, a friend of mine dressed up as his imagined first book.

He wore a large cardboard box, roughly the dimensions of book, covered in paper made to look like a book jacket, with the title and his name on the front. On the back were over-the-top, gushing blurbs for the book from several of the best-known living philosophers.

The costume was a work of genius—and according to “Martha Nussbaum,” so was “the book”.

I recount this story in light of reports of a new development in the world of philosophy publishing. It’s not that authors are being asked to write their own endorsements, but some publishers are outsourcing this crucial piece of marketing to the authors by asking them to find people to write their endorsements.

One philosopher with a few books to his name wrote in about it:

Certain prominent publishers have decided to stop asking academics for endorsements that might be put on the back cover of academic monographs. Authors themselves are still invited to ask colleagues to provide endorsements, but the press no longer does this directly.  

He asks a few questions about it:

How do we as a profession feel about soliciting such endorsements? Is it off-putting for a philosopher to ask friends or non-friend colleagues to provide them with an endorsement for their forthcoming book? Or should we all accept that with the changing landscape, we’ll be happy to receive such requests? How should a prudent author approach this for their own book?

It seems to me that the problem is not just that it is off-putting. Yes, it puts both the author and the people the author asks for endorsements in a potentially awkward position.  It also diminishes the informative value of the blurbs. Sure, because of their function, the blurbs are going to be positive no matter what, but that doesn’t necessarily mean uninformative. That so-and-so was willing to say something positive about this book (and that they said—or didn’t say—such-and-such) could tell us something, if we didn’t think this was simply because they were asked to by the author.

Additionally, since different authors, especially at the start of their career, know different people, the practice of having them ask friends and colleagues they know for blurbs means that those who studied with or were introduced to more well-known people will have access to more effective endorsements. Why amplify that kind of unfairness with book marketing?

Further, this seems to be another route by which publishers can get academics to do work for free. If a publisher asks me to review a book manuscript for the purposes of either assessing or marketing the book, I’d expect the publisher to pay me for the work. But if my friends ask me to do it, I won’t be asking them to pay me.

Discussion welcome.

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Jeff Dean
8 months ago

I don’t know how widespread or rigid this practice is, but getting endorsements has always been something of a mixed bag. In my experience, authors are often part of the mix, at least in terms of suggesting potential endorsers, and are sometimes in a better position to ask than publishers (meaning, may have a better chance at success), in which case it may make sense for the author to do the approaching. It’s still much more common for the publisher to approach potential endorsers, at least at Hackett, but it wouldn’t be something new for an author to be asked to do so if the context warranted it. That said, I’d never just put it in the author’s lap, take it or leave it. As with nearly everything else in academic book publishing, it’s a collaborative process, one that should be aiming for the best outcomes within whatever opportunities and constraints may be at hand.

Sebastian Zoetesuikers
8 months ago

I think this is not a good policy because the author could simply fudge some quotes to puff up the book, and if the publisher isn’t doing due diligence, nothing would prevent this. For example, if authors are recruiting their own endorsements, anyone can say that “T. Williamson” says “This is the most brilliant piece of philosophy I’ve read in 20 years.” And if that goes on the book jacket, it will boost its credibility. And if the author is busted, the author can always wiggle out of it (e.g., “The quote is from mate’s mate, Todd Wiliamson, who can’t be reached because he’s traveling, etc. etc.).

Preston Werner
8 months ago

I don’t think this is a positive development, but I am curious: Has anyone reading this comment actually bought or not bought a book based on a blurb? I generally just ignore them, but I guess I’ve never had a conversation about this with anyone else so I am not sure how common this response it.

Jacob T. Levy
Reply to  Preston Werner
8 months ago

Yes, blurbs make a difference at the margin to me as a buyer— partly because they provide quick guidance as to what *kind* of a book it is and whether I’m in its target audience. There are at least a dozen people such that it’s true that if 2-3 of them have blurbed a book, and I haven’t heard of it before publication, I probably should have and will probably find it worthwhile to read. And there are at least that many people who provide a negative signal— not necessarily as to scholarly merit, but as to whether it’s going to be my kind of thing. Titles aren’t always informative enough. (In my field, “democracy” or “democratic” can appear in the title of books I really should read and books I never will. So too for “realist.”)

Jacob T. Levy
8 months ago

If a publisher asks me to review a book manuscript for the purposes of either assessing or marketing the book, I’d expect the publisher to pay me for the work. “

As far as I know, it’s unheardof in academic publishing to pay someone for blurbing. One often, but not always, gets a copy of the book itself, but that’s it.

As to the trend: yes, I can confirm that some top presses are now outsourcing that entirely to the authors.

Marc Champagne
8 months ago

A very prominent philosopher of mind (clear top three in the field) once told me — without even reading my book or knowing what it was about — that he only writes endorsements for former students of his. I admired the honesty, but not the brazen nepotism.

Sorgenkind
Sorgenkind
8 months ago

I’m early in my career, but have recently finished the process for my first book. While I was asked for suggestions about who to ask for blurbs, a lot of the people I suggested didn’t answer when the publisher solicited them. For this reason, about midway through the proofing process, I reached out myself to the people I had recommended. I didn’t know any of these authors ahead of time – and while I found it kind of intimidating, I have always been pretty amazed at how easy it is to get people in my corner of the academic world to read your work and offer constructive feedback. Without exception, they got back to me and were were happy to read my book and provide a blurb. I think we can easily make ourselves nervous about reaching out to people to ask them for something like this, but at least a part of what makes it off-putting comes from the fact that we’re brought up in a culture that encourages these feelings. We should be working against this culture in every way that we can. If someone doesn’t want to blurb your book, after all, they’ll tell you and you can just ask someone else.

Matt L
8 months ago

Book blurbs are funny things. If you know the people, it’s not at all unusual to see books blurbed by people who are friends, former professors (sometimes even advisors), and colleagues. Those are probably not worthless, but they are also most likely not really fully independent evidence. Still, it might not be as bad as in the world of fiction. I took fiction wirting, as an undergrad, from a professor whose first book had been blurbed by Oliver Stone. I was impressed and so asked him, and he told me that when he’d approached Stone, Stone told him that he’d either read the book or blurb it, but not both, and so he took the blurb. From talking to some other authors, my impression is that’s not super rare.

Still, it’s all nicer than the thing that happened to me once. I wrote a review of Gerald Gauss’s _The Order of Public Reason_ for the NDPR. When the paperback came out, it had blurbs from two well known political philosophers, and also a bit of my review, but attributed only to the NDPR, as if it had been an anonymous review. I realized that (even more so then) my name wasn’t going to sell books, but it was still annoying to see my work used but not attributed to me.

Daniel Weltman
Reply to  Matt L
8 months ago

I know basically nothing about fiction book blurbing, but the one thing I do know is that the last time I noticed who had blurbed a new recently-lauded book, it was a bunch of people with the same literary agent as the author of the book.

Noah
Noah
8 months ago

Not at all surprising that publishers continue to shunt more work onto academics to do for free rather than paying employees. I suggest not doing this. If the publishers think it helps sell books they will get someone to do it. Personally, I don’t think these blurbs are valuable anyway.

Cece
Cece
8 months ago

When I worked in cookbooks nearly 20 years ago, I had to solicit for blurbs. I had to send xeroxed copies of the mechanical pages to the chefs’ restaurants around the world or find agents on IMDB to send to celebrities or send to their studios and hope they received them. Then I had to figure out how to actually follow up and contact them at the deadline and help them edit their quotes for repetitive words. It was difficult to figure this out without training or any contacts and the Internet was not a robust as it is now. I’d always wondered why if the author thought this person would endorse why they didn’t at least help me save some time by providing the contacts themselves. They’re more connected to this world than a kid out of college.

Dr EM
Dr EM
8 months ago

I didn’t know this was a trend. My first book is in production with a top press and I did not solicit the blurbs (I did provide a list of possible names though).

Patrick Lin
8 months ago

I don’t recall seeing this with academic books (though I wouldn’t be surprised if it happens), but I’ve seen and received solicitations for book endorsements that offer a menu of pre-written blurbs to choose from.

Blurbs are just part of the marketing process, designed to boost sales. They’re just window-dressing and don’t mean much, unless the endorser doesn’t know the author at all and can be neutral…but a reader typically wouldn’t know if that’s the case.

To that end, it makes sense for the author to be involved with the process: they know the subject-area better than the publisher and are closer to those working in the field, which is most helpful in identifying and securing useful endorsers. Why forego that expertise? Sure, this can be off-putting to authors and their networks, if you don’t understand the nature of the publishing business, which is sales…

doris
8 months ago

I’m not sure how much of a change this represents: I’ve both asked colleagues and been asked by colleagues to “blurb” for as long as I can remember.

Agreed with Justin that this involves “network effects” which may reflect inequities, though as others have noted, it’s not clear that blurbs are esp. impactful.

What does seem to me a change: my sense is that marketing at academic presses has in many cases gotten pretty anemic, probably as a result of financial pressures. If you care about exposure, you may have to do your own marketing: eg, don’t assume the press will send examination copies around, even if they’ve made you fill out a long “marketing” form listing places they should send them. As with other stages of the process (eg, copyediting!), one is well served by closely supervising everything one’s press does.

Brad
Reply to  doris
8 months ago

Following up on Doris’ remarks, I am an editor for a Springer/Nature journal that publishes only book reviews of books in history, philosophy and sociology of science. It is much harder now to get review copies of books from publishers. 8 years ago, I often received copies of books, unsolicited. Now I work with an editorial manager at the journal who has to order review copies once we have secured a reviewer. And, a number of presses pressure us to ask reviewers to take an e-copy. I do not think this is fair, and we often push back. We have had reviewers say they will not review a book for us if they are only given an e-copy.
I am also a book author, and I know it is my responsibility to work with the Press to ensure that the right journals get copies of my books. But the Presses are not interested in sending out unlimited gratis copies. My sense is that there are so many illegal downloads of books now, that the Presses are struggle to meet their goals with respect to sales. In fact, a number of scholars have remarked to me that they have acquired copies of my books via questionable sources.

Jeff Dean
Reply to  Brad
8 months ago

It’s also the case that an increasing number of journals or other review outlets explicitly ask not to have review copies sent unless they are asked for. Moreover, my impression is that the number of venues that will review books is shrinking, and that those venues are finding that securing reviewers is more difficult than it was in the past. Like authors, publishers value reviews, not only because they may help promote the book, but because we care about the books we publish and like to see them acknowledged and engaged with.

Andrew
8 months ago

Thanks for this post. I’m currently in exactly this situation, soliciting endorsements at the request of my publisher (Routledge). One of the additional difficulties is that they are requesting that these blurbs be submitted at the same time as the manuscript. While my manuscript was basically complete at the time I signed the contract, I imagine that this might not be the norm, in which case such a policy will inevitably delay things (unless endorsers are in the habit of endorsing work they haven’t read, which raises another set of problems). I’m glad to hear that it’s not a totally atypical process, but I can’t say I’m a fan of it.

Jeff Dean
Reply to  Andrew
7 months ago

Submitting blurbs at the same time you submit the manuscript is not at all the norm as far as I’m aware. Some publishers tend to wait until proof stage, which I think is too late (it requires getting blurbs in a very compressed timeframe), but I can’t think of any reason they’d need to be complete on submission of the MS, as there’s normally a fair bit of time during copy editing and typesetting (and then proofs) to get this done.

Matt McAdam
Matt McAdam
8 months ago

I don’t think this is such a recent development. Back in 1998, I had to get all the blurbs for that costume myself.