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.