Among the tasks assigned to an author whose book is being published in the small press world is finding appropriate writers to blurb the forthcoming book. This means identifying several people—hopefully with some name recognition—who might be simpatico with the subject matter and/or style of the book and who will agree to write a pithy statement of positive points that will make a buyer want to own and read what is inside the book. And yes, blurbs occupy the back cover of a book or, if it might attain stature as a hardback, the book jacket.
Most prospective authors are not comfortable with this task. Asking for critique, especially when that critique is expected to help sell the new author’s book, puts ego on the line. This exercise brings up all the issues about a writer’s hubris, entitlement, vulnerability, fear of rejection, and other things overlooked.
IN THE BLURB BUSINESS…
The Steiny Road Poet is close to finishing this onerous task for her forthcoming collection of poetry “The Anima of Paul Bowles.” MadHat Press promises to launch the book at the end of 2015 at the Brooklyn Book Fair, which is lauded as a rather hip event.
What are the rules for who can blurb? As far as Steiny knows anything goes but it depends. Blurb writers who are known by your audience are usually a solid investment. Good bets for blurbs are your teachers, other publishers of your work but also known for their personal writing, and experts on your subject matter. Getting your mother, no matter how famous she is, to blurb your book is deeply frowned upon. Risky, but not entirely ruled out, is getting someone to blurb your book after you have blurbed that person’s book.
How does a writer ask for a blurb? Carefully is the first point of order. The writer should always give the prospective blurbist room to back out. This is especially important if the writer asking knows the person being approached.
What happens if the writer asking doesn’t like what the blurbist wrote? First, the publisher of the book needs to see the blurb. If both publisher and forthcoming author agree the blurb is problematic and no amount of cutting will make what was written better, then just before publication, someone—perhaps the publisher—should notify the blurb writer that his/her comment will not be used. Nonetheless, the rejected blurbist should be sent a gratis copy of the book, just as a free copy should be sent to each of the other blurb writers.
THE BLURBLESS TENDER BUTTONS
Tender Buttons by Gertrude Stein was published in 1914 by Marie Claire, a small press publisher based in New York. Although the concept of a short comment of praise written for a new book had been conceived as early as 1902 by a German publisher named Karl Robert Langewiesche (called a klappentext, it was placed inside the book on page two under the half title) and in 1907 by the American humorist Gelett Burgess (he coined the word blurb), Stein’s first invited publication had no blurbs.
SINGING STEIN’S P(H)RAISES
This lack set Steiny’s mind in motion about who would have been appropriate blurb writers for Tender Buttons and what they might have written. Abandoning proper publishing protocol, Steiny offers these celebrities and puts words in their mouths.
From her portrait painter and friend, Pablo Picasso: “Considering Gertrude Stein paints from a palette borrowed from me, I say she is the Roastbeef genius of France if not America.”
From her friend, French poet Guillaume Apollinaire: “When man wanted to make a machine that would walk, he created the wheel. In Tender Buttons, Gertrude Stein exceeds legs and wheels with thought machines that fly.”
From her childhood neighbor and groundbreaking dancer, Isadora Duncan: “I may only be a dancer who lived next door to the ever young Gertrude Stein but I know the gesture of good sentences. In the evening there is feeling for the poetry of Tender Buttons.”
From avant-garde composer Igor Stravinsky: “While lesser artists borrow and great artists steal, Gertrude Stein throws shoes and rhubarb into artistic machinery. I hear her fascinating Tender Buttons music but it is so other worldly, my ears explode with her sound.”
From African-American composer Scott Joplin: “I always say it’s never right to play ragtime fast so don’t speed by Gertrude Stein’s black, black took in Tender Buttons. You might miss the pearl pearl goat.”
Steiny abandoned world famous entertainers Cab Calloway (1907-1994) and Josephine Baker (1906-1975) as well as writer Langston Hughes (1902-1967) as potential Tender Buttons blurbers because they were too young when the book was published. With deep regret, Steiny nixed philosopher-psychologist William James (1842-1910), Stein’s Harvard professor, but Steiny wrote his blurb on Tender Buttons anyway:
William James: “Though Gertrude Stein measures and counts, nothing habitual inhabits the lines of Tender Buttons. What she offers in her objects, food, and rooms may seem ordinary, but just below the surface things fractally divide into dimensions beyond what we know.”
Steiny would be remiss if she didn’t mention who blurbed Tender Buttons: The Corrected Centennial Editon edited by Seth Perlow—Cornell University professor Jonathan Culler, author of Structuralist Poetics: Structuralism, Linguistics and the Study of Literature; noted Stein and women’s studies scholar Catharine R. Stimpson; Language poet Charles Bernstein, and performance poet Anne Waldman, co-founder of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at the Naropa Institute. Steiny will cherry pick their words and phrases to give you an impression of what these blurbers emphasized. Jonathan Culler: authoritative…splendid…documentation. Catharine R. Stimpson: happy 100th…delicious as…day you were born. Charles Bernstein: touchstone…radical…fullest…realization of ‘wordness.’ Anne Waldman: salvos…that give belletristic…political perspective.
Happy birthday Tender Buttons at 100 years old. Your mama Gertrude Stein and her midwife Alice Babette Toklas must still be brimming with pride.