Meet the UI Press: The secret garden of praise

Meet the UI Press is a semi-regular feature that delves into issues affecting academic publishing, writing, education, and related topics. 

Blurb. It sounds like an onomatopoeia for a noise made by infant humans. In publishing, though, the blurb—i.e. a quote on the cover praising the book—figures mightily in the marketing process. Why? Because over a century of mass market advertising has taught us that a testimonial from the knowledgeable, or better yet the famous, will convince the American consumer to buy anything. No judgment: who among us can resist buying a Seagram’s Wine Cooler when the prospect is thrown at us by a celebrity?

Bread Sculpture 1In the academic publishing business, the famous/knowledgeable divide often comes into play. The Grail of the endorsement trade, its Starbucks-for-Life card, is the Celebrity Blurber, for the reasons mentioned above. Knowledgeable, while perhaps less sexy, is easier to find. Even an obscure field of study attracts its share of scholars. These experts offer a reliable pool of “blurbers,” to use the insider jargon, that a marketing department can contact for a project. Topics with mainstream appeal, not surprisingly, provide more options: established authors and that handful of intellectuals actually familiar to a segment of the public.

Like canines and jilted lovers, we in the publishing game are pleased with any praise whatsoever. When a blurber comes back at us with a comment like, “An absolutely essential re-evaluation of [academic topic] that also guarantees weight loss,” it makes our jobs very easy, assuming we spell all the words correctly.

We acquire blurbs in a number of ways, but three methods predominate: (1) taking praise from reports submitted by scholars and other experts who reviewed the book in manuscript form; (2) contacting names on a list of potential blurbers supplied by the author; (3) doing research ourselves on potential endorsers and emailing/calling those people. All work. All fail. It’s up to the individual we solicit.

Keep in mind, though: often their personal relationship to the author determines whether or not they help.

As an author, you can get a head start by sucking up to famous academics while still an undergrad. Read the professor’s book. Take her/his independent study section. By all means, ask her/him to be your faculty adviser when you move on to graduate school. If you do admirable work, particularly as a researcher for one of her/his projects, she/he will remember you, and not in the same way she/he will remember you if you burn down their lab.

I know. It sounds venal. It sounds shallow. It sounds anti-intellectual. It is, frankly, all of these things. But the world runs on rules that, while absurd, are also beyond challenge. The UIP just wants to help you navigate these ridiculous seas.

At some point in your studies, you’ll realize you want to enter Academia. Why not? It’s a proud tradition and in the unlikely event you get tenure you’ll probably get health and dental, and that’s not happening with a lot of jobs these days. Therefore, you may need to put out a book at some point—publish or perish, etc. Why not guarantee its success by cultivating a professional network?

And if you want to aim higher, say a residency on NPR or a part in a Matrix film, we can only go back to the beginning of this post: the more famous the blurber, the better. Become friends with a notable person or persons. Even a well-known racehorse is fine. Better yet, become relatives. As long as the person pretends to have read the book, they don’t have to actually open it. That should help with the horse.