In 1855, after reading Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, Ralph Waldo Emerson sent the young poet a congratulatory letter. “I greet you at the beginning of a great career,” he wrote. The following year, when Whitman published a second edition of the same collection, he printed those words in gold leaf along the spine, and thus, “blurbs” were born.
Blurbs are the promotional quotes that authors put on their books (and websites, and social media, and neck tattoos...you get it). Here in my home office just outside New York City, I'm looking at a couple bestselling books on the shelf behind me right now. (Well, I have to turn around to see them. I can't see things that are behind me. That technology hasn’t been invent--ohhh right mirrors exist. Moving on...)
This first book I see is a #1 New York Times bestseller, lists 17 blurbs across two interior pages, as well as one on the cover and a couple on the back. They're written by such notable individuals as Malcolm Gladwell, Sheryl Sandberg, Sir Richard Branson, J.J. Abrams, and Arianna Huffington. The second book I'm holding, a bestseller in Canada, takes it one step further. The very first page is a special, thicker, glossy-kinda paper with a brightly colored border and big, bold blurbs of the same color scheme. These are written by the likes of Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, bestselling author Gretchen Rubin, and Seth Godin.
There's nothing wrong with blurbs per se. I just find them ... a bit gnarled after their journey through time. You see, when Emerson first wrote his letter to Whitman, his words arrived unsolicited. Emerson may have received the collection in the mail from Whitman himself -- that part isn't clear. But what was clear is that Emerson spent meaningful time with Whitman's words. The product spoke for itself, prompting a legendary thinker to pen a full letter to the new author. Then, and only then, did that new author think to lift a select quote from the letter and use it as a promotional statement on his book.
Of course, when something is either proven to work for others or shown to be popular among the smartest smarties, what happens? People try to manufacture something that was previously organic. The value of the thing then starts to decline, as more and more people focus on the letter of the law, not the spirit. Over time, it becomes hollow.
I believe blurbs are heading in that direction. While Whitman’s actual writing was the most important thing to prompt Emerson to write his comments, today, the most important thing seems to be the author's network, or ability to reach someone via email or social media, or perhaps the author’s past writing — to say nothing of whether the blurb creator read the new book. The actual substance of the book becomes secondary. Blurbs are now about optics — a way to grab quick sales to try and leap up the charts.
Blurbs are badges more similar to pieces of flair on a waiter's vest at Chili's than the symbols on boy scout or girl scout sashes--hard-won through hard work.
Like you couldn't tell already, I feel juuuust a bit nauseous when I think about asking others to blurb my book. Most of the people with name recognition that I would want to ask either haven't spent much time with my writing or don't know me from Adam. Even when they're close friends, it still feels like asking for a pat on the back or, worse, extending my hand for a trophy ... before the game has even begun.
What's the point? An ego stroke? A few extra sales because some strangers blindly buy a book because Famous Author #1 said he liked me? I'd prefer that actual readers who spent actual time actually reading my work over the past few weeks, months, or even years share their perspective on my work.
For reasons readers of my book will learn, I decided to break from the convention and ask my email subscribers to blurb my writing. My readers are more qualified to comment on my work than anyone else. My readers are who this book is actually for, too — not any expert with a perch in the industry, and certainly not any influencer with a self-inflated sense of importance due to -- what? -- a bunch of people following them on a social network?
No, my friend, if you’re reading this right now, YOU are far more important to me and to the success of my writing. YOU are who all of this stuff I do — the shows, the newsletter, and now the book — is for.
Maybe this is just a mental hold-up I should get over, a tick of my taste that only serves to cut down my lifetime sales across every book I publish or original series I create and host. But I'd argue that my work-self, which is to say, my self-self (they aren't separate people) is an idealist. That's the role I play in this industry, and I enjoy it. I look at a situation and instead of shrugging and going, "Well, that's how this works," I ask, "Why can't we do this better?"
So let's do this better. If you’re an author, don’t ask other experts or friends with a big name to blurb your book. Ask your readers. Ask the people the book is actually for.
Break the Wheel only exists because people like you read my work here or elsewhere. It only contains great stories because you give me feedback as I workshop them -- in the newsletter, on social media, on my podcast, and on stages. This book only succeeds if people READ it, not if people BUY it. So shouldn't I focus on the reading part? Who has read me and understood me and critiqued me and supported me in this world ... like my actual readers?
Seth Godin likes to say that "design thinking” is about asking three fundamental questions: Who is it for? What is it for? How will we know when it’s working?
Who is it for? You. What is it for? Helping you make better decisions than any best practice can provide, so you can do your best work. How will I know it’s working? Your emotional reactions once you read it, telling me that you loved it, showing me the work you’re capable of now.
That’s why I wrote the book, and that’s why I asked actual readers to write some blurbs.
We can do better. We must do better — that is, if we aspire to be better.
I believe all our careers would be better served if we focused on RESONANCE instead of REACH. The first leads to the latter, but more importantly, it leads to all the things we crave in our work: meaning, relationships, and yes, even revenue. So this is me, taking a dose of my own medicine. (OoOoOoh, cherry!!)
Because you read this far, I have to end by saying: Thank you for supporting my work, for being a true connection of mine in this vanity metric-crazed digital world, and for giving me a ridiculous helping of motivation to keep going and keep improving.
Thank you, thank you, thank you.
I’d like to thank every subscriber who opted to write a blurb for my book! Only some of you were able to make the final edit with my publisher, but I appreciate each and every one of you so damn much:
Ben H. Rome, Andrew Davis, Danny Denhard, Sherene Strahan, Pratistha Suhasini, Adam P. Newton, Melissa Stevens, Steve Radick, Chris Arnold, Ben Sailer, Haley Neid, Melanie Deziel, John DeMato, Anthony Coppedge, Kathleen Gossman, Stan Dubin, Amber van Moessner, Sue Chehrenegar, Carla Alderson, Chris Cooper, Lee Price, Sandra Garcia, Heather Dollar, Muriel Rosilio, Jessica Kinsey, Andrew Tuckey, and Tammy Duggan-Herd.