August 20, 2008
The Best Blog Post Ever!!!
My Gen X sister--perhaps because she lives in Washington, D.C., where everyone has an agenda and works the angles (I saw Legally Blonde 2, so I know what life in D.C. is like)--has a healthy skepticism about words of commendation of any kind. So I was not surprised by the New York Times article she turned me on to this week, about the seedy backroom politics of book endorsements. You can read the article here.
Endorsements are uncomfortable. One of the authors I've worked with had a standing policy of not endorsing books until the moment when we sent his book out for endorsements. It reminded me of my standing policy in college not to date my friends, which one friend reminded me of when I asked another friend out. I was, to quote Garry Trudeau quoting William Shakespeare, "hoisted by my own petard."
Endorsements are solicited for any number of reasons but are guided by one agenda: the broader dissemination of the book. To that extent endorsements (and by extension, endorsers) are commodities and are necessarily treated as such. Too many endorsements and the reader glazes over, and the impact of each is lessened. Not enough endorsements, or endorsements by reviewers of dubious consequence, and the book struggles to distinguish itself among the hundreds of thousands of other new books on the market.
But despite the commodification of the practice, endorsing books is still a human activity and thus has some self-correcting attributes to it. The endorser's name is attached to his or her words of commendation, and so regardless of motive, the reputation of an endorser is to one degree or another linked to the fate of each endorsed book. It's also more evident than many endorsers realize whether they've actually read the book or are simply indulging a friend or extending their own brand. Readers, we've come to discover, aren't stupid. Convince enough readers that you'll endorse anything on paper regardless of what it says, and your supply of endorsements will quickly exceed its demand.
In a perfect world, a writer--particularly an unknown writer--will experience endorsements as the affirmation of his or her forerunners and peers that this book merits reading. Endorsements are a way of welcoming an author into the guild or otherwise celebrating their craft. In this respect such a welcome can come from the author's close friends but also from complete strangers, because the community of publishing is large enough that we can't possibly know everybody.
I got a call right around Christmas morning from Jason Santos, the author of the forthcoming A Community Called Taizé, that the brothers whose community he was chronicling had invited Archbishop Desmond Tutu to write him a foreword, and that the Archbishop had accepted the invitation. Jason's journey as an author wasn't quite complete at that point--his book won't be in print for another couple of months--but the journey into the community of authors that began with his professor suggesting we publish him led him ultimately across the world to one of the great voices of our age. It takes a village to sell a book, but every once in a while a book can create a community.