What's in a (Big) Name?
By Richard Curtis
Behold the two books I place before you. Both are thrillers by authors whose names are unfamiliar to you. But attached to the one on your left is an endorsement by one of today's bestselling thriller writers. The other has no such recommendation. Which will you be inclined to purchase and read?
The obvious answer to that question formed the eye of a tempest that swept through the publishing industry some years ago, leaving in its path a shattered deal, damaged credibility, and a dazed author and his agent wandering through the rubble seeking something to salvage. The only good to come out of this event is the possibility that the rest of us may learn something from it.
We take for granted that a plug from a star can give an enormous boost to an obscure author or an undistinguished (or even distinguished) book. That is why publishers go to considerable lengths to solicit quotes - commonly called "blurbs" in the publishing industry - by big-name authors for books they are soon to publish. "When 55,000 books are published each year, you are desperate for ways to distinguish your books from everybody else's," a publisher told the New York Times's media reporter. "The right person writing a blurb for the right audience can sometimes make a tremendous difference in sales."
What it was that inspired Peter Lampack, a leading literary agent, to put blurbs on an unsold manuscript, I do not know. But when I read in the newspaper that he had used the ploy to garner over $900,000 in an auction for a first novel, I could have kicked myself for not having thought of it first.
Lampack's strategy was simple but inspired. If he used the blurbs to sell the book to publishers, he would certainly arouse far more interest in the book than in a book supported only by his own enthusiasm. Because enthusiasm is as commonplace among agents as it is among mothers, it is subject to heavy discounting by skeptical publishers. If, however, an author of world-class reputation offers an enthusiastic quote, it all but guarantees that publishers will highly prize the work to which it's attached.
There are two important reasons why a plug from a star would give a big boost to an unsold book by an unknown author. The first is that it validates, for editors, the book's quality. Given the cost of publishing and promoting first novels, editors today are extremely nervous about committing their companies to investing hundreds of thousands or even millions or dollars for them. Not a few would rather pass up a good first book than overpay for it, for many an editorial head has been impaled on the pikestaff of poor judgment. If an author who is a proven moneymaker raves about that book, however - particularly an author seldom given to promoting the work of others - much of the uncertainty about its quality is taken out of the editor's hands. And so is the responsibility, thus freeing the editor to spend the company's money with confidence.
The other reason why an enthusiastic blurb by a star author is of such inestimable value is that it validates the book for the consumer. As the average list price of a hardcover novel is well into the $20.00 range and mass market paperbacks closing in on $10.00, bookstore customers have become more discriminating than ever about what they plunk their money down for. It is likely that they will be inclined to pay that kind of money only for a proven commodity - a book by a brand-name author. If, however, a brand-name author declares adoration for an unheard-of book, and permits a publisher to feature his statement on cover and advertising copy, the publicity value of that plug will overcome consumer reluctance. After all, the next best thing to a book by your favorite bestselling author is a book that your favorite bestselling author loves and recommends. The late publisher Donald Fine stated in that same article that "there's a presumption among marketing people that blurbs are especially important for the sales reps and booksellers." Fine cited the time when he asked bestselling author John D. MacDonald to read galleys of a book by Elmore Leonard, who was at that time considered a midlist mystery writer. MacDonald called Fine and exclaimed, "Who is that guy? He's terrific." Fine asked MacDonald if he could use those very words in advertising for Elmore's books, and the rest is history.
Understanding these psychological principles so well, agent Lampack must have jumped for joy when Derek V. Goodwin, pseudonymous author of a first novel entitled Just Killing Time, furnished him with blurbs by two leading thriller authors, John Le Carré and Joseph Wambaugh. Lampack loved Goodwin's novel, and successfully solicited a quote from a famous client of his own, Clive Cussler. Thus armed with three dynamite blurbs, Lampack put Just Killing Time up for auction, and when the dust settled, Simon & Schuster walked off with the book with a high bid of $920,000.
I had scarcely had time to compose a congratulatory letter to Lampack when the newspapers announced that both Le Carré and Wambaugh had repudiated the blurbs attributed to them, Le Carré characterizing the one written over his name as "straight fraud." After an agonizing week, Simon & Schuster withdrew its offer. "We must be able to rely on the validity of what is submitted to us," stated the president of Simon & Schuster's trade division. The author claimed that he was "completely duped" by whoever it was that had issued the phony blurbs.
My heart went out to my colleague, a first-class agent and a gentleman of the highest character, and I waited breathlessly to see who, if anyone, would come forward to claim the orphaned book. During the month or so that it took for that question to be answered, the debacle set off a fascinating debate: How much was Goodwin's book worth without the quotes?
As I listened to the arguments, I thought of the ancient dispute as to whether a tree that falls in a forest makes a sound if no one is present to hear it. Goodwin's book after the deal fell through was the same one that existed before. The only difference was, two of the three star blurbs had been dropped. So had the price. Simon & Schuster's winning bid had been withdrawn, and it didn't seem likely that the runner-up in the auction, Bantam with $850,000, would stand by its offer. How much was Goodwin's book worth stripped of its glamorous advocates? Even more interesting to me was: How much were the big-name author blurbs worth? I said above that they were of inestimable value, but if you look at it in a certain way, you will realize they can indeed be estimated.
As it turned out, Lampack was able to resell Goodwin's book for approximately a $500,000 advance to Dutton Press/New American Library, a division of Penguin and an underbidder in the original auction. Can it not be argued, then, that the blurbs by Le Carré and Wambaugh were therefore worth $420,000, the difference between what Simon & Schuster would have paid for the book with blurbs and what the new publisher was willing to pay without them? That would mean that Le Carré's and Wambaugh's blurbs could each be valued at $210,000.
It would not surprise me to learn that it had crossed the minds of these distinguished authors, or the minds of their distinguished agents, that there is big money to be earned in selling their endorsements. Movie stars and other celebrities get big bucks for endorsing all sorts of products. Why shouldn't star authors get them for plugging books? Requests for blurbs are an imposition on an author's time, and for a big-name author, time is not just money - it's a lot of money. On those grounds alone, then, it can be argued that an author ought to be compensated for writing a blurb. But more importantly, there is the obvious fact that the author's name helps to sell the merchandise. Robert Ludlum and Stephen King were paid handsomely to star in American Express card commercials; would they have been out of line demanding money to do a "commercial" for someone else's book?
Our instincts rebel against the notion because it seems dishonest—-and our instincts are correct. Unlike commercials undertaken for pay, the author who writes a blurb is assumed to genuinely like the product he or she is promoting. There is thus an aura of sincerity about blurbs that would be fatally tarnished if they were written for pay. Of course, one could be cynical about that sincerity, for it often appears that the blurbing industry operates under the motto, "One hand washes the other." The now-defunct Spy magazine carried a feature called "Logrolling in Our Time," which cited the suspicious frequency with which an author who plugs another's book finds his or her own book praised in return by the pluggee of the first part. In one issue, for instance, after George F. Will called Henry Kissinger's The White House Years "an elegant literary achievement," Kissinger called Will's The Pursuit of Virtue and Other Tory Notions "a delight." Similarly, Barbara Ehrenreich and John Kenneth Galbraith, Richard Ford and Joyce Carol Oates, and Diane Johnson and Francine Prose were shown to be mutual admirers of each other's books.
Such possible abuses notwithstanding, the point is that blurbs are traditionally undertaken as favors, and are therefore a form of barter. And though publishers and agents who request them from their authors don't usually offer specific inducements, the good will generated by a cooperative author inevitably pays off down the road in one tangible way or another. As an editor once said to me, "It's good business to caress the hand that feeds you."
But good will is a fragile value, and the lofty tradition of exchanging favors cannot always be counted on to prevail over the temptations of hard cash. A day may well come when a famous writer will demand a big fee for endorsing someone's book, and a publisher will pay it. Anyone naïve enough to think it can't happen has never attended a baseball card convention, where star ballplayers who used to autograph memorabilia out of the goodness of their hearts now charge hefty fees for their appearances and signatures.
The fact is that just as light is bent by the gravitational pull of celestial stars, our ethics seem to get a little bent by the attraction of human stars. Take for instance what might be termed the "Dead Author's Society," wherein publishers go on issuing works by authors long in their graves. The bylines of such illustrious writers as V. C. Andrews and Cynthia Freeman continued to appear on books long after the passage of their namesakes to the Great Book Expo in the sky. You would be surprised how many fans were under the impression that the authors were still alive, an impression the publishers did not go out of their way to correct. Is this ethical?
I don't particularly deplore the practice, as I'm not sure I see that much difference between books packaged by dead authors and those packaged by living ones - and living ones do it all the time. Whether the spurious books are as good as those created by the original authors is another question, but if most fans never notice the difference, the issue of quality is pretty much beside the point.
In England, it's considered not just unethical but downright illegal for a publisher to issue a book with the byline of a deceased author. Of course, the British have always been a bit dotty about their dead big-name authors. Would you believe they actually enshrine some of them in their cathedrals?
This article was originally written for Locus, The Newspaper of the Science Fiction Field. It's reprinted in This Business of Publishing: An Insider's View of Current Trends and Tactics Copyright © 1998 by Richard Curtis. All Rights Reserved.