In the past few weeks I have seen a fair bit of discussion about book endorsements—about those little blurbs you so often find inside the first few pages or on the back cover of a newly-published book. There seems to be some consensus that the entire endorsement system is faulty, but little consensus about what to do about it. I thought I’d give a behind-the-scenes glance at the system based on my understanding and my experience and then offer a few of my own thoughts about what, if anything, should be fixed.
How Endorsements Work
After an author completes a manuscript, and after an initial round or two of editing, the publisher begins to seek endorsements. Most often it is the responsibility of the author to request and provide these, though occasionally the publisher will make the request—especially with better-known authors. The publisher usually provides a PDF of the manuscript in near-final condition with the option to instead receive it printed on plain printer paper (since at this stage it has not yet been printed as a bound book). It almost always comes with a warning that the contents may still change a little bit as editing continues. They typically come with a deadline of 4 to 6 weeks. The person who has been asked to write the blurb then writes it out and sends it through to the author or publisher along with their preferred attribution (e.g. —Tim Challies, blogger and author).
Publishers will usually want to have at least 5 or 6 solid endorsements for a book. Endorsers are most often chosen for their connection to the topic of the book or for their name recognition. Of course to get 5 or 6 you may need to request 10 or 15, and this is one reason books occasionally end up with several pages of endorsements. Authors will usually request them from friends and acquaintances and perhaps also make a few long-shot requests from people they admire but don’t know.
I can only speak personally here, but I have never been offered money or any other perk in exchange for an endorsement. Neither have I ever had any “tit-for-tat” pressure applied as if I owe it to someone since they once did something nice for me—though it’s possible I have applied this pressure to myself at times.
I haven’t ever counted, but I probably receive 30 or 40 endorsement requests per year and suspect there are other people who receive far more. Some are from people I know, some are from people I haven’t met but look up to, some are from people I have never heard of before.
If someone provides an endorsement, they basically do so as an act of kindness, as there is little to gain, especially when measured against the time it takes to read a book and write a blurb. And you may need to trust me when I say they are surprisingly difficult to write.
Why Publishers Want Endorsements
Endorsements are considered a necessary part of publishing a book for a number of reasons, most of which are quite obvious. Here are some of them.
Most obviously, they work. It’s easy for readers to blame the industry, but I think it would be just as easy for the industry to blame the readers. As readers, we want to be able to assess books quickly and without rigorous analysis. Endorsements offer us the shortcut we want.
Then, readers cannot be familiar with every author, so endorsements help make relational connections. “I don’t know this author, but if that person I do know appreciates her, she must be okay.” In this way they are a free and effective marketing tactic.
Also, many publishers publish such a wide variety of authors that their brand does not offer any clues as to whether a book will be very good or very bad or somewhere between. No matter what comes from Banner of Truth you know it will be good and trustworthy because they are so judicious with what they produce. But then the publisher who publishes John MacArthur also publishes Sarah Young, so its own brand doesn’t count for nearly as much. Endorsers can provide credibility that publishers do not.
Then there’s this: endorsements are good for search engines, whether that is a global one like Google or a specific one like Amazon. Forewords, which are essentially long-form endorsements, are even more effective in this way. Sometimes the main purpose in an endorsement or foreword is to associate a book with a name that is more recognized that the author’s.
Finally, there are so many books being published, and often on the same subject, that endorsements can separate them from one another. What makes a reader choose one marriage book over another when both may be perfectly good? It could be the names recommending it on the back cover.
And I am sure there are many more reasons besides.
What Endorsements Mean
It would be a mistake to assume that every endorsement means that the person has thoroughly or completely read that book. We could debate whether it should mean this, but as it stands it does not. It could mean that the person has read it all or it could mean he has skimmed it. It could even mean he hasn’t read as much as a single word. Sometimes a clue will be in the endorsement (e.g. “I love this author and make sure to recommend all of his books”) and sometimes you will only be able to guess.
I expect that every endorser sets out to read every word of every book, but sooner or later is challenged in their conviction. And, to be fair, the ethics of endorsements are not always completely straightforward.
What about a condensed version of an existing work that I endorsed in the past? Can my endorsement roll over from the longer work to the shorter version of it? I was recently asked this very question.
I was recently asked to write a blurb for a book that is on a non-controversial topic I know well, by an author I know well, and even edited by an editor I know well. I have read probably 20 books on the subject, including every one the author cites. Should I read thoroughly or will a relatively quick skim suffice?
What about a reference work? I was asked to write endorsements for very large systematic theologies by both John MacArthur and Wayne Grudem—the first edition of MacArthur’s Biblical Doctrine and the second edition of Grudem’s Systematic Theology. Each would take weeks to read carefully from cover-to-cover. I am quite familiar with both authors and what they believe. Should I have read every word?
Or what about when a publisher asks for endorsements for the collected works of a historic author? I was asked to write a blurb for a three-volume set by an author who lived and died more than a century ago. I have read some, but not all of what those volumes contain. Should I read all 2,500 pages before writing the endorsement?
All of this to say, endorsements are perhaps a little more complicated than we might think. I believe most authors and publishers do their best to treat them seriously and ethically, even if also imperfectly.
Do Endorsements Need to Be Fixed?
Does the endorsement system need to be fixed? I don’t really think it does. It may not be ideal, but not much in this world really is. I am convinced that it works well enough and I am not convinced we have a viable alternative. So maybe let me offer a few suggestions for both readers and authors.
- Don’t make too much of endorsements. Don’t take them as meaning more than they do. Read them to ensure you know what the endorser is really saying. And understand that what an endorsement really communicates is “I trust this person enough to extend a bit of my reputation and credibility toward him.”
- Develop your own list of trusted endorsers—people who you have come to regard as reliable in their recommendations.
- Go a little deeper in evaluating the merits of a book than simply reading the blurbs on the back cover.
- Don’t assume that the endorsing system is corrupt or driven by anything more (or less) than friendships and goodwill. There may be some exceptions, but I think they are few and rare.
Authors & Endorsers:
- Take endorsements seriously. Do you remember how honored you were the first time you got asked to write one? Try to maintain that sense of privilege rather than regarding them as just another chore.
- Write honest endorsements that avoid hyperbole. And it’s probably better to read manuscripts more thoroughly and write fewer endorsements than to endorse far more based on quick skims.
- Understand and accept the risk you take when penning an endorsement. It is no small thing to put your name on another person’s work, because if the book ends up being controversial and gaining criticism, you may catch some of the flack. If you are going to read books in a cursory way, understand that your risk is even greater.
- Don’t request more endorsements than you really need. No book benefits from having three or four pages of them. And no one wants the endorsement they took the time to write to be one of 30. So don’t waste people’s precious time and don’t feed your ego by pursuing quantity.