Monday, July 18, 2011


Eighteen. That's how many there are in my office right now: eighteen. I feel guilty every time I see them, but I can't get rid of them, not yet. It's terrible, just terrible. I am, officially, a bad person.

I'm talking about advance copies of books that have been sent to me in the hope that I might be able to offer a supportive quote. They arrive at such a pace that it's impossible to keep up with them. If I read them all, I'd never read anything else. I'm on various publishers' lists, my own publishers occasionally send me a book (always with a 'no pressure, just if you have the time' get-out clause), and then there are manuscripts that have come to me by more personal paths, such as the one I'm reading one at the moment for a friend (a friend who will, incidentally, owe me lunch as a consequence, not least because he sent it as an electronic copy, and since I don't like reading books on screen I had to print it off, all 300 pages of it. You know who you are . . .)

Rather worryingly, at least one of these advance copies has been on my shelf for so long that it has already been released in paperback. I figure I can probably give that one away now. The others don't appear to be past their publication date yet, so I'd better hold on to them. It doesn't seem right to give the ones that haven't yet been published to friends, or to the charity store. They're the ones that make me feel guilty. "Read us!" they cry. "Please, we're really good, honest we are. Your quote could make all the difference to our chances of success . . ." Actually, that last part probably isn't true. In fact, if I look back on all of the books to which I have given supportive quotes, hardly any have made any kind of an impact at all. It may even be the case that a supportive quote from me is the kiss of death for a forthcoming book. I'm starting to suspect that even I wouldn't want a quote from me on one of my books.

Nevertheless, I feel like I've done my duty this year, because although I gave only - only! - four quotes, I've read at least twice that many forthcoming books. Some of the ones to which I didn't put my name were quite good, or at least interesting, but they didn't really make me want to enthuse about them to others. That's the key, I suppose. You have to ask yourself if, in the normal course of events, you had bought this book, and read it, would you press it into the hands of people you knew and liked on the grounds that they had to, simply had to, read it. If the answer is 'no', then you shouldn't blurb the book. Okay, so writers don't always adhere to this: they'll blurb a book because they like the writer's work, even if the book in question does not display the writer's talent at his or her best, or because an editor or publisher has put them on the spot, or because the writer in question is a friend, and they'd like to maintain that friendship. It's a complicated business, blurbing.

In two cases, I read the books that I'd been sent because an editor or writer broke the First Rule of Blurb Club: you never, ever ask if the writer has read the book that he has been sent, or even if the book has been received. It's like putting a message in a bottle. You throw it into the sea, and you just hope that somebody replies. You don't send another bottle asking if someone has received the first one. That way lies madness. Still, some people insist on breaking the rule, and then the recipient of the advance copy and subsequent rule-breaking e-mail has to squirm a little, and either come up with some excuse for not reading the book, or play dumb, or simply read the blasted thing while nursing a grudge for being pressured into doing so.

You see, I do try to read as many of these books as I can and, at last count, I think I've given quotes to four books already this year, and that's probably quite enough. If my name appears on many more books, I'll start to feel like James Patterson. It's also a question of trying to make a quote worthwhile. After all, if your name appears on every second book announcing that it's the greatest thing since Tolstoy looked at a pen and thought, you know, I might give this writing lark a go, then readers will have a right to feel suspicious. This is known as being a 'blurb whore', and blurb whoredom is the writer's equivalent of being the girl (or boy) who can't say no. You get a reputation. You're anybody's for a cheap meal, or a couple of free books. A certain amount of ego may enter into the equation too. It's quite nice to be asked to give a quote, because it implies that you've moved up a little in the rankings. Your name is worth something on the cover of someone else's book because you have a relationship with your own readers, and maybe they trust you enough to believe you when you say that another book is good. That can go to a boy's head, and pretty soon your name is popping up all over the place, blurbing stuff that even the author's mother won't read, and suddenly folk don't respect you any more, and you're forced to wear a pair of scarlet letters on your breast. BW: hang your head in shame.

But the other problem is that I buy lots and lots of books. I like buying books. By investing my money in them, I'm kind of promising myself that I will also invest the time required to read them, as well as supporting the industry of which I am a part. I even buy books published by my own publishers, even though I could get them for nothing if I asked. Except for books by a handful of authors whose work I love more than most of my own limbs, I'm less likely to read a book that I've received for nothing than a book for which I've paid. It's a curious thing, but there it is. With that in mind, the bookshelf in my bedroom, which is generally where my purchased books end up, is currently piled high with unread material that I really, really want to read. I buy a couple of books a week, on average, but rarely get to read more than one, so the pile keeps growing at a faster pace than I'm reading, and then all of these other books arrive each week that I haven't bought and which might be good but, then again, might not be, and . . .

Well, you see where I'm going with this. We only have so much time on this planet, and I'd like to spend as much of it as possible reading books that I know I'm going to enjoy, or in which I was sufficiently interested from the off to purchase. It may be a sign of the slow encroachment of some crushing conservatism that will eventually lead to a dementedly right-wing mindset, causing me to read only non-fiction books about the Raj, and begin sentences with the words "You know, Hitler did a lot of things wrong, but . . ." Then again, it may simply be the case that reading shouldn't feel like homework, and while some of the advance copies I've read this year have given me immense pleasure, and I've indicated as much by putting my name to them, I've generally enjoyed the books I bought far more.

Do I want people to stop sending them? Sometimes. Then again, I know there's the possibility that one may catch my eye, perhaps a book that I might not otherwise have read, and I'll read it and think, hmmm, that was good. Maybe I should tell someone about it.

Still, eighteen. Eighteen books, none of which are now likely to be read.

And more on the way . . .


A Clash of Kings by George R. R. Martin


Weather Report, Stan Getz, and George Benson. Hey, it was a jazz week . . .