I’ve been thinking a fair bit lately about endorsements (or blurbs, if you prefer)–the little lines and paragraphs you see on the back of a book giving you good reasons why you really ought to read it. I have done this as I’ve gone through a process of defining my ministry, what I will give time to and what I will not give time to. Endorsements, when done right, take a lot of time and often for very limited results. So I have wanted to figure out the circumstances in which it makes sense for me to go through the effort of providing them. I thought I’d share just a bit of what I’ve come up with.
Practically, here is how endorsements usually work. Several months before a book actually shows up on store shelves (often as much as six months before) an author or publisher (or sometimes an agent or other representative) will contact people whose name and endorsement have the potential to help readers decide to purchase a book. If these people agree they will receive a copy of the manuscript, either in electronic format or, more commonly, printed on 8.5 x 11. They will have a certain period to read the book and provide their endorsement of it. Sometimes these endorsements must be provided on official forms while other times they can be informally emailed through. Of those asked, only a few will accept the manuscript and of those usually only a few will actually provide an endorsement; so sometimes, when you see a long list of endorsements for a book, it may be that the author was hedging his bets, so to speak, and had the good luck of having everybody actually come through. Endorsements are provided based on a draft copy of the manuscript so it is possible that the text may change between the writing of an endorsement and the publication of the book.
As you would expect, endorsements are volunteer efforts (except, I’m sure, in exceptional and unethical circumstances). However, there can be some “tit-for-tat” in endorsements where one person feels obliged, for one reason or another, to provide an endorsement. Perhaps there is some kind of reciprocation for endorsing a book or speaking at a conference. Also, if you read closely, you will sometimes see that a single endorsement, written in general terms more about the author than his book, may be used on multiple titles. It may even be just a line or two taken from an article that is completely unrelated to this book or any other.
A good bit of thought goes into the arrangement of the endorsements on the back cover and in the first few pages of the book. The biggest names will go first and will appear on the back cover; the lesser-known names or the ones least likely to be meaningful to the target audience will appear at the bottom of the back cover or perhaps only inside the book.
Here are a few things I’ve learned about endorsements:
Endorsements matter. I would gladly forgo endorsements for my books, but I don’t think my publisher would be pleased with me if I did so. Potential readers do look at the back cover of a book to see who has endorsed it, though I am quite convinced that they look more for the name than the actual words. I have a certain number of names I look for and, if one of them happens to have endorsed that book, it immediately interests me in a way it might otherwise not. So endorsements do sell books and, therefore, they do have value. I consider them a necessary evil.
We endorse books and authors. Because endorsements matter, authors have to be very careful with who and what they endorse. Ultimately we endorse authors as much as their books (and perhaps more than their books). In just a few lines it is difficult to draw the kind of distinction that might say, “I disagree with this person’s core beliefs but do think this book is worth reading.” Instead, we see the name of the author, the name of the endorser, and draw a line from one to the other. Hence, if I am going to endorse a book, I have to agree with the vast majority of the book and 100% of the core theology. But I also have to appreciate the author and his ministry. As much as I might like to, I cannot neatly separate the two because those who see the endorsement will not neatly separate the two.
Quality is important. So many Christian books really have very little to say that is not derived from other books and so many others are poorly written. I want to encourage quality by providing endorsements for books that are genuinely well-written and objectively good. There are a couple of books I endorsed early on for which I would no longer provide an endorsement because the quality was just not there. One particular book has done more to shape my philosophy (and theology) of endorsements more than any other. I read the book again, after it had been printed, and was really embarrassed at what I had put my name to. I want my name on a book to have value and will no longer endorse books that do not display good quality.
It is no great honor. Being asked to endorse a book is not necessarily any great honor. The very nature of endorsements tend to mean that the requests are of the “what you can do for me” variety. That sounds terrible, but there is some truth to it. I am not asked to endorse books because people like me; I am asked because my name may help a few people decide to purchase it. I remain grateful for requests to endorse books, humbled even, but I also know that it is no occasion for pride.
It is okay to say no. I politely refuse the majority of the endorsement requests I receive. I feel no obligation to anyone to endorse his book (and neither do I expect him to feel obliged to endorse anything I write) and this gives me the freedom to say no. Nor do I feel that it’s part of my “core ministry.” Therefore I don’t want it to dominate my time (which it could). I do write a fair number, but this is just a small part of what I could write. I suspect the same is true of most people. When I do write endorsements, I prefer to focus on books that have fewer rather than more endorsements (or potential endorsements). When a person sends me a manuscript, I often ask how many endorsements they already have or expect to get. If that number is more than four or five, I typically explain that I will instead focus on books that have received little attention.
Not all endorsements are equal. As I read more and more books, I quickly learn the people whose endorsements mean more to me than others. For example, when I see Mark Dever’s name on a book, it tells me a lot about that book–it is a valuable endorsement. I know that Mark puts a lot of thought into his endorsements and that he is very careful with what he puts his name to. I have learned to trust him. There are other names I see that tell me little and would do little to convince me to buy that book. There are a few who will convince me not to buy that book. This is true for most serious readers, I am sure, no matter the genre they prefer to read.
And that’s about all I’ve got to say about that.
But let me ask you: how important are endorsements to you when you consider purchasing a book? Are you often persuaded to buy a book based on the blurbs on the back cover? Or do you just ignore them and try to judge the book on its own merits?