The frustration in the book business mounts as the years go by, but is probably no more clamorous than yesterday for the reason that publishing houses and authors have simply given up. How do you get word out about a book?
The publishing houses are of course professionally concerned in the matter. The basic problem has to do with the cost of print advertising. Many newspapers run book review sections at a loss -- reviews are not widely read, and costs being as they are, advertising rates are almost always higher than a publisher can prudently come up with. You hear advertising on radio for books, usually for fast-selling, fast page-turning thrillers, which generate their own demand.
Other devices are sought, most prominently the solicitation of blurbs from people whose endorsement might help engender a spark in the book buyer, who, passing by the shelf, will pause, ponder the blurb that says, "The best book about Hollywood ever written" and maybe reach for his/her wallet.
How to address a potential blurber is an aspect of the evolving culture. "Dear Mr. Hemingway: John Tadpole has written a wonderful book about fishing, and since you are the acknowledged master of the art, we especially hope you will want to read this book and give us a line or two we can put on the jacket."
More often, the letter from the publisher is pretty utilitarian, and of course the recipient has to measure several things in deciding on the request. One of them is that to undertake to read the entire book is a serious commitment. A typical book (300 pages) requires five to 10 hours of reading time, and people who are other than professional book-readers are therefore being asked to spend all of their reading time for five to 10 days on the problematic book. That is a considerable investment, which the writer is likelier to make if the author is a friend, if the subject of the book especially interests him, or if he feels a public obligation to do what he can to forward the book's fortunes.
Most of us in the book-writing business get more requests than could be handled if one were to give up eating and sleeping in order to read all the proffered book galleys. Now the publishers know this. Most of them don't want to invite explicit cheating, and try to find genteel ways of saying: Look, you don't have to read every word of this manuscript; just read enough of it to be confident that the blurb you give us will satisfy you as being honest. If you are disposed to endorse a history of fishing, don't feel you have to read all 57 chapters.
But the attempt to lighten the load reaches occasional highs. I have today a request by a publishing company (call it Alexis & Sons) to endorse a forthcoming book on the Alexis schedule. The publisher doesn't intrude by sending along the galleys. "Would you do us the honor of serving as an endorser? We seek a few brief sentences or phrases. I've included an overview of the book along with some biographical information. It would be a privilege if you would like to see the manuscript, which I can send you immediately."
Now this publisher will relieve you of the pain of reading the book you are endorsing, but hark! Alexis & Sons will also spare you the pain of devising an endorsement of it. The letter from Alexis has a postscript:
"Samples to choose from, rework, or use in any combination: (1) 'I was stunned by the power of ("The Trials of Elmer"). This book will change your life.'" Or, "'(2) "The Trials of Elmer" expresses an emotional depth that moves beyond anything I have experienced in a book.'"
The letter in question very nearly prompts me to write to the publisher to say, Yes! By all mean send me a copy! I want my life to change and will absolutely read any book that promises to move me toward emotional depth beyond any other book I have ever read!
But I will cool off on Elmer by the time I complete this sentence. What I will definitely look out for in the bookstores is the book on Elmer. I want to read the endorsements of it on the jacket.