I. Buy This Book
Like any entertainment industry, Publishing uses endorsements as buyer enticements. An endorsement is basically anything inside quotation marks that casts a favorable light on the title. This can range from glowing quotations in print ads and sales copy to cover blurbs and pages of intro buzz. For the sake of this post, we'll call them all endorsements, because basically that's what they are.
As any author can tell you, the right endorsement by the right person at the right time can change a writer's career. Author Tom Clancy owes a big chunk of his success to an infamous endorsement of his first novel, The Hunt for Red October. It was called a perfect yarn and non-put-downable (is that a word?) Rather casual and not very infamous, as endorsements go, until you consider they were made by then-President Ronald Reagan.
An endorsement should grab some attention, and intrigue the reader as much as the status of the person making it. As personally repulsive as I find endorsements issued by fugitive terrorist butchers, they have some weight with certain mentalities.
Endorsements can also mean big bucks for Publishing. In a time when the winners of the National Book Award can barely move 5,000 copies of their books, Oprah and her on-again off-again reading club have rocketed every book they've endorsed into bestsellerdom. Just say the word Oprah around a bunch of literary writers and watch them go moon-eyed and slack-jawed.
Personally I don't care for the games involved with endorsements, as they're polluted with favoritism, cronyism, and big fat honking liars, but it is part of the biz. If you're looking for endorsements, you might as well do it as painlessly as possible.
II. Who Gets or Gives What?
A few lucky souls among you might never have to worry about endorsements, either -- the overnight successes, trend-setters and other A-listers will generate a ton of them, just by writing great books that a lot of people love (see Ward, J.R.) However, if you're a rookie, or you occupy someplace on the B- through Z-list, I wouldn't hold your breath waiting for them to fall out of the sky into your lap.
I'm told most editors make an effort to get at least one decent endorsement for each title under their wing. Alas, I didn't get any of those editors myself, but I know they're out there; plenty of them have asked me to endorse other authors. Talk to your editor and see what they're willing to do to help you with your endorsement quest.
Agents are often great about getting endorsements for their authors. Your agent may have the contacts you don't to get your manuscript into the right hands to be read, so it's also a good idea to ask them for assistance.
When it comes to getting endorsements from writer friends, things get a little sticky. Some folks don't mind asking acquaintances and pals in the industry to endorse them; I try diligently not to impose on my friends that way. I guess it depends on you and your friends and how you feel about it. Third-party requests may be a little easier to handle -- a few times I have contacted writers I didn't know personally and asked them to read a friend's manuscript that I thought was marvelous, and no one took offense.
You can always forward reviews from reputable industry publications, bloggers and reader sites to your editor for use as endorsements, although there are some they probably won't use. Figure if an ellipse has to be inserted after every other word, it's not going to fly.
Endorsing yourself by having one pseudonym blurb another is viewed by some folks as cutesy. I think it makes you look a moron whom I will parody in a heartbeat. Your call.
III. How to Ask
I've retired from the endorsement game now, but back when I was being regarded as Oracle of Paranormal Fiction, I was offered bribes, reciprocal endorsements and other very nice things as incentives to give my endorsement. I also had a couple of folks try to strong-arm me into handing over one. The only approach I ever liked was an upfront, straightforward, just-asking request, preferably from another writer.
When requesting an endorsement, I recommend you make your contact brief, honest, and polite:
Dear Ms. Beegshot:
I'm writing to ask if you would consider reading my dark fantasy novel, Evermore, for a cover quotation. I think you'll enjoy seeing what I've done with the vampire mythology, and I would appreciate any recommendation you would care to make for the readers.
May I send you an advance reading copy? Please let me know when you have a chance.
A couple of other points:
1. I don't think it's necessary to assure the prospective endorser that you know how busy they are (and yet I saw this in almost every endorsement quest that landed on my desk.) It's okay. We're all busy people.
2. Be upbeat and positive in your address. Groveling only works with a dominatrix.
3. If you're writing to a dominatrix, disregard #2.
4. Be professional. Don't offer details about your lousy marriage, your dire financial straits, or that sex-change operation you've been meaning to get. Don't use the endorser's first name unless you are on a first-name basis with them already. Be sure to work a thank-you somewhere in the request.
5. Be graceful if the prospective endorser refuses, and follow-up any response except #7 at all with a simple thank-you note. Even if they're rude, you don't have to be.
6. Don't be surprised if you don't get a response. Asking for an endorsement is probably the hardest thing a writer has to do. Refusing to give one is the second-hardest.
7. If the prospective endorser responds with hostility, abusive language, or any other inappropriate reaction, let it go and don't contact them again.
8. Don't criticize any endorsement you're offered, and don't alter it without permission from the source. If it's badly-worded, simply ask if you can change the wording.
9. If you do get an endorsement, don't send all of your friends to the endorser to ask for one for their books.
10. Be patient. The last endorsement I gave out was one I wanted to think about; I really obsess over my wording. Then I had a lot of other things happen and set it aside. In the end I made the recipient wait for quite a long time -- two or three months -- but I never heard a peep out of her. I genuinely appreciated that courtesy (that said, if you're getting close to the deadline you need endorsements by, drop the endorser a very brief reminder note.)
(Why you shouldn't ask Steve Almond for an endorsement)
Gary A. Braunbeck's On Book Blurbs
Joe Konrath's A Fistful of Blurbs