Rachel Bomberger is the copywriter at Eerdmans. She loves reading, writing, and her occasional (but exceedingly cordial) correspondence with the Archbishop of Canterbury’s chaplaincy assistant.
As is true at many small, family-owned companies, people working at Eerdmans tend to wear a variety of hats. I am the copywriter — I write promotional and cover copy for all of our adult books — but I am also in charge of soliciting and processing endorsements. I arrange for advance proofs of our books to get into the hands of recognized experts or celebrities, and I ask them very sweetly to say something nice about the book that we can put on book jackets, on flyers, in catalogs, on websites, and anywhere else we can find to splash them (we never waste a compliment). I’m the official Eerdmans blurb-getter, you might say.
Some books are hard to “blurb.” Maybe the author is too unconnected; maybe the subject is too obscure; maybe the book is too provocative and no one wants to stick his or her neck out and go on record supporting it.
Some books, like Wesley Granberg-Michaelson’s Unexpected Destinations: An Evangelical Pilgrimage to World Christianity, are amazingly easy.
As someone not particularly savvy about global church initiatives beyond my ken, my first response when I heard that we would be publishing Wesley Granberg-Michaelson’s memoir was, “Wesley Gran-who?”
As it turns out, though, Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, retiring general secretary of the Reformed Church in America, is rather a big deal — which I found out firsthand when the time came to “blurb” his memoir.
Starting with Granberg-Michaelson’s own suggestions, Jon Pott and I brainstormed a list of potential endorsers. It was, for me, a heady and highly unusual kind of discussion, filled with comments like, “We could get Jim Wallis for sure, but he’s already writing a foreword,” and “Do you think we can round up contact information for Mark Hanson?” and “I’m almost positive White House policies will prevent Joshua DuBois at the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships from sending in an endorsement — but it sure wouldn’t hurt to ask!”
I was a little weak in the knees when I finally set about the task of contacting the sixteen dignitaries who made it onto our endorser list. Who wouldn’t be? It’s a list that includes high-ranking leaders in several major denominations and global ecumenical organizations, as well as an assortment of major and minor celebrities in the mainline, evangelical, and emergent Christian communities.
To make the whole job even more intimidating, our fancy-but-finicky perfect binder was on the fritz (again) at the time. I therefore had to sidestep the usual first step of printing and sending bound proofs through the mail (so pleasantly impersonal) and reach out to everyone by email instead, my fingers shaking just a little bit every time I hit the send button, praying that there were no embarrassing typos in the text of my letters.
Often, when I hear back from people I’ve asked to endorse a book, I’m reminded of the classic Man’s Prayer from Canada’s long-running CBC program The Red Green Show: “I’m a man, but I can change, if I have to, I guess.” In my case, it’s “I’m really busy, but I can blurb, if I have to, I guess.” Not this time, though.
Here’s the astounding and slightly magical thing about Wes Granberg-Michaelson’s book. I received half a dozen enthusiastically worded “yes” replies within thirty-six hours of my initial query, with several more trickling in over the course of the next week. My inbox was filling up with comments like, “Honored to do it!” and “I’ve said no to every blurb request this winter and spring . . . But I’m saying ‘yes’ to this one!”
Having now read through the entire book, I understand why. Wes Granberg-Michaelson is a groundbreaking church leader (and all-around nice guy) who has led a really interesting, widely varied life, crisscrossing the spectrum of Christian experience both in the U.S. and around the world.
He was born into a solidly evangelical family with ties to Billy Graham before attending Hope College and discovering the Christian Reformed tradition. He worked with antiwar senator Mark Hatfield in the 1970s, helped found Sojourners magazine, and spent several years at the World Council of Churches in Geneva before taking the helm of the Reformed Church in America — a post he’s held successfully for seventeen years (no small feat in the pell-mell world of denominational politics).
Granberg-Michaelson writes about his life with wisdom, candor, and even compassion, providing not only a first-person travel diary through American Christianity over the last six decades, but also a wealth of insight for church leaders at every level.
In fact, as I was reading the book, I found myself stopping every now and then to dash off a quick note to my pastor-husband, hurriedly typing a paragraph of excerpted text into the body of an email under a subject line reading “another tidbit from Granberg-Michaelson.” “Thanks for this,” he would reply.
Now that I’ve traveled with Granberg-Michaelson through his life — winding from the suburbs of Chicago, through Washington, D.C.; western Montana; Geneva, Switzerland; New Jersey, and ending in Lusaka, Zambia — I know what got all the endorsers so excited.
I know why Ron Sider called the book “delightful, moving, important.” I know why Setri Nyomi said it was “Truly inspirational. . . . A must read for all ministers and lay persons” and why Diana Butler Bass responded, “At last. An honest memoir about the challenges of Christian leadership in our time.” I know why Brian McLaren described it as “a multi-faceted treasure — a window into a fascinating Christian leader and a window into his times as well.”
I know, too, what Jim Wallis was talking about when he wrote in his foreword, “I didn’t peruse this book, as I confess I sometimes do before writing a comment, or even a foreword for a book. I read this one, carefully, cover to cover. . . . This book is really many things: a moving personal and spiritual memoir, an exciting documentary on the cutting edge of the church’s life over these forty years, an engaging theological reflection on the best ideas and the controversies of our generation, and a ringing and persistent call to the social and racial justice at the heart of the gospel message.”
A back-cover blurb can say and mean many things. Sometimes it says, “This book is written by a promising young scholar in my field, and I want to give him all the support and encouragement I can.” Sometimes it says, “This book is written by a legend in my field, and — oh my gosh — I’m thrilled and honored to get my name on the cover of her book.” Sometimes it means the book is wildly provocative; sometimes it means the book is comfortably orthodox. Sometimes it simply means what it says: “Wow. This is a great book.”
Within the publishing industry, there is regular debate over the value and efficacy of blurbs —whether they really tell consumers anything of value about a book or do anything at all to help sell it. Yet I think endorsements can and do say something important about how good and how significant a book is. Yes, there are times when blurbs are nothing more than token gestures — products of a complicated system of institutionalized back scratching among professionals. More often than not, though, people do not “blurb” a book unless they really like it. It doesn’t take much meandering through my old files and emails to find lots and lots of “no thank yous” and polite excuses: “It’s just crazy around here this time of year;” “I’m so busy right now working on my own book;” “I’m leaving next week for a three-month lecture tour through Polynesia and couldn’t possibly — you understand.” Even more often, I send letters and emails out into the void, never to hear from them again.
This was not my experience “blurbing” Unexpected Destinations. The seven blurbs sitting in my file testify loudly that this a book that a lot of people truly value and that its author is a person whom they genuinely respect. In this case at least, the blurbs say something very good about the book.
Next comes the other tricky part of my job: squeezing as much good “blurbiage” as I can onto the book cover. I hope you all like five-point font!