Book Article

I Wonder Who's Quoting Me Now

How much is a blurb worth? -- How ''Just Killing Time'' got a large advance from false praise

Everyone in the publishing business agrees that blurbs — those high-profile endorsements you see on book jackets — help sell copies. But how much are they actually worth in dollars and cents? Maybe more than $200,000 — if the recent feeding frenzy over Derek Goodwin's first novel, Just Killing Time, is any indication.

Three weeks ago Simon & Schuster outbid eight other publishers for Goodwin's serial-killer thriller, which arrived from agent Peter Lampack with effusive endorsements from two writers who rarely give quotes: John le Carré (''a literary gem. I have still not emerged from its awesome power and delightful spell'') and Joseph Wambaugh (''a chillingly authentic account''). But the blurbs — which played a large part in S&S' reported record $920,000 offer — turned out to be fakes. Although it isn't yet clear who forged the comments, the author — a free-lance writer and self-described intelligence agent — is under suspicion. Goodwin, who maintains his innocence, says he may have been set up by a former CIA agent. But if it turns out that he or his agent (who also denies any wrongdoing) did make up the blurbs, S&S may well cancel the contract — or, at the very least, renegotiate for a lower advance.

What would Just Killing Time have brought without Le Carré's and Wambaugh's praise? ''Oh, about $700,000,'' according to an editor from a rival house who read the manuscript. ''It's an impressive work.'' That the endorsements might be worth nearly a quarter of a million to S&S does not surprise Turtle Bay publisher Joni Evans, who also had a look at the book. ''Quotes like that are insurance,'' she says. ''If you tell (bookstore chain B.) Dalton that Mario Puzo or Martin Cruz Smith is endorsing a book, they might take 12,000 copies instead of 2,000. That's how you sell a book.''

Blurb scams are nothing new. More common than outright forgery, however, is the slippery practice of trading quotes — you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours. Says Little, Brown editor-in-chief William Phillips, ''The blurb writer almost always knows the author. That's the way it works.'' That's why blurbs have become the junk bonds of the publishing industry: They can inflate the value of a book — but they are often built on nothing more than air.

Originally posted May 03, 1991 Published in issue #64 May 03, 1991 Order article reprints