For my previous poetry collections, I had kept my endorsements close to home, inviting poets I knew personally and whose passionate support I could trust. In all honesty, I also feared it an imposition to contact “big names” in our poetry community whose work I admired yet to whom I was likely a stranger. Surely they must be drowning in similar requests. Surely their own writing time should be honored and not interrupted by spending hours on my little manuscript.
However, as my forthcoming book As One Fire Consumes Another had won the 2018 Orison Poetry Prize, I felt driven to try to expand my reach. What was the worst that could happen? Rejection of my query? Radio silence? Aren’t all writers intimately familiar with these already?
So I swallowed my fear, crafted my query letter, and sent it off to a select group of poets whose work inspired and enriched my own. Incredibly, nearly every poet responded warmly and favorably. Within a few months, I had heartfelt endorsements from Tyree Daye, Rusty Morrison, Rigoberto González, Simone Muench, Chelsea Dingman, William Brewer, and Sean Thomas Dougherty.
How did this happen? A bit of luck, I’m sure. But the interest was predominantly based on the approach I took to my query letter. In fact, one lovely poets replied with “This has to be the most polite and respectful request for a blurb I have ever received. Thank you. I would be happy to read your book.”
Based on my recent experiences, here are five suggestions to help you acquire your dream endorsements:
Be intimately familiar with the poet’s work and show your admiration.
In your letter, discuss the poet’s books, even specific poems that have inspired you. Reference these works by name; don’t use the general phrase “your books”. In a few instances, I had actually taught their poetry in workshops. Also, if appropriate, mention how long you’ve enjoyed their work. In short, show them how passionate you are about their work. Don’t be shy about gushing a bit.
Reference why you feel they’d enjoy your book.
Is the poet’s voice or style similar to yours? Do you write about the same themes? Have you recently shared journal publication? Do you live in the same city? Put yourself in their shoes. Why would they want to spend their valuable time on your manuscript? You should have answers to these questions before you contact them. For example, Chelsea Dingman and I had been published together in a number of journals this year, so I referenced this connection. Sean Thomas Dougherty and I are both New Englanders with similar backgrounds and an interest in working class rights. Rigoberto González’s poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and children’s books explore immigrant life in America, as does my collection.
Be clear with what you’re asking for.
Be honest up front; don’t bury the lead. Although my letter’s first paragraph included glowing praise for their work, I began the second paragraph with my request. Place your hesitancy for bothering them aside and pose the big question early and clearly, leaving no room for ambiguity. And remember to reference a deadline for their endorsement, preferably at least a few months out.
Be gracious with how you ask for it.
Never demand their time or assume their interest. Ask politely in a voice that balances formality and familiarity. Treat them as a human being, as you’d like to be treated —neither as a celebrity nor as an intimate friend. Show that you recognize their time is limited, schedule hectic, and that you take no offense if they’re unable to review your book. But also make it clear just how much their review would mean to you personally and to the book’s chances at success.
Keep it brief.
Although these suggestions may drive you to write a novella-length letter, my query was only 2/3 of a page, which included information about my book and pertinent links. Be precise and concise.
Never attach the manuscript to your query! Such a gesture makes too great an assumption about their interest. Instead, offer to send it via email (PDF) or to mail a hard copy. If you’re not at the galley phase yet, you may have to print it yourself.
I hope this has been helpful to those of you hoping to acquire substantial endorsements for your next book!
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John Sibley Williams is the author of As One Fire Consumes Another (Orison Poetry Prize, 2019), Skin Memory (Backwaters Prize, 2019), Disinheritance, and Controlled Hallucinations. A nineteen-time Pushcart nominee, John is the winner of numerous awards, including the Philip Booth Award, American Literary Review Poetry Contest, Phyllis Smart-Young Prize, Confrontation Poetry Prize, and Laux/Millar Prize. He serves as editor of The Inflectionist Review and works as an educator and literary agent. Previous publishing credits include: The Yale Review, Midwest Quarterly, Southern Review, Sycamore Review, Prairie Schooner, The Massachusetts Review, Saranac Review, Atlanta Review, TriQuarterly, Columbia Poetry Review, Mid-American Review, Poetry Northwest, and Third Coast.