An Examination Of The Wily “Book Blurb”

Book blurbs are strange territory for a writer: we go to other authors and solicit from them the time to read our (as yet unpublished) stories and the effort and marketing savvy to write a capable sales blurb for the book (which will go on the cover, inside the cover, or on the web).

You hate to even ask for blurbs because you’re forced to blacken your shame sensors with the heel of a boot just to get up the gumption to ask other authors (many of whom are writers you respect, even adore) to kind of become… advertising shills for your book.

They, as the authors granting blurbs, are ideally hoping to be curators in a way similar to (if also larger than) the retweet — the hope on Twitter is that someone retweets something because it’s content they find interesting and compelling, not because of some kind of back-scratching favor. And so it is with blurbs: you want that author not to provide a blurb to you or anybody else as a favor but because they actually want potential readers (including their own) to see that they have given it something of a seal of approval.

As a blurb writer it’s like, well, okay, I don’t just want to sound like a shill — “Better than Cats! I’ll read it again and again!” — and you want to put a little bit of your voice into it but not so much you’re sounding like you want to show off a fucking promotional blurb. It’s not all about you, right? And you certainly don’t want to put anything that could even sniff a little bit of negativity (“Brilliant book despite its poopy third act!”), nor do you want to cram it into a niche (“Canadian meth addicts will love it!”). You want to say something about the book without it sounding really generic (“It is a book that has many words put together in great sentences!”) but also don’t want to get specific (“ROSEBUD IS A FUCKING SLED”).

So, blurbs are weird. Asking for them. Writing them.

It gets even weirder when you consider that sometimes, authors don’t even write the blurbs. (Sometimes editors or agents will write them on behalf of authors who may or may not have even read the books.) And sometimes blurbs are culled from reviews or statements online. And, once in a blue moon, you see one of those blurbs from a mega-star author on a not-mega-star book (“This book was the holy tits!” — J.K. Rowling) and you’re like, how the hell did that happen? Did someone have incriminating evidence? Did they get J.K. Rowling really drunk one night on creme de menthe and they recorded whatever insane blurbs fell out of her mouth? Is there some other J.K. Rowling? Maybe some hair stylist from Reseda?


Couple questions, then.

Writers: what do you want in a blurb? And what do you aim for when you write one?

Readers: what do you like in a blurb? What catches your attention and sells the book? Further: are there any authors whose blurbs carry significant weight with you — and why?

65 responses to “An Examination Of The Wily “Book Blurb””

  1. Suppose I wanted to obtain the coveted Wendig imprimatur on my soon-to-be-released novel. How would I best go about that?

  2. Guess I’m hopelessly cynical, but I have long assumed that those quotes on the cover are fake, taken out of context, or completely manipulated. It honestly never occurred to me that many, or any, could be legit. So I guess they don’t carry much weight with me, and I haven’t thought about trying to get any (and, seriously, how likely would I be to get JK Rowling or Karen Cushman to blurb my book, and much as I love my fellow indie authors, what good would it do to have someone no one knows do it?).

  3. I saw a magical thing at Barnes & Noble last week: a number of books in the New Releases section were presented with these paper labels, hanging off the shelf – title, author, and a two line description of the book. It was magnificent. The word limit caused them to be boiled down to the description of the conflict (“Son leads book club with his terminally ill mother”; “aspiring writer’s friendship with a wildly successful writer and an actress”), and I felt like I could tell whether a book was character driven and with a set-up that would interest me without touching it. It made it incredibly tempting to explore almost all the books with these descriptions – an urge I typically do not feel when I’m making choices starting with the way the cover looks.
    I also think the conciseness of these descriptions made them more effective than standard book blurbs (“Heart pounding story of love and betrayal! Amazing debut!”)

    As for blurbs, I am in the camp of people looking for the names behind the blurbs, not the content. The content so often aims to be clever and catchy – and I’d rather it be less unique, and more towards the overall takeaway the person experienced from reading the book. (“I reread this novel every couple of years and always discover new things”, “Choosing between food, sleep and this book, I choose the book”, “The characters’s decisions were fresh and unexpected, I felt like I met new people”, “I would want to come back again and again to the world of this book”, “like a perfectly put together action movie”).

  4. Honestly, as a reader I don’t give a hoot about blurbs. To me they’re just words getting in the way of what I really want to read, which is the jacket copy and the first few pages (or, if I’m on Amazon, the trade publication review).

    Author recommendations are a totally different story, however. I figure that if an author I know and like goes out of their way to talk up a book on their Twitter/blog/what-have-you, then it’s worth my time to listen, and it certainly increases my chances of picking that book up in the future.

  5. There are two ways a blurb can be significant to me; either they tell me something about the content of the book (My favorite example of this being the blurbs for Hal Duncan’s _Vellum_, most of which take the form “I’ve no idea how to even begin describing wtf this is”, an immediate selling point for me), or they come from an author whose opinion on this particular style of things I respect, and they were clearly written in something approximating that author’s style (the best example of this being any blurb written by Gibson, which tend to be brilliant bits of prose in their own right).

  6. I don’t read blurbs. I see them as mostly useless. I used to read them, but they were all either too generic to tell me anything or referenced another author whose work I haven’t read. “Best Penguin/Unicorn love story author since Freddy Black!” Etc…

  7. If the book is by an author I don’t know, a blurb by an author I know, and whose reading I enjoy, can sway me to try the book out. Or push me over the fence if the writing looks good but I’m not sure. What the blurb says, is generally unimportant for me.

    If there are a lot of blurbs, they generally just merge into a meaningless list. Just one or two blurbs on the front or back is plenty for me. I don’t really need / want to see every good review or award won packed inside the book.

  8. Oh Chuck – I’ll blurb anything you write – Oh wait, I’m a nobody. But a pretty well-read nobody and I Googled this whole author to author blurb business because I just read a rather poorly written thriller blurbed with fulsome praise from a couple of authors who are excellent writers. The book in question couldn’t eat their lunch in a million years and the blurbers must have noticed the inferior writing but still tossed off over-the-top encomiums as though it were a potential challenge to John LeCarre. Why? I wondered. Reciprocity? Which of these excellent authors could benefit from praise from a rather sub-par writer. Oh, please, let them not have been paid. Charity? Why? To call into question their taste in books. Really, anyone who can write a thriller as well as Harlan Coben and Katherine Neville would notice the shortcomings of – OK spoiler alert -Andrew Kaplan’s rather lumpy and personally referential “Scorpion Betrayal.” This was certainly not a bad book, but totally undeserving of the high esteem awarded by the two blurbers. And yes, if an author whose writing I enjoy recommends a book I’ll try it out. Theme and content may not be to my taste on occasion, but at least the reviewed book is usually written with great felicity.
    So if anyone has an answer to these or similar questions, I’d love to hear.

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