Don’t Judge a Book By Its Cover, Judge it By Its Blurbs

In News by Dennis Abrams

King Blurb

Among the authors known for giving a leg up to fellow writers is Stephen King.

Book blurbs are one of the longest-running conventions in publishing and is largely a favor passed among writers and friends. But do they sell books?

By Dennis Abrams

At NPR, Colin Dwyer urged readers to “consider the blurb, one of the most pervasive, longest-running – and, at times, controversial – tools in the publishing industry.”

He writes, “Nearly as long as they’ve been around, they’ve been treated by a vocal few with suspicion, occasionally even outright snark and scorn. Author Jennifer Weiner, for instance sees some value in them, but suggests they’ve been getting over the top; scholar Camille Paglia, not one to mince words, called them ‘absolutely appalling’ in a 1991 speech.”

The dancing adjectives...

The dancing adjectives…

If even George Orwell could say – in 1936 no less – that the decline of the novel could be traced to “the disgusting tripe that is written by the blurb-reviewers,” why are they still around?

For one thing, they work. At least some of the time.

Kimberly Burns, a co-founder of the literary publicity firm Broadside told NPR that, “When we start thinking about a publicity plan, you talk about what’s going to be important. And so one of the first things to come up is: ‘Are we gonna go after blurbs?’”

Burns told Dwyer that it starts when galleys are “ready to be sent out,” with a conversation between author and editor as they put together a list of prospective blurbers to send galleys to.

As an example, Dwyer cited author Laila Lalami, who even before she began seeking “endorsements” for her newest novel The Moor’s Account, met with her editor to go over lists of potential blurbers. “There were a couple of authors he was friends with, so he made the requests himself,” she said in an email,” and others I was closer to, so I wrote those emails directly.”

Lalami told NPR that the idea is to find “an endorsement from someone who is a good fit for the subject matter, has a very strong reputation, and rarely blurbs [who] can significant effect on tastemakers.”

On the other side of that equation, author Gary Shteyngart, renowned for his blurbs (more than 150 to date and still blurbing) answered the question: how does he do it?

“I can figure things out pretty quickly. I’ll take a look at a first sentence [of a galley], I’ll look at the cover and it just comes to me…Sometimes I try to read further – but you know, how far can you get?”

He is a man known to be extremely…generous with his blurbs. “I’ve compared people to Shakespeare, Tolstoy or whatever,” he told NPR. “I’ll do anything.”

But even he has mixed feelings about how much a blurb can actually do in getting a book read.

“I think the blurbs that people write for me are pretty heartfelt, and I appreciate them,” he said. “But ultimately what effect they have – I don’t know. If we could all enter a memorandum of not blurbing anyone else, I think it would be easier for us.”

Still, as he says, “My job is to help out a little bit. If a crazy person sees my name on the back of a book and says, ‘I’m gonna pay $25 for this,’ then I’ve done it — I’ve done a great service to my community. And that’s all.”

To learn more about blurbs, including their history (Leaves of Grass featured a blurb from Ralph Waldo Emerson! Who knew?) to the reasons to blurb and NOT to blurb, click here.

Do book blurbs matter to you? Do you buy a book because of blurbs? Let us know what you think in the comments.

About the Author

Dennis Abrams

Dennis Abrams is a contributing editor for Publishing Perspectives, responsible for news, children's publishing and media. He's also a restaurant critic, literary blogger, and the author of "The Play's The Thing," a complete YA guide to the plays of William Shakespeare published by Pentian, as well as more than 30 YA biographies and histories for Chelsea House publishers.