Authors Share Insights on the “Dubious” Art of the Blurb
Both would-be authors and seasoned writers alike might have looked at a book jacket and wondered if the blurbs on the back really make a difference in propelling sales. And if they have never given or sought out a blurb, they may have wondered how the process works. To some writers, it’s not a pretty sight.
Writing for The Millions in 2011, novelist Bill Morris offered these descriptions of blurbing: “suspect,” “vaguely sleazy,” and “a sweaty little orgy of incest.” In the years since, other writers have expressed their displeasure with giving and asking for blurbs. Some authors have even suggested the process is corrupt, with agents writing blurbs and asking famous authors to put their names to the canned praise. Other writers are increasingly questioning the efficacy of blurbs in the age of social media, when readers are more apt to follow the recommendations of friends or the masses at sites like Goodreads. Still, blurbing does not seem to be going away, so BIO turned to several members and found some recent articles on blurbs to help authors navigate the blurbing maze.
(A side note: By most accounts, the word blurb was coined by humorist Gelett Burgess in his 1907 book Are You a Bromide? Burgess created a character he called Miss Belinda Blurb, who sang the praises of the book on the cover. But the practice of garnering quotes from other authors to adorn one’s book jacket predates Miss Blurb’s debut.)
How important are blurbs? BIO board member Will Swift said, “Blurbs are important in that they encourage newspapers, bloggers, and magazines to review the book. These reviews help drive sales. They may not be as important to book buyers, but they don’t hurt.” BIO member Irv Gellman had a slightly different take, saying, “If the book hits well, [blurbs] can probably help you. If the book doesn’t hit, it probably doesn’t matter.” Another BIO board member, Kate Buford, noted that since some people find the blurbing process “dubious,” blurbs might not be too helpful for a hardcover book. But with a paperback edition, “blurbs from actual reviews can be used and are more effective.”
Part of the blurbing process is knowing who to approach. Publishers, editors, and agents will sometimes draw up a list of possible blurbers, especially if those authors also have ties to them. Writers often reach out to friends first, especially if they have expertise in the book’s topic. Often, with this arrangement there is an expectation, if not explicit statement, of reciprocity. Moving outside that circle, Gellman recommends finding someone who is nationally or internationally known or an expert in the field, though if the expert is unknown, his or her blurb might not be as valuable. And don’t be afraid to aim for the stars with your requests. For his The President and the Apprentice: Eisenhower and Nixon, 1952–1961, Gellman asked for and got a blurb from former Secretary of State George Shultz, even though Gellman figured he had “a snowball’s chance in hell” of landing him.
For his Pat and Dick: The Nixons, an Intimate Portrait of a Marriage, Swift contacted a highly regarded Nixon expert. Impressed with Swift’s research, the expert encouraged three important historians and biographers to read and blurb Swift’s book. Making contacts with experts is key, Buford said, for starting the blurbing process. “You should have created a network of experts in your field as you researched the book. If the book’s subject is likely to directly appeal to an expert you don’t know, it can work to ask a colleague to initiate the outreach to that expert.”
Swift said it can also be valuable to contact another biographer who has recently published on the subject. “Their quote, name, and new book title on the back of your book will serve as publicity for their own work. When I wrote my Roosevelt book, I contacted Jon Meacham’s assistant and sent her the galley. As he had just published Franklin and Winston, he was willing to read and blurb mine.”
For biographers writing about a subject from a different racial or ethnic background or of the opposite gender, BIO board member James McGrath Morris sees a special value in the right blurbs. He said comments from readers who share the subject’s background “can act like the Seal of Good Housekeeping.”
On the Other Side of the Blurb
What are the expectations of the author asked to write a blurb? It’s commonly accepted that not all blurbers read all of the books they praise. Like reviewers or interviewers, some only read the introduction, epilogue, and selections from the text. Both Buford and Gellman said they would not blurb a book they had not read all the way through. Gellman said, “If someone says they want a blurb from me, I take it very seriously.” Gellman’s criteria for deciding which books to blurb include how well he knows the topic and how meticulous the author is in his or her research. And Swift said that while some authors blurb as a favor, he would never blurb a book if he didn’t think it was any good.
Some blurbers, however, are less scrupulous about the blurbing process. In a 2015 piece for the Guardian, novelist Nathan Filer wrote that he knew of at least one instance in which a blurb was taken verbatim from the letter the publisher sent out to prospective blurbers, which of course praised the book. And some authors are notorious blurbers who seemingly never turn down a request. A recent NPR story said Gary Shteyngart has done more than 150, and “there’s even a Tumblr devoted to some of his more notable snippets.”
Whether the request comes from a friend or arrives unsolicited from an unknown writer, potential blurbers might be asked for a comment and not feel comfortable giving one. What’s the polite way to decline to blurb? Swift said, “You tell the author that you are swamped with finishing your book and don’t have the time to read thoroughly another work, which you would have to do before blurbing it.” Buford’s advice is similar: “Just plead a busy schedule, deadline, whatever, and say you so wish you could. Wish the author luck.”
Examples from the Trenches
One of the panels at the 2014 BIO conference looked at some of the issues around blurbs. Buford, who moderated that panel, passed on advice from agent Susan Rabiner on what makes a good blurb: “A good blurb communicates a good read, counterintuitive insights, and comes from major players in the field.” Rabiner then offered several examples of actual blurbs that she thought demonstrated those traits. Here are two:
The Guynd: A Scottish Journal. “Belinda Rathbone’s account of her romance with a four-hundred-year-old Scottish country estate is as sharp-eyed as a field guide, as nuanced as an anthropological study, as gripping as a book of wilderness exploration, and as bittersweet as a classic love story.”—George Howe Colt, author of The Big House: A Century in the Life of an American Summer House.
“With searing, vivid candor and unflinching courage, journalist Keith Richburg dares to discard preconceived notions about Africa to learn and convey a larger truth about humanity. His personal observations demolish the confining categories of race and class that imprison us all. Out of America is a brilliant, electrifying story of one man’s hard-won liberation.”—John Hockenberry, NBC News, author of Moving Violations: War Zones, Wheelchairs, and Declarations of Independence.
A good blurb, Morris pointed out, doesn’t have to go just on a book jacket. He recounted how he and his publisher used blurbs for The Rose Man of Sing Sing. When the book was nearing publication, Morris said, “My publisher sent single-stemmed roses to certain reviewers with a single blurb, much like a note, attached to the flower. It made a large difference in the press coverage of the book.”
Blurbs can also make a difference with book buyers, or at least with one of them. Jake Cumsky-Whitlock is the head book buyer at Kramerbooks, a Washington, DC, bookstore. He told NPR, “If I haven’t heard of the author writing the book, but it comes with the imprimatur of a reputable writer or someone I respect, that will make a big difference.”
For serial blurber Gary Shteyngart, he likes to think that one of his comments may help sell a book. “My job is to help out a little bit,” he said. But like others involved in the process, he can’t say what effect blurbs really have. His suggestion for improving the process? “If we could all enter a memorandum of not blurbing anyone else, I think it would be easier for us.”