Friday, February 6, 2009

The Blurb: Publishing's Letter of Recommendation

True Story: our school librarian used to feed/water William S. Burroughs's cats. Yes, that William Burroughs. (Burroughs lived in Lawrence from 1981 until his death.) While she knew him, Burroughs's would often ask her for blurbs; publishers sent him books, he didn't read them, and his cat sitter wrote the recommendations that landed on the covers with his name attached.

True story.

With the latest cat fight in publishing (Stephen King vs. Stephenie Meyer), my attention has been brought to the almighty book blurb. We are so used to seeing big time authors' names attached to positive comments in order to sell books, the King/Meyer fiasco has raised eyebrows.

Consider this: as a high school teacher over the past ten years, I've written dozens of letters of recommendation for students seeking scholarships/college entrance/jobs. I feel like it is part of my job. Although I'm always positive (if I can't say anything positive, I let them know with a simple, "Do you think I'm the best person to write this letter?"), the letters usually straddle the line between fantasy and reality. The letter of recommendation is an art form in saying the positive and ignoring the rest.

Isn't a book blurb the same? Some blurbs come across as forceful, almost: "read this book or die" or "you will find true enlightenment if you read this book" or even threatening "you will never be happy again unless you read this book". I take them all with a healthy dose of skepticism, but they are the norm, the letter of recommendation of the publishing world.

How important are they? How serious do you take a book blurb when seeking new reading material?

14 comments:

katey said...

I actually pay zero attention to them unless they're from someone I really, really like as a writer. Neil Gaiman or Warren Ellis like. So I guess it might be useful if others feel the same way, in theory. I'm more likely to wait a few months and see what my friends think if I'm not sure about shelling out for a book.

Mostly though, I'm just interested in what the back cover says. I'm a sucker for the hook, because I'm a good little consumer.

I note that you did not give your own opinion-- so it must be safe to assume you liken it to the high school rec letter in practice as well as in theory.

K.C. Shaw said...

Back when Terry Pratchett was still relatively unknown here in the states, his publishers had a Piers Anthony blurb in real big letters above each title. Because all humor is the same, right? If I hadn't already been a Pratchett fan, I wouldn't have read his books because I don't like Piers Anthony's sense of humor.

And then lately I've been seeing advice online about getting blurbs from authors whose writing is way different from your book's, to try and attract a wider variety of readers to your book. That just seems crazy to me. If I like, say, Jane Doe's urban fantasy series and see her enthusiastic blurb on Joe Blow's epic fantasy, that is not going to make me want to read an epic fantasy--and if I do buy it thinking it must be sort of like Jane Doe's books since she liked it, and it's not a bit like Jane Doe's books, I'm going to feel a bit annoyed with Jane Doe too.

Or maybe I'm just overthinking this. Because usually I don't even notice blurbs.

brady said...

I'm more likely to pay attention to a blurb I can see it's lifted from a review. Otherwise, I don't think there's much reason to trust it. Author blurbs seem, as far as I can tell, to be an I'll-scratch-your-back bit of the industry.

Although they're still more useful than user reviews at Amazon.com

I once read somewhere than whenever Quentin Crisp received a blurb request, he would respond, "Please feel free to quote me as having said anything that would improve the sales of this fine book."

Jamie Eyberg said...

I try and take all blurbs with a grain of salt. they, like movie reviews, are just one person's opinion.

Jeremy D Brooks said...

Critic reviews are too subjective in the context of who will enjoy reading what; they are nothing more than marketing tools. I think lit critics have a bit more...what's the word...class? But like Matt "The Filthy Critic" Weatherford says about movie critics, what can you believe from a Quote Whore?

As far as author reviews: different problem, but the same outcome...here's the scenario: Aaron Polson and I are both famous authors. On the jacket of my last book, "Rise of the Jackalope", Aaron gave me a wonderful blurb about how great a book it was, and how the Jackalope community will never be the same again. I don't know for sure if he really liked it, but he offered it up, and it probably helped my sales. When Aaron's newest tome, "Die, Die, Why Won't You Friggin' Die Already!" is ready for printing, he sends me an ARC and asks for my opinion. Can he trust that what I say about it is genuine? Can a reader who doesn't know that we're poker buddies trust it to be an honest critique?

I'm not saying that these are bad things, per se--but they have to be taken in the context of business, not art.

Natalie L. Sin said...

I used to ignore them. Now I check out of curiosity, but since not every author is lucky enough to get a big name blurb I don't base my decision on it.

Robert said...

I'll admit that when I see a blurb by a writer I really like and respect, it'll make me pause and pick up the book. Doesn't necessarily mean I'll buy and read it, but it will make me pause.

What usually will give me a push if I'm leaning to one side or the other is a review from Publishers Weekly. They are usually "fair and balanced" as the saying goes and they don't care about hurting a writer's feelings. If they say a book sucks, it probably sucks. If they say it's great, it's probably great. Not one hundred percent accurate, of course, but I've come to trust their judgment.

Also, it's interesting to note that oftentimes when an author blurbs another author's book, it's because a) they are friends, b) have the same publisher, c) the same agent, or d) the book came across their desk and they happened to read it and liked it very much.

Of course D doesn't happen too often.

Oh, and my favorite blurbs are those that don't say much about the book at all -- like "This is a story of madness and love," which means the author wasn't too thrilled with the story but felt obligated to say something anyway. Ah, those are the best.

Aaron Polson said...

Katey - you are an astute observer...

K.C. - I'm of a mind that one cannot overthink anything. Of course, I might be overthinking.

Brady - Quid pro quo, eh?

Jamie - another grain of salt -- all part of the mix.

Jeremy - all too true: writing is a business...and the jackalope community will never be the same. How could it?

Natalie - I like to flip a coin when it comes to big decisions.

Aaron Polson said...

Robert - I think a lot of b and c are going on, from what I can tell. Not a bad thing, just honesty. Publisher's Weekly is a pretty nice source.

Catherine J Gardner said...

Blurbs don't influence me... Unless of course Joe Hill, Neil Gaiman or Stephen King is blurbing something for my novel.

Felicity Dowker said...

They matter to me. They aren't usually the deciding factor in whether or not I read something - there are lots of different things at play in the choice to lay my eyes on the innards of a book - but they do make a difference. In some cases, they may push me over the edge into considering a book, if I respect the opinion and/or work of the person who provided the blurb. (Also, isn't a blurb what actually goes on the back of the book - the summary of the story? I thought the "this book is great: signed, Stephen King" parts were called brag quotes, not blurbs? Is this an Aus/US difference? Or am I just utterly confused?) In other cases, it just elevates my pre existing good feelings about a book - confirming what I already knew, i.e. this book rocks. And in other cases, they're meaningless.

Overall, I enjoy their existence and I'd say I find them a beneficial addition to a book more often than not.

Jameson T. Caine said...

I tend to ignore them.

Though, I'd gladly accept a few on my first book. :)

Aaron Polson said...

Felicity - we use the word blurb for too many things in the U.S. The back is the blurb, the little brag quotes as you call them...I've heard it all referred to as "blurb".

Jameson - I'll blurb anybody, but it probably won't sell too many books. ;)

BT said...

As far as I'm aware, the blurb is a comment from an outside source.

In Aus, we're taught early on that a blurb is the bit on the back cover which tells you a bit about the story, but agents and editors in the industry say it's the comments - I'm leaning toward the agents definition.

I went out yesterday and bought three new books to add to my "to read" pile. I shouldn't have, but I was given a Dymocks gift voucher so I had to - kind of.

I spent my time browsing over author names and book titles. I must have read the back dust jacket of less than 6.

I ended up with:

Gothic Short Stories edited by David Blair.

Vampire Zero by David Wellington.

The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty.

Two of the three I got due to me wanting to know what came beofre and how a great story was written.

Wellington's was purchased because I really enjoy the series.

In the end, I place no faith in the comment from other authors - but - I have read on authors blogs that some will not give a blurb unless they are sent the book and really enjoyed it. If I struck up a friendship with one of those authors, I'd probably value their time and effort in supplying a blurb, but I wouldn't expect it to increase sales in my book.