I'm not one for adages: When the going gets tough, I usually get a brownie (or just go to sleep). I hope for the best but I never prepare for anything; seriously, in the case of a zombie apocalypse I'd be the girl running down the road barefoot with her hair in a towel screaming like a maniac. And I always judge a book by its cover — the image, the font, the color scheme, and, of course, those bite-sized little blurbs that talk up the tale within.
Recently, however, all of the "dazzling," "heartbreaking," and "innovative" little splashes of praise scattered across book jackets have started to weigh on me. After all, if I were trying to sell you on a blind date and I threw out "dazzling" to describe the gentleman in question, your hopes would be high, would they not? And yet, on a book jacket, the word "dazzling" seems to mean nothing at all.
So I find myself asking, what gives? Where do book blurbs come from? Who writes these little masterpieces, and why do they all sound exactly the same? What is the deal with blurbs these days? The secret world of blurbing is a dazzling tragicomic masterpiece of inventive exuberance (to crib from a favorite blurb of mine), so buckle up and enjoy the ride.
Why do publishers need blurbs?
Believe it or not, the world of publishing is all about the Benjamins. (Please, wipe that shocked look off your face.) So, if you were harboring any high hopes that blurbing was really just an act of creative exuberance, now would be the time to let those fanciful notions float off into the ether. Blurbing is all about promotion — selling the book by whatever means necessary, and the blurb with the greatest chance of converting browsers into buyers is the blurb that the biggest name writer authors. Yep — most of the time, a blurb isn't worth the paper it's printed on unless you've scored a big name (Margaret Atwood, say, or Alice Munro).
The bigger the blurbing name, the better the chance of scoring prime retail real estate with a modern book seller; or, as CEO of the American Booksellers Association Orin Teicher explains, blurbing continues to exert a great deal of influence among retailers as they consider how to stock their shelves. When you give that idea a moment's consideration, it's not hard to understand how for book-buyers at the Amazons of the world and the independents alike, browsing the blurbs offers a great way to gauge the potential popularity of a particular book without having to actually take the time to read each and every hopeful submission. And, of course, it will come as no surprise to you that authors who manage to steer their work to the front table at Barnes & Noble do far better in terms of overall sales than authors stuck at the back of the stacks.
So, sure, the right blurb can mean the difference between well-stocked copies lining the shelves of major retailers and bargain basement discount offerings at tables along the street, yet no one seems quite comfortable quantifying whether or not customers actually take the blurb into question when making a purchase.
Regardless of the blurb's actual impact on sales figures, sending a book off to sell to the public without a blurb is a lot like asking a Kardashian to appear without her heels on — it just feels wrong somehow. As the blurb has become a necessary evil for moving product from the publishing house to the preferred retail location (whether or not it has any measurable impact on the actual bottom line), you can be just about certain you'll find at least one smarmy little sales pitch gracing the back cover of every book within spitting distance.
Where do blurbs come from?
Agents, authors, publishers, mentors and managers all have a hand in the blurbing process, and whether or not blurbs filter in as result of personal favors begged or professional marketing pushes has a lot to do with the stature of the author and the perceived significance of the book itself.
For young and inexperienced authors, the process can be a painful one: When Gayle Forman blogged about the struggle to secure blurbs for If I Stay, I was viscerally reminded of my campaign for High School Student Body President (and not in a good way):
We didn’t send it out to a zillion people. But we sent it out to a fair amount. But the thing was, back then, I didn’t have any friends in the YA world. I didn’t KNOW people. And more to the point, people didn’t KNOW me. Very few people responded, offered to read the book. This was in part because so many authors have a full-scale do-not-blurb policy.
Forman perfectly captures the predicament of young authors without a network of interested colleagues or the clout necessary to bring home the big names.
For Forman and many other young writers, persistence and personal relationships bring in the blurbs (eventually).
For more prominent authors with big-name publishers behind them, the experience of asking for blurbs can look a lot different. Sure, even the Margaret Atwoods of the authorial world could simply call up a friend and request the favor of a blurb, but when professionals get in the game on behalf of prominent authors, the business of obtaining a blurb looks very different from the debasement of begging faced by young writers just starting out.
The professional quest for blurbs can look a lot like Attila the Hun crossing the alps in search of villages to conquer. Writing for Publishing Perspectives, Drew Nellins describes opening up a promotional copy of Shalom Auslander's new novel Hope: A Tragedy and coming face to face with a full-frontal shock and awe campaign from a publisher on the hunt for potential blurbers. From pages of reviews to press releases, lists of praise from well-known authors to an entire calendar of scheduled promotional events, Riverside Press spared no expense when it came to promoting Auslander's work to potential blurbers, a campaign that Nellins examines to great comic effect while questioning the intellectual bullying of publishers looking for yes-men to talk up their latest offerings.
The hard truth of the matter is that blurbs can come from anywhere, but as Mark Jude Poirier put it in a charming article for The Awl, "asking for blurbs is humiliating and horrible...[so] if your editor and or publicist can do it for you, you’re lucky." And of course, regardless of whether they arrive as a result of personal favors or the promotional activities of professional publishing houses, all blurbs have to come from somewhere.
Who writes these blurbs?
Most published authors are regularly assaulted with books to blurb. Some authors, like Bennet Madison, are flattered merely to be asked and more than happy to take the time to support other writers in whatever way that they can. Others, like Nico Vreeland, carefully consider which books they will review, and work hard to make the text as honest and unique as possible.
Then, of course, there are writers who will happily blurb any and every book to cross their path. The writer A.J. Jacobs recalls an email he once received from a friend saying "I had the strangest experience today. I went into Barnes & Noble and saw a book that you didn’t blurb." Jacobs explains his prolific blurbing as a way to help out his fellow authors (and simultaneously avoid karmic retribution on some future day when he himself will be seeking willing blurbers).
Gary Shteyngart, the reigning King of the Blurb has readily admitted that he'll blurb just about anything, even books he's never read (“Who the hell can read all of these books?” he's quoted as saying). In fact, Shteyngart is such a fan of the blurb that he's even blurbed his own blurbs, with the altogether meta pronouncement that “Gary Shteyngart blurbs are touching, funny and true. This is a blurber to watch."
At the other end of the willing-to-blurb spectrum, Ann Patchett describes in TIME magazine her feeling of dread as the UPS truck pulls up daily with books in need of blurbs: “Every single day the UPS truck comes and brings me a galley,” she says. “I feel like a huge portion of my life is disappointing people and saying no to books I’m not even opening.”
Do "good" blurbs exist?
With do-gooders like Jacobs and compulsives like Shteyngart bolstering the ranks of blurbers and worldwide and authorial juggernauts like Patchett simply abstaining, is it possible that some of these blurbs might even be worth something? I've spent hours combing through stacks of jackets to put together a representative sample of blurbs you simply shouldn't miss out on. As it happens, once you get away from the "dazzling," "radiant," and "heartwarming" hogwash, there are some hilarious little nuggets of truth just waiting to be discovered:
- “Suck it, Proust. This book about stuff is much better than those things you wrote.” — Gary Shteyngart blurbing Lindy West's How To Be a Person
- "What a perfect companion for my afternoon milk bath," I thought while picking up this little gem on my way home from work. Within the hour I had laughed myself into a neck-deep tomb of butter. My wife came in, sipping her eggnog, and topped me with meringue" — Nicholas Feia blurbing Scott Adams' Stick to Drawing Comics, Monkey-Brain!
- "I wonder how many people will be aware, when taking this book into their hands, that they are holding one of the key texts of the last hundred years — that a new classic is being born, on a par with Heidegger and Wittgenstein.” — Slavoj Žižek blurbing Eric Santner’s On the Psychotheology of Everyday Life
Ultimately, regardless of the quality of the blurb, the general consensus among authors writing for The Awl, TIME magazine, Publishing Perspectives and on personal blogs seems to be that the basic problem of the blurb can be boiled down to two key points: the humiliation of begging for a blurb, and the utter impossibility of blurbing for others as often as you're asked to. And yet, like Black Friday, blurbing seems to have become a necessary evil of capitalism in America — universally unloved but somehow necessary to the market-driven machinations at the heart of modern publishing. So, now that you're in on the secret, take a second look at the next blurb you see and ask yourself this — dazzling masterpiece of marketing genius or disturbing relic of a corrupt capitalism?