Thursday, May 7, 2009

The Inexact Science of Book Blurbs


“From the moment I picked your book up until I laid it down I was convulsed with laughter. Some day I intend reading it.”

Groucho Marx

“Prolonged, indiscriminate reviewing of books is a quite exceptionally thankless, irritating and exhausting job. It not only involves praising trash but constantly inventing reactions towards books about which one has no spontaneous feeling whatever.”

George Orwell quotes (English Novelist and Essayist, 1903-1950)

“A real page-turner! I couldn’t put the book down…”

How many times have we read that type of book blurb (or a variation on that theme)?  But the fact that it’s a well-known or established author giving their thumbs-up makes the book suddenly more appealing.  I’m including myself in that statement; I find myself saying something like, “Oh…well I really like this author.  So maybe I’ll have to give this new author a go…”

Book blurbs are primarily useful for up-and-coming or unknown authors.  And the author giving the blurb is generally at the top of their game.  What are they getting out of it?  Obviously, they’re getting a little plug for their own book/series in.  But I really feel that many authors enjoy giving a helping hand to writers who are just starting out.

Bestselling author Tess Gerritsen says in her blog that her book blurbing is an attempt to “pay it forward.”  She also addresses the downside of blurbing: if you blurb for too many books, you’re branded a blurb-slut; readers might blame the endorsing author for a read they purchased but didn’t enjoy; and the time it takes for the author to read the galley (for Gerritsen, five hours of time away from her current project).  But she remembers with gratitude the authors who gave her first book an endorsement when she was an unknown writer.  And she enjoys returning the favor by helping out other new authors. 

Michelle Gagnon’s blog post mentions the importance of finding an author whose books match “your tone and subject matter.” Her concern is that a fan of the blurbing author might be dismayed to realize that instead of a sci-fi fantasy, they’ve got a thriller in their hands, or vice-versa.

A New York Post article on book blurbs references a publicist and best-selling author who garnered enthusiastic reviews…the Post implies….via her many publishing contacts.  But the author, Crosley, disputes that the book blurbing business is under-the-table.  She comments: “"The clues are generally there all along, 'lurking' in plain sight via the acknowledgements page."

A recent Publishers Weekly article is entitled “Reforming the Book Blurb Bull: This Dehumanizing System Has to Stop.” The article’s author, Courtney Martin, proposes a requirement for big-name writers: “Maybe each author informally agrees to read (at least in part) five new manuscripts a year by unknowns, thinking of it as their dues for succeeding in a difficult industry. Even better, maybe we throw a big party, get some whiskey company to sponsor it and do short readings from new manuscripts. Authors who’ve heard something special can follow up right then and there with their genuine praise. Everyone interacts face to face. Everyone gets a shot at the literary dream of having random readers like my mom find their book on a shelf, flip it over and say, ‘Wow, if Zadie Smith likes this, I’ve definitely got to pick it up.’”

What do you think? Do book blurbs influence your buying habits? What other things pull you to one book over another in a bookstore?

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