April 8, 2011

The truth about blurbs


As publishers, we love getting good blurbs for our authors. At their most basic, they’re a simple marketing tool: for readers not familiar with an author, seeing a quote from another author they’re familiar with offers a way into a world they might not have exposed themselves to otherwise.

But there’s a trick to getting blurbs. It involves fostering the right relationships, leveraging contacts, calling in favors, and sometimes just plain extortion. Often enough, savvy readers understand this and no doubt many of them resist blurbs for just this reason.

Still, knowing all this and having worked in publishing a few years, I’m still pulled in when I see a blurb for a book I’ve never heard about by someone I respect. In the absence of tons of advanced hype or lots of publicity, a blurb still has at least that much power . I may not buy a book based on it, but it heightens my level of engagement. And that, at the very least, is what a blurb is supposed to do.

Anyway, I guess what I’m getting at is I enjoy the deep ambivalence I feel about blurbs. Which is why I was really into this collection of comments about blurbs and covers by six different writers put together by Matthew Gallaway over at The Awl earlier this week. Gallaway polled Kate Christensen, Bennett Madison, Stefanie Pintoff, Mark Jude Poirier and Tom Scocca (and himself) for their opinions. The full piece is tons of fun, but these quotes are my personal favorites.

Kate Christensen:

I honestly have no idea how important blurbs are for the general reading public. Knowing what I know, whenever I see a blurb, I immediately assume the writer is friends with that person or has studied with them or babysat their kids—or slept with them or is blackmailing them or has a gun to their head. In other words, I give blurbs no credence whatsoever.

Two close friends blurbed my first novel. I am forever in their debt, and I found the whole process a bit humiliating. No strangers were willing to blurb me on the strength of the book itself, and my editor asked many people, far and wide. The whole thing made me feel jaundiced and annoyed.

Bennett Madison:

I didn’t get blurbs for my first couple of books. I don’t know why; no one ever mentioned it to me and I had no idea what I was doing. I guess since my first few books are, like, light mysteries no one thought it was necessary. But I mean, we could have gotten blurbs from other people who wrote chick lit mystery-type stuff? I have no idea why we didn’t. I have a feeling it had something to do with someone being a total idiot. Perhaps me!

Stephanie Pintoff:

I regularly give blurbs to other authors. Especially, debut mystery writers. Of course, I benefit as well, since it’s another way of getting my own name in front of a potential audience. And, it provides me a legitimate excuse to put down my laptop and pursue my favorite hobby—sitting down with a good book.

Mark Jude Poirier:

A blurb from an author I actually know and dislike on a personal level—usually based on their abhorrent behavior in graduate school—means I will turn the book backward on the shelf in the bookstore or hide it under a stack of Sarah Palin’s Going Rogue.

Tom Scocca:

I have no idea whether blurbs influence readers or not. My publisher believes they are part of the process, and I choose to believe what my publisher tells me. Thinking about blurbs activates the part of my monkey brain that’s wired up for seeing the shadow of an eagle while crossing open ground: EXPOSURE TO DEATH-RISK! FLEE!

Matthew Gallaway:

I…regretted writing some nasty blog reviews about books written by prominent nonheterosexual novelists ___ and ___, which leads to my one piece of advice to unpublished authors on this subject: don’t waste time tearing down books you hate; focus on what you love, because it’s actually pretty difficult to scrub old blog posts from the Internet, as I learned the hard way lol. The last thing the world needs is another asshole critic, and if the time comes when you’re asking around for blurbs, trust me, you’ll regret being that asshole.