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The art of blurbing

This is a reworked post from my old, now abandoned, 52 Books blog. I’ll be taking that blog down as soon as I remember where I stored the password...

Blurb: noun [C]
a short description of a book or film, etc., written by the people who have produced it, and intended to make people want to buy it or see it: The blurb on the back of the book says that it 'will touch your heart'.
(from the Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary)

I have mentioned several times the importance of good blurbs on books. By that I meant the teasers on the back cover or on the inside flap of the dustcover that are designed to entice a potential reader into buying the book. The good ones do this by giving the reader just enough enticing information to want the to find out more.

The worst of the bad ones give away an important plot element or even the ending of a book. Giving away the ending of a romance is usually okay because romance readers already know that the hero and heroine will get together at the end, but please don’t tell me how it happened – I’d like to find that out by reading the book. However, when I sit down to a whodunit I want to be kept guessing and not get told in a blurb just who did what (the how and to whom is okay, unless the author meant it to be a surprise).

Another type of bad blurb I loathe is the kind that gives erroneous or misleading information (see my review of Anthony Bourdain’s Bone in the Throat for a good example of both).

The other blurbs, the ones I like to call "gushers" - the often overwrought quotes by reviewers, famous authors and the occasional celebrity - can be funny or just plain horrible. The funny ones are those which have obviously been edited to leave out unfavourable wording and also the ones that are very carefully worded to sound like praise but are really saying: "I hated this book, but I'm too polite to say so."

The horrible ones are the long, gushing passages taken, apparently unchanged, from published reviews. If the book then turns out to be less than what I was given to expect from all the praise, I am not going to be inclined to ever trust that particular reviewer or publication to recommend books to me again. In fact, I was stung so often by believing these things as a trusting teenager that I became quite cynical about them and now only read them for fun. 

While I'm on that subject, I have a piece of advice for publishers: Two pages of gusher blurbs are not going to make me any more interested in a book than a well-crafted teaser on the back cover. For example, I hate, hate, hate opening a new Nora Roberts novel and having to search through several pages of quotes about her other books in order to find the title page. And it’s not even as if Roberts needs these quotes.

I am especially disinclined to trust recommendations by famous authors. So what if Stephen King thought a book was good? I don't know what kind of taste he has in literature. And so what if XXXX thought a particular book was great? She may be sleeping with the author, be a friend or relative of the author, or have been compelled by her publisher or agent to push the book. She may even be under contract to do so.

For all of these reasons, I usually save the gusher blurbs until last, which has the added advantage of making them easier to decipher.

P.S. I love reading back-cover blurbs on books I know I will never read, for example the Mills & Boon romances. The publishers know that people do not buy these books because they are dying to know who the heroine will end up with - it is therefore OK for the blurb to give a hint, even an assurance, as to the identity and basic personality of Mr. Right. The blurbs on these books are really like little condensations of the story, minus all the little twists, and you are never in doubt as to how the book will end. In the case of romances, giving away the identity of the hero is essential because people buy romances for two things: they like to experience the satisfaction of falling and being in love, even if it's only for as long as it takes to read the story, and they what to see the twists that finally bring the lovers together. They also want to be sure they will like the hero and heroine. What they don't want is to be kept wondering throughout half the book which male character is Mr. Right.


Dorte H said…
Many blurbs tell the reader far too much, but I can live with that as I usually forget them as soon as I have read them. What is worse is that some of them are extremely misleading. And for some reason I always notice that!

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