Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Why Book Blurbs are Crap

Very rarely, a few times in a lifetime, you open a book and when you close it again nothing can ever be the same. Walls have been pulled down, barriers broken, a dimension of feeling, of existence itself, has opened in you that was not there before. To the End of the Land is a book of this magnitude,
Is this blurb by Nichole Krauss for novelist David Grossman's new book the most obsequious to ever grace a book cover, asks The Gawker, while The Guardian's book blog invited readers to out-praise Krauss, and the results are most amusing. (Conversational Reading was the first to highlight this case.)

Laura Miller on the Salon website tells us why blurbs really are actually crap and how the process of blurbing works :
Once a reasonably finished draft of a manuscript has been completed, the author, at his publisher's insistence, begins the grueling and humiliating process of begging blurbs from better-known writers. The aim is to score praise from established authors whose work has a similar appeal -- a wacky, gay-positive memoirist will try for Augusten Burroughs or David Sedaris; a female writer of mordant short stories approaches Mary Gaitskill, and so on -- but these can be nearly impossible to obtain.

The most prominent authors are inundated with such manuscripts, far more than they can ever read, especially if they hope to get on with their real job -- which is, of course, writing their own books. Many have adopted a blanket no-blurb policy, and most of these will at least occasionally wind up departing from that policy, usually for personal reasons. They might do it for a good friend or a former student, or as a favor to their editor or agent.

So when publishing people look at the lineup of testimonials on the back of a new hardcover, they don't see hints as to what the book they're holding might be like. Instead, they see evidence of who the author knows, the influence of his or her agent, and which MFA program in creative writing he or she attended. In other words, blurbs are a product of all the stuff people claim to hate about publishing: its cliquishness and insularity.


A Bookaholic said...

I rarely rely on book blurbs hehe

Glenda Larke said...

I know an awful lot of sf authors --- and not one of those I've talked to about this will blurb a book they don't believe in or haven't read. Not one.

Why not? Apart from being honest? Because y'know, we have some self-respect and pride. If I blurb some crappy book, then folk are going to look at my work askance as well. What author wants that to happen??

Maybe "literary" writers are less fussy, but I doubt there are many like those mentioned in the article.

I know that the two authors who blurbed my books made public their liking BEFORE being approached by the publisher. That's WHY he approached them. The other comments on my various covers are from reviewers (not fellow authors) who publicly reviewed the book, and then had part of their review extracted - which does not require their permission.

Wilful Sunflower said...

I never pay attention to blurbs. It's PR -- of course it's going to be positive! No, I want a sypnosis. There seems to be a new trend of putting a huge picture of the author on the back cover, rather than a sypnosis or blurb, and this is exceedingly annoying. I don't care what the author looks like. I want to know what the book is about!


Jane Sunshine said...

I actually read blurbs - if Ian McEwan says its a good book, then it must have semblance of goodness. It doesn't mean that I will actually like the book though.

People who say that they don't bother with blurbs are the ones who will never admit that they have made a retail purchase because of powerful advertising. Unless you live in an isolated commune, we are all consumers and at some level, influenced by marketing and advertising.

Also, how an author looks can make a difference. If Jhumpa Lahiri or Zadie Smith were butt ugly, I don't think that they would have sold as many books.

Jane Sunshine

Damyanti said...

In our appearance-obsessed world, looks count. Sad truth.

I do look at book blurbs before buying, but nowadays only buy new books based on recommendations by real-life people whose opinion I trust. Read way too many books to risk money on an unknown, purely based on its blurb. Budget concerns!

All other books, where I actually look at blurbs and take a risk, are usually acquired at second-hand book sales. If I like the author, it is 2 dollars well-invested, and I subsequently buy new books by them.

Amir Muhammad said...

I have the perfect blurb for the Readings book.