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Sunday, August 17, 2008

Book Blurbs and Back-Scratching

We've discussed book reviews and what obligation the reviewer has, if any, to keep in mind that he/she is dealing with a real live human being on the other end of that review. I think that most would agree that reviewers are obligated to produce a fair and meaningful review without letting themselves be influenced by the "feelings" of those whose work is being discussed. Of course, a certain level of civility is also to be expected, and a lack of that civility reflects more poorly on the reviewer than on the one being reviewed. But the bottom line is that a review in which the reviewer allows himself to be influenced by the author, or a fear of hurting the author's feelings, is a worthless thing.

But there is another game that publishers and authors sometimes play that is every bit as dishonest as a tainted review: the use of meaningless book blurbs written by friends who trade rave blurbs about each others' books in an attempt to increase sales for both. We've all seen them, and seasoned readers learn to recognize them for what they are pretty quickly, but they probably do work more times than not. The New York Times Sunday Book Review talks about the practice in today's issue:
The endorsements on books aren’t entirely impartial. Unbeknownst to the average reader, blurbs are more often than not from the writer’s best friends, colleagues or teachers, or from authors who share the same editor, publisher or agent. They represent a tangled mass of friendships, rivalries, favors traded and debts repaid, not always in good faith. There’s some debate about whether blurbs actually help sell books, but publishers agree they can’t hurt. Often, agents try to solicit blurbs even before a publisher buys a book.
...
For writers, to blurb or not to blurb can be a tricky matter. Blurb too little and you’ll have a hard time drumming up the requisite superlatives when your turn comes. Blurb too often, or include too many blurbs on your book, and you might get called a blurb whore.
The article goes on to separate "blurbing" into the three subsets of "blurbing down," "blurbing up," and "lateral blurbing," all based on the industry reputation of the author providing the dust jacket quote. Blurbing up occurs when a lesser known writer provides a blurb for an author better known than himself (something he will jump at the chance to do, of course), blurbing down is the opposite (and, I suspect, is the source of the most honest blurbs being used), and blurbing laterally is likely to be the source of countless back-scratching blurbs that are especially meaningless.

Whatever you think about blurbs, and whether or not they influence you in the least, this is an interesting article. Take a look.
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