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.


  1. The one thought this post left me with, Sam? Is that blurb is an amusing word and is now devoid of all meaning to me. (Has that happened to you? Hear/say/read a word so often that it becomes meaningless noise?)

    (In no way a commentary on your post, which was fascinating and illuminating. Cheating by using your friends as blurb writers.)

  2. I don't think using friends or teachers is "cheating"; my advisor was Sid Stebel, and when he called my novel "brilliant," well, you can bet I felt I had earned it.

    I love that we live in a culture where established writers who have positive things to say about their not-so-established colleagues' work, or alternately, not-so-established writers who are honored, privileged, and humbled to have established writers they've looked up to for years say great things about their books are called "blurb whores." I have never, not once, heard anyone use the phrase "blurb whore" until the NY Times did.

    As a not-so-established writer myself, I get the value of blurbs. Perhaps better than Ms. Donadio's essay. I loved that she pointed out the writers'-teachers thing but then cited Joyce Carol Oates' blurb of Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer (the former worked with the latter on an anthology and was a bit of a mentor).

    And also, no matter how established a writer I may become, if I ever get to a point where I'm not humbled, honored, and privileged to have anyone, writer or no, say something positive about my book, kindly punch me in the face.

  3. I was reading this article this morning, too, Sam. I couldn't help but think that something very similar happens in the "ordinary" person's life all the time - job references. Don't we ask the folks we know will say nice things about us? Especially our teachers/mentors? It does scare me, however, that there is someone out there SELLING blurbs. That's just not right. However, I try to have faith that authors will not tarnish their own names by offering unearned praise. I read a blog post by Gregg Hurwitz once that reassured me any blub he assigns his name to is honest to the core. I hope the majority are like him!

  4. Will, I love to see blurbs from "name authors" on the covers of books by authors I've never heard of...even if they share a publisher, because I always figure that they would not want to "taint" their own rep by giving misleading praise for a book.

    And I completely understand the "blurbing up" thing, the honor involved for the lesser-known, etc. When I see those, I always figure that it's a case of someone getting to praise an author he's admired for a long time, someone who has likely influenced him. Those come across to me as very sincere.

    Now, on the other hand, I am suspicious of the "lateral blurbing" because it is so overdone that it seems almost reflexive to me, a nice trade between friends who know how to play the game. I'm cynical, by nature, so I'm sure that's probably not always the case. But I just can't take those comments all that seriously.

    Now, of course, as an avid reader, I usually already have my own firm opinions about both the blurber and the blurbee if it's two "big names" involved and the blurbs are only interesting to me to see who they are from...content becomes a bit meaningless.

    And, too, getting a positive blurb or comment from a longtime mentor or a respected teacher has to be a thrill. I agree.

    I love this article for the can of worms it opens up...

  5. Carrie, that has happened to me, too, especially with all these newly coined internet-related words. They seem to come and go, don't they, even before they are ever listed in a standard dictionary?

  6. That's a great point, Jen...and exactly why I don't put a lot of faith in references when I'm hiring someone. In order to protect themselves from lawsuits, most people would not dare say anything negative regarding an ex-colleague or a friend of theirs.

    I would like to think that the majority of blurbs are honest...but I would bet that a substantial percentage of them are written by rote and are less than honest.

  7. Well, there's honest and then there's "honest." Blurbing your friends may not be intentionally misleading, but judgement is probably skewed anyway. When Debbie (my wife) comments that she likes a particular poem, or line from a poem, that I've written, it of course, makes me feel good, and I believe that she means it, but, she is my wife and isn't exactly an unbiased party.

    An author (A) who blurbs an author (B) whose book I don't particularly care for just makes me regard A's work less in the process. I think they need to be very careful.

  8. John, that's why I give almost no credit to "lateral blurbs." Those are often shared between friends who would never give a negative blurb to a peer/friend, nor insult that friend by refusing to do one at all. They have become just "filler" on the book covers, IMO.

    Upward or downward ones are more likely to have merit and be honest, I think. But it is difficult sometimes to recognize those...can't know every author out there, can we?

    People are just generally more cynical these days than in the past...too many instances of being burned by "trustworthy" people in all walks of I think the impact of blurbs is much less now than it was at any time in the past.

  9. Does anyone even care about those blurbs from other authors?

    Honestly, for me, I like two things:

    1. I find the SOURCE of the book review quotes are very influential (NYTimes? WSJ? Good. Vogue? People? Bad.)

    2. I read the DESCRIPTION of the contents. I can't stand, and rarely buy, those books that have a lengthy block of text about how great the book is and how acclaimed the author is... but never actually tell me what the book is about!

    Where we recommend books so good, you'll stay up past your bed time. ;)

  10. I think of "blurb whores" as those authors who write scads of blurbs and seem to lack any discrimination - they will praise anything, it seems.

    I also find it appalling that many reviews (which are usually little more than blurbs) at Amazon are by friends and/or family of the author. After years of reading reviews there, these jump out at me and are so obvious.


  11. Good points, Peter, and I largely agree with them. The NYT reviews don't always impress me because of their editorial/political bias, but they are generally interesting.

  12. I think that's about right, JoAnn, and I think the term works. Some folks have so many blurbs on the shelves at the same time that they have devalued their own credibility.

    ...and the fun and games at Amazon can sometimes be amusing, especially when an author goes off the deep end and takes such offense at the reader comments that they organize a rabid attack on those posters. It is all pretty obvious, and pathetic, when it happens, so pathetic that I start to wonder about the mental health of the writer sometimes.