BLURB: A brief noise that embarrasses everyone.
— Tom’s Glossary of Book Publishing Terms
A curious aspect of book publishing is that publishers have never quite figured out what the best way is to sell books. Not only is the industry cursed with a byzantine distribution system, but publishers routinely repeat the stale promotional techniques of past decades without thinking too hard about whether they are actually effective.
Take the case of blurbs. Publishers chase after blurbs for the back covers of their books mainly because everyone else is doing it, and a blurb-free cover will therefore look like some kind of failure. But do people really put any weight into blurbs? My guess is that they usually don’t, but occasionally a blurb will hit the right note, excite someone’s curiosity, and help make a sale. But does this happen more often than would be the case if the back cover real estate were put to other uses?
Part of the reason readers distrust blurbs is that they know instinctively that they are the product of a process that at its worst is corrupt and deceitful. Consider the letter that Stephen J. Dubner (co-author of Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything) received from a book’s editor, containing this amusing passage:
If you find [redacted] and [redacted]’s ideas as compelling and inspiring as we do, a quote from you that we could print on the jacket would make a world of difference. I would be happy to help craft a quote if you prefer. My contact info is below.
When an editor goes looking for an author to put his name underneath a quote written by the editor or others at the publishing house you know the blurb system is broken.
Still, some blurbs do rise above the mediocrity of the genre. My favorite is this one about the Argentine writer Julio Cortazar, from Pablo Neruda:
Anyone who doesn’t read Cortazar is doomed. Not to read him is a serious invisible disease which in time can have terrible consequences. Something similar to a man who has never tasted peaches. He would quietly become sadder . . . and, probably, little by little, he would lose his hair.
I find some blurbs deterrents, not draws. For years, the editions of Terry Pratchet’s books in the US had a cover blurb by Piers Anthony: “Terry Pratchett is fast, funny, and going places. Try him!” I suppose the logic was that both Piers Anthony and Terry Pratchett write humor and fantasy — but they write it in such hugely different registers that a Piers Anthony recommendation would likely interest people who wouldn’t care for the books. And since I dislike Piers Anthony, it took me ages to get past his blurb and stop letting it color the way I read Pratchett — witness the fact that I still remember said blurb!
Good point, Claire
Since most of my shopping for books is done online, I am not exposed to the blurbs till the books arrive. My decision to buy a book is entirely on referrals – personal, coming across in another book, or a review in a publication.
It is not only publishers, I doubt very much that in any other business also, people have figured out as to what will sell their products. By and large success is a matter of luck! I am willing to debate this.
I seem to be in a minority here: blurbs do make a difference to me, especially if they are sourced from reviews of the books published in reputed journals and news papers. I must be the common denominator that publishers look to target.
I love the comment on the picture of the book.