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Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Blurbs! The Blurbs! (Are They Important?)

Browsing at Barnes & Noble a couple of months ago, the attractive cover design and unusual title of 36 Arguments For the Existence of God, by Rebecca Goldstein, caught my eye. My first thought (beyond, "Dammit, am I really judging a book by its cover?") was to wonder what the hell a preachy religious tract was doing in the fiction new releases section. But I investigated further. The subtitle, "A Work of Fiction," hidden in plain sight in black cursive at the bottom, was a clue...

I'd never heard of the novel or its writer (but remember when I saw her in Central Park?), and so turning the book over, I was excited to find two novelists I admire, Jess Walter (The Zero, The Financial Lives of the Poets [my review]) and Jonathan Safran Foer (Everything Is Illuminated, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close), absolutely gushing in the back cover blurbs. That's it, I thought, this book's coming home with me. 

I've never put much stock in blurbs (or really even read them at all); either from other writers or from the magazine/newspaper reviews usually included on the first few pages. They usually seem like marketing hooey, and more of a hindrance than a help to enjoying the novel. But, as I'm reading and thoroughly enjoying "36 Arguments", a book I selected based solely on its blurbs (a first for me), I started to wonder if other readers have had success using blurbs as a selection criteria for new novels, too.

There's two parts to this consideration, really: What the blurbs say, and who did the blurbing. To me, the second is more critical, since I've heard over and over again how careful writers are when choosing books to blurb. It's always risky for writers to link their names to another's work. No one wants to be associated with a bomb, in any capacity. So if you've enjoyed a blurbing writer's work, it's not a logical stretch to conclude that that the blurbed novel is solid.

What's more, when you get right down to it, all the blurbs invariably say is some variation of "The book is good." So, in the one and only example where this may be true, the content is not as important as the person writing the content.

That is, except when the content is bad. Or wrong. Take, for instance, this hysterically and "painfully overwrought," blurb Nicole Krauss wrote for David Grossman's new novel To The End of the Land. Because I had to read it about three times to really understand it, it doesn't exactly make me want to dive over bookcases to get my hands on the novel.

When blurbs are misleading, they can negatively affect your reading experience as well. That was the case for me with Carlos Ruis Zafon's The Shadow of the Wind. Blurbers compared Zafon to Arturo Perez, Umberto Eco, Jorge Luis Borges, so I was expecting something a lot smarter or more bookish than what I got. (My review here.) But Stephen King is blurbed on the front cover, so that just confused me.  Anyway...

So, how important are blurbs to you when you're prospecting for new novels or novelists? Do you give more stock to a novel that's been blurbed by other novelists you've enjoyed? Examples? Do you read the pages and pages of marketing-tailored fluff on the opening pages?

(Dammit...Ever since I titled this post, I've had the song below by the Chicago rock band Janus stuck in my head...Click "play" on the clip and fast-forward to about the 3:08 mark if you want to understand the connection. The lesson here?  I'm a nerd.)

24 comments:

  1. From time to time, I get sucked in by a blurb, though like you only because of who did the blurbing. The last one I remember picking up based on a cover blurb was Tinkers by Paul Harding because Marilynne Robinson blurbed it on the cover. It then went on to win the Pulitzer, so I guess that's a point in the column for paying attention to who is saying what on a book jacket.

    Brings up an interesting side question: which authors would most likely sway you? Perhaps this is the same as a favorite authors list, but perhaps not.

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  2. Blurbs aren't very important to me but they will make me look twice at a book if the blurb is written by an author I like.

    Great post.

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  3. i love the blurbs.

    i pay a little attention to who said them, but not much. just enough to get a feel for what sort of thing it will be. if it's Heat magazine and a celebrity off the telly, it's not aimed at me. if Stephen Fry, Michael Chabon and the TLS said something, it's more down my street. if serious authors who have bored me before (Martin Amis) say something, i ignore it.

    but it's the content that matters. even though they all say it's good, they say it in very different ways.

    if a book is 'praised' as harrowing, unflinching and terrifying, i won't want to read it. if it is praised as inventive, funny and wise, i will.

    but what it all comes down to, really, is that i am only interesting in dedicating hours of my precious reading time to a book if i think there's a good chance it will become my favourite book. statistically, that isn't going to happen most times, but i have to believe in the possibility, or i will struggle to get into it. knowing it has been loved, fawned over and gushed about by lots of other people helps.

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  4. I definitely read blurbs but I can't say I've ever bought a strictly because of the blurbs. I'm sure they've impacted my purchases but I cannot for the life of me think of one example of blurbing that affected my purchase decision. The only thing that sticks out is that I bought/read The Passage, DESPITE the heavy blurbing/pushing by Stephen King. So...there you go, I guess we have the same opinion of King as a blurber.

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  5. It's pretty rare that I buy a book these days that hasn't been recommended by someone or other. But I do have trouble deciding whether or not to read books that have been lent/given to me by others and, for this, I do turn to the blurb. Usually it works out or, at least, I don't feel lied to. But I can say that I felt cheated (violated even) by the this-book-is-a-study-of-American-manhood blurbs all over Elizabeth Gilbert's Last American Man, which turned out to be quite literally the worst book that I have ever read.

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  6. I haven't bought a book based solely on the blurbs (not yet anyway) but I do check them out. I usually pay more attention to who is saying the blurb than what it says. If it's an author I like, I'm more inclined to look through the book and see if it's something I should read. If it's a bunch of critics from publications I've never heard of I won't pay much attention to them. I used to find new bands to listen to by looking through the acknowledgement section in the liner notes (when I actually bought CDs) so it makes sense to me to find a book in a similar fashion.

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  7. @the Ape - You're right, that is an interesting side question. It'd be a little different than a favorite authors list, just 'cause (on a simple level) you'd have evaluate the credibility of a writer to blurb in the genre they're blurbing - I love Jonathan Tropper, but if he blurbed Thomas Pynchon, I'd be skeptical...

    @Brenna - Yeah, that's where I think I stand too. It's just one factor in an overall book-buying decision.

    @Ben - Your post the other day about the blurbs was actually what gave me the idea for this one - 'cause I'd never heard of anyone liking them to the degree you do. I'll buy your point about the blurbs delineating the "serious" from the "funny" - but those are still general sentiments when they're boiled down to their essence. Couldn't agree more about hoping every book you read is the best - well said!

    @Home - King is like a blurb whore - he says he's picky, but he's EVERYWHERE. What would you do if Kathryn Stockett blurbed Freedom? ;)

    @Patrick - That brings up another interesting side question - who holds MORE weight, someone you know whose recommended a book or a blurb from your favorite writer? I'd suspect the former, but.... And, Last American Man is officially crossed off my list...

    @Red - Yeah, I think we're on the same page. At some level a blurb is a starting point - or if you've already started investigation, it can be a tie-breaker. Interesting idea of looking in the acknowledgements section of the liner notes - I'll have to try that (when I actually buy a CD, instead of downloading it, of course...:) )

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  8. I can't recall ever basing a book purchase on any blurb, but I do have this sickness that compels me to read every single page in a book (except for the copyright page, which I manage to skip most of the time), including all the marketing fluff on the opening pages, the front and back flap, and any extras at the end (author interview, book club questions, excerpts from other books).

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  9. I don't think I've ever bought a book based on a blurb. I very rarely even read the back cover, so blurbs I really never look at! I've been surprised sometimes to see authors I wasn't a fan of blurbing books I loved after the fact sometimes.

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  10. I always enjoy reading the blurbs myself but I don't think I've ever let a blurb persuade me to buy a book or not. The summary is what gets me every time.

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  11. I rarely read blurbs - actually I couldn't 100% say that I have every read one prior to reading a book. But I'm pretty bad that way.

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  12. I don't pay attention to the blurbs -- they are all going to be positive (though I might be interested in reading something with a negative blurb!) so I don't feel I am getting any insight into the content.

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  13. I pay attention to blurbs that come from larger reviews. If the review is from a source I respect (New York Times, Washington Post, Harpers, etc), I'll look more deeply at a book. I don't pay attention to blurbs from other authors. It's my understanding that many are contractually obligated to write a certain number of blurbs and, let's face it, I'm sure they're expected to be positive.

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  14. To quote a post I did on this subject:
    "...you should never trust the blurb on a book because:
    c) you can't trust the review quotes because they are so creatively edited that they often seem to say exactly the opposite of what the reviewer meant to say (i.e. that the book is not worth reading);
    d) you can't trust recommendation by celebrities, even famous authors, because: (i) they may be under contract by the publisher to help push unsellable books; (ii) they may be personal friends doing the poor author a favour; (iii) they may be sleeping with the author;"

    Since you are thinking about this subject, you might want to check out this link: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2006/jul/02/fiction.features/print

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  15. I always read the book jacket summary, but not usually the quotes, unless they are by an author I like a lot. Like you said, they are all going to be positive, or no one would put them on the cover. I figure if an author I like liked it, chances are I will too (though that is not always the case)

    I've left you an award at my blog
    www.bookaddictreviews.blogspot.com

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  16. @Kathy - That's an interesting compulsion - mine is similar, I must read every page of the actual novel - including acknowledgements, end notes, intro, etc - but I still usually skip the front blurbs.

    @Amy - Interesting - which writers you that you didn't like blurbed books you did? I'm curious!

    @Jo-Jo - Yeah, I'd agree that the summary - or other credible reviews — are usually stronger selection criteria.

    @Trisha - Hey, maybe give the blurbs a try? ;) I'd never read them either until my experience with 36 Arguments.

    @Suzanne - Yep, a variation of "The book is good."

    @2manybooks - Are there really publisher contract stipulations that dictate that a novelist has to blurb other novelists for the same publisher? Yikes! That's frightening.

    @Bibliophile - Okay, that's two comments in a row about authors and contracts and blurbs. Man, I had no idea authors were contractually obligated to blurb. I hadn't heard of that before, but that would definitely erode any credibility of the blurbs left. I agree with you on C, though. It's just like the commercials for poorly reviewed movies that pick and choose words from the review and use the ellipses (...) to connect words into what seems like a ringing endorsement. And thanks for the link - interesting piece!

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  17. @Heather - Thanks for the award! ;) Yeah, it's cool finding blurbs from authors you like a lot - that's the point: that those blurbs hold more weight.

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  18. I always check the blurbs but only use them as a counterpoint to the book jacket description. For example, I once picked up a book in my local shop and was on the verge of purchase when I noticed that one of the blurbers was Sarah Jessica Parker. No. Thanx. A few months later, to my shock and horror, it was chosen as a selection for my book club. I swallowed my blurb snobbishness and made an effort to read it with an open mind. The book was awful and described by a fellow book club member - far less discerning than I, too, I must add - as "trying to eat a skunk ...from the North end." The lesson here? Pay attention to the blurbs.

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  19. @2manybooks and Bibliophile: I've always suspected writers could be under contract to help boost book sales for other authors, but I figured that was just because I'm unbelievably cynical about the publishing industry. Good to know my skepticism wasn't wasted.

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  20. I never read the blurbs. Seriously. Usually I don't even notice them, even when they're right there on the back cover.

    By the time I have the book in my hand, I've already decided to read it. (I very rarely browse in bookstores - too much temptation, too little self control.)

    Besides, what carries more weight is how readers review the book on Amazon, and/or reviews that I read on book blogs.

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  21. @Laura - Ha! Love that story. But I have to know - what book was it?!

    @Lindsay - I'm with you - that turned me from partially cynical to even-more-cynical pretty quickly.

    @Janna - Yeah, I would agree that I place amazon reviews (at least those that actually review the book, and not amazon's pricing or shipping or whatever) much higher on the weighting scale than blurbs. I wish I had your self control NOT to browse - my wallet would be bit heavier most weeks were that the case...

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  22. I definitely won't pick up a book just because an author I enjoy wrote a blurb for it. But if I'm considering it anyway, that is certainly a point in the book's favor.

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  23. Way late on this, but I had a professor my senior year who used to rant about being asked to blurb for a new Irish history TOME but was given ONLY TWO WEEKS TO READ IT. How can you POSSIBLY digest an overhaul to the canon of IRISH HISTORY in just two WEEKS? (He even spoke in all-caps. No, really. He did). The publisher simply told him that they didn't expect him to read the entire book, just enough to get a taste. Needless to say, they didn't get the blurb.

    My rambling point is that sadly, publishers do go about some iffy practices to get blurbs, believing they help sell books (which, it seems, they can).

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  24. I worked for two publishing houses; neither place seemed to care very much about them. When it was time for the markup to go to final print, they'd find someone to supply a blurb, if just to liven up the jacket. But I remember being told that blurbs in no real way affected sales.
    www.burnthroughbooks.blogspot.com

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