Booking Through Thursday: Blurbs

btt2Suggested by Jenny’s Books:

Something I’ve been thinking about lately: “What words/phrases in a blurb make a book irresistible? What words/phrases will make you put the book back down immediately?”

Warning: Over-analysis ahead.

I was thinking about a very similar topic yesterday, and I considered discussing it in a Sunday Salon, but here’s my chance! Actually, I was thinking specifically about asking, “Has a blurb from an author ever caused you to avoid or buy a book?” For example, on the cover of A Reliable Wife, there’s a blurb from Sara Gruen, who wrote Water for Elephants: “Astonishing, complex, beautifully written,and brilliant.” I found this book online, put it on a wish list, and received it as a birthday gift. I never saw the, uh, “endorsement blurb.” Most likely, if I had, it probably wouldn’t have mattered one way or another. I liked Water for Elephants, but I didn’t love it. Sorry, Sara Gruen, and no offense, but your blurb would not make me buy the book.

Now, if a book had a blurb from Lorrie Moore or Richard Russo or Sarah Waters, I might buy it. But I would probably already be picking up the book for other reasons: a review, the author, or even the title. Once I pick up the book (or look it up online), then yes, I base the decision on the blurb–not the author endorsement blurb, mind you, but the “what the book is about blurb,” also known as the publisher’s description. The truth is, you can’t see the author endorsements online, unless the site takes the time to add them to the page. I chose A Reliable Wife because the description was intriguing, and I liked the cover (and to be honest, I think those things happened in reverse order–I liked the cover, and then I read the description).

But to answer Jenny’s question, I am not sure that there are any words or phrases that would make me pick something up or put it down, except maybe “Jodi Picoult (or Stephanie Meyer) loves this book!” But really, that would not be fair, either; just because I don’t like their writing doesn’t mean they can’t appreciate good books, and endorse them as such, right?

ReliableWifeI decided to look back at the description in the book jacket of A Reliable Wife and see if I could spot the exact phrase that drew me in, and here it is: “Set just after the turn of the twentieth century…” I’ve been very interested in anything set between 1890 and just after 1945, so that definitely drew me in. But it was the first sentence of the third paragraph of the description, so I was already interested. I suppose, though, that the phrase “Set just after the turn of the twentieth century…” did cinch the deal.

Sorry to go on, but when I started thinking about this yesterday, I realized how very difficult this all must be for authors. They don’t write their own descriptions, they don’t design their own covers, and generally for the endorsement blurb, they have to go with whoever says “yes” to their request. I know that part for a fact, because back when I was in school, I remember one of my professors, Lee Martin (who wrote The Bright Forever, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and is a beautiful book, please please read it!) talking about being rejected by authors when he’d requested a blurb or a forward. Even though he managed to score Amy Bloom to write the forward to his story collection, I think the sting of rejection from other authors still hurt, even if it had nothing to do with his writing, but was simply a factor of time or just plain laziness or self-interest.

And for all that, do we really follow the blurb? Or do we listen to each other? I can’t wait to read everyone’s answers, because I also wonder how much the blurb-factor will change (has changed?) with the advent of e-books and self-publishing. Sorry to hijack your question, Jenny, but it was a good one!

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9 comments

  1. I’ll look for The Bright Forever. Thesedays a recommendation from a blogger carries much more weight than a blurb. There used to be a site that posted matching blurbs. Two authors who publish blurbs about each others books. I just don’t think one should put much weight in author blurbs. Just because I like Salmon Rusdies books doesn’t mean we both have the same reading tastes.

  2. One thing I’ve certainly started to take more stock in is when it comes to authorial blurbs, I really want to know who the authors are. Many times I am drawn to a book because it is compared in the blurb to some other author or book I like, and then I am generally let down. I’ve come to find that if I don’t know or respect any of the authors who are blurbing a book, then I probably won’t like it! I find that it’s very rare that there is one amazing author that I like who has hyped up a book in a sea of authors I don’t know – generally they are all authors who write similar types of fiction.

    As for words in summaries that make me immediately drop a book, I know this soudns terrible but generally I will put down a book right away if within the first few sentences on the back I encounter “1945”, “Holocaust” or “Jewish”. I find that so many authors are using the Holocaust and WWII as the basis for their fiction that I’m just oversaturated with it by now. Same goes for “9/11”, actually. I understand that these are big issues that many people still deal with, but to me these topics just seem so pedestrian because almost every other book I pick up is about them!

  3. Novroz, I had already been thinking about that very topic, so I was ready!

    cbjames, I would have liked to have seen that site. I’d like to see another one that just has every generic thing ever written in a book description as well. It’s my dream that some nerds have gotten together and made some sort of drinking game out of this kind of thing.

    Steph, I think you make a very valid point. Because publishing is a business like everything else, I think publishers chase what worked once or twice until it becomes a formula. It’s too bad, because relevant stories about important topics just drown in a sea of similar books or are ignored, because the book-buying public gets overloaded.

    Susan, thanks for coming by!

    Bluestocking, you cannot say I didn’t warn you. 🙂 Thanks for visiting.

  4. The back of the book influences me much more than any endorsement blurb.

    However, I think I rely most on reviews/blogs that tell me more about the writing style and visceral reaction to the book.

  5. Author blurbs don’t affect me, but if one of my fave authors recommends a book, and I see that rec, I’ll probably pick it up! Back of the book summaries affect my decision more.

  6. Dawn, I agree. I rely much more on reviews, and especially blogs. If it hadn’t been for blogs, I might not have picked up some of the terrific books I’ve read so far this year.

    Eva, I too will pick up books that I see my favorite authors have enjoyed. They used to do that frequently on Powell’s author interviews, list the books that influenced that particular author.

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