All About Blurbs

Have you ever wandered through the aisle of a bookstore, browsing the faced-out titles, when you spot a name on the cover that isn’t the author’s? Something that might look like this?

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell Blurb

This is a “blurb”, or what I like to call the author’s letter of reference.

In publishing, blurbs are something of a contentious topic, as different people debate whether or not blurbs are even necessary. I will admit that as a consumer, I’ve only ever once picked up a book because of a blurb, and that was the very book for whom Neil Gaiman gave the above quote:

JonathanStrange&MrNorrell_Large

I will also admit to the fact that Neil Gaiman’s blurb isn’t the only reason I picked up this novel; I had already read a review of this book in Time magazine, and I remember reading somewhere that it had also won the Hugo and World Fantasy Awards. And I’ll wager that most readers don’t really notice the laudatory praise on book covers, or if they do, it will only push them over the line from “Undecided” to “Will Certainly Buy.”

But for a debut novelist, blurbs can be something of a stressful thing. As an unproven author with no history or sales track behind you, the best way to get the attention of your publisher’s sales and marketing force is to come into launch1 with some hefty endorsements. Ideally from writers who have a proven track record, who also write books in a similar vein to yours.

Did you think that putting yourself out there and finding rejection would end once you get a book deal? Oh no, my friends; this party never ends! 🙂 I kid, I kid, but to be honest, be prepared to be pitching you and your book for the rest of your life: to agents, to editors, to authors way higher up the food chain than you, to booksellers, to readers, etc. Once a manuscript begins the process of moving from a story in your head shared with you and your editor to a tangible product, that’s when blurbs come in. That’s when you and your editor pitch your book to other authors and ask if they would be interested in reading with an eye toward blurbing.

The matter of which authors to approach for blurbs is partially political, partially personal, and partially mercenary. This is where having a community of writer-friends (like PubCrawl!) can be incredibly beneficial; friends who have already published are usually more than willing to put their name behind yours.

This is also where comps can come in useful. If you know that your fantasy novel is similar in tone and scope to another author, then you can pitch said author and ask if they would blurb your book. (Or your editor will do this, if she has the contacts. But everyone is generally pitching in for contacts at this point, including your agent. This is also when asking for blurbs can start to feel a little bit like a popularity contest.)

Do blurbs matter in the long run? I don’t think they do, or at least, not on the consumer end. But for a publisher’s sales and marketing team, blurbs are a fantastic tool. Sales reps at publishers have a number of accounts into which they sell their titles. Because it’s not likely they’ve read every book coming out that season, they’ll see a book with a blurb by X Author and Y Author, and know just how to pitch it. “Oh, this book will appeal to fans of Stephen King and Joe Abercrombie.” The bookseller hears this, and then knows where to shelve the book in the bookstore, and to gauge how many copies they should buy for their store, based on their customer metrics.

The ideal blurb should look like this. It should:

  1. Come from an author whose work is similar in tone, scope, style, and genre as yours.
  2. Ideally come from author whose name carries some weight (this is where things can get political).
  3. Be positive! (Duh.)

Sometimes, at the end of the day, you may not end up with any blurbs. And that’s okay. Blurbs are mostly just a marketing gimmick, another tool in your arsenal. Not getting a blurb won’t kill your book. As I always say, your story is what matters most, and if the story is strong, the readers will find you.

That’s it! If you guys have any more questions about blurbs, or any other part of the publishing process, feel free to leave them in the comments!

  1. I promise to write a post about the launch process at some point in the future. Based on reader feedback, I will try and elucidate some of the “behind-the-scenes” stuff with posts like I wrote for what it means when an editor takes your book to acquisitions.

5 Responses to All About Blurbs

  1. Marc Vun Kannon Aug 19 2015 at 7:39 am #

    Hardly. Few books go out as the author intended. The agent, the editor, the sales team, and the bookstore all do their bit to slant the story towards optimal sales. The name of the game is consumer metrics, more than a strong story. The music industry has the structure of a popular song fully mapped out. The film industry has a structure so formulaic, they check only certain pages of a script to know whether it’s something to bother reading. I have no doubt the publishing industry has a similar strategy. A strong story that doesn’t feed into that strategy is a story that might actually be harder to categorize and sell, and so won’t get published, while a weak story that does, will.
    If you mean strong books that have been published versus weak books that have been published, probably so, but that is just a fraction of the stories that get written. I tend to think written first and published second, and I’m sure most of the strong books that get written never get published, precisely because they’re too strong to fit into the standardized channels of the industry.
    As for blurbs, I always thought of the blurb as the short description of the story on the back cover, rather than the cover-quotes from other authors. (A dictionary would be a useful thing.) The most amazing ‘blurb’ I ever saw was written for my own first novel. Rather than the ‘last seventy years’, this author compared my novel to The Book of the West, one of the classic works of Chinese Buddhism. I doubt she meant to damn my book with excessive and extravagant praise, either.
    Notice also that the text of the blurb in your example is written in a smaller font than the name of the blurber. Like book titles, the strength of the blurb can be less important than the name of the author who wrote it. People will see ‘Neil Gaiman’ and feel a warm and fuzzy, whether they read the text or not.

    • JJ
      JJ Aug 19 2015 at 7:53 am #

      I’m not sure where you’re getting the idea that “few books go out as the author intended.” If you mean that first drafts are hardly ever published, then yes, that’s true. But a first draft is just that: a draft. Like a thumbnail cartoon sketch before a final painting. As someone who will be traditionally published and who has been an editor, I would say the author’s vision trumps the publishing house. I have never been pressured into changing anything about my story to make it more saleable, and I had a great many rejections before my editor bought my book saying they didn’t know what to do with my novel because it fell between a lot of categories: adult, young adult, fantasy, romance, and literary. But my editor saw my story and loved it and only made it stronger.

      And while I agree that there are narrative conventions most books fall into these days, I would argue that this is just how literature has evolved. Set-up, build-up, climax, resolution have been standard since Aristotle espoused the rules of drama. Certain styles may become passe, but eventually they may come around again. It does a disservice to the myriad writers who stay true to their voice AND find traditional publishing deals to say only “weak” stories that adhere some mythical idea of convention or formula get published.

      The description of the book’s story on the back cover is called “copy” in publishing. “Blurbs” generally refer to author blurbs, and “pull quotes” are generally the bits of praise culled from professional and trade reviews.

      The reason Neil Gaiman’s name is larger is for exactly the reason you stated and what I also talk about in my post: his name has recognition. It’s what gets people to notice the book, and notice is always good.

      • Marc Vun Kannon Aug 21 2015 at 7:24 am #

        “Set-up, build-up, climax, resolution have been standard since Aristotle espoused the rules of drama. ”
        Not my point, though. I was thinking of the linearity of a story. It has a hero, and a bunch of other guys, and the story follows that one hero through a variety of events until he achieves his goal. I write books more multi-dimensionally, a technique I just dubbed ‘fuzzy linear’. The story follows a group of heroes and villains, but they each have their own nature but no specific plot, and each seizes opportunities as they are recognized. No single MC, no villains, and no plot to unravel. (Try to imagine a multi-person fight scene in a flood, with everyone seizing whatever comes to hand to try and make the situation work for them by the time they reach safe ground. The real goal of a story like this is to stop the water.)
        My point being that a linear story can be more easily queried than a non-linear story, so the field is slanted towards linear stories. The ability to slot a story into some traditional genre categories is another way of restricting the books that get even presented for consideration.
        Nor did I say that only weak traditionally-constructed stories get published. I said that weak traditional stories are more likely to be published than strong untraditionally-constructed stories. Even assuming two published stories, one weak and the other strong, how well they do in the marketplace is not solely determined by their relative strength but also by the marketing and promotion they receive.
        Such as blurbs.

        • JJ
          JJ Aug 21 2015 at 7:44 am #

          Plenty of untraditionally-structured stories get published, and published to strong sales and critical acclaim. Murakami’s oeuvre is not one I would call “linear”; I would say his writing tends to be sollipsistic, or even elliptical. Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves is another example. David Mitchell’s novels, most notably Cloud Atlas, has six narrators, six different stories, all stacked within each other like matryoshka dolls. Our own Amie Kaufman’s upcoming Illuminae is what I call House of Leaves meets Battlestar Galactica (not in the least bit linear, or with a single protagonist; it features a cast of thousands). Even Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, the novel I highlighted above, does not have one hero; it has four. It also has an unconventional narrative style, with long tangential footnotes, plus one of the titular characters doesn’t even show up until the second act.

          It is true that “commercial” premises are easier to query and market. That is the nature of publishing, which is a business. But the writing and narrative qualities of strong non-traditional novels generally stand out, regardless of how easy they are to package to the consumer.

  2. Dominic Holmboe Aug 19 2015 at 8:55 am #

    Very good article, thanks! 😀

Leave a Reply

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.