Much Ado About Blurbs

I was recently asked what I think about the efficacy of “blurbs” in book marketing.

Not everyone digs them. “No informed person takes them seriously,” says Camille Paglia, “because of their tainted history of shameless cronyism and grotesque hyperbole.” George Orwell disparaged blurbs as “disgusting tripe.” My view is somewhat more nuanced.

To start with, I hate the word blurb. Let’s just go with comment from here on in, OK?

In general, I think a comment from almost any verified source is preferable to publisher-generated promotional gibberish. People always put more faith in third-party endorsements than they do in the effusions of anonymous copywriters.

Of course, the most reliable third-party critic is the man or woman on the street. This is the reason why we say “word of mouth” is so important in book marketing. Indeed, word of mouth is probably the very best book publicity ecosystem going. In my view, comments from readers themselves in Amazon reviews and on Goodreads do much more to sell a book over time than do packaged publicity comments.

Nevertheless, pre-publication promotional comments from notable sources have value when executed correctly, and in the right context. They especially have value in outreach to booksellers and book critics. “This is a highly competitive field,” says Simon & Schuster’s Ira Silverberg, “and that factor of conferring prestige is terribly important. The credibility factor helps enormously with reviewers and booksellers. I don’t know how much it means at the consumer level, but booksellers care about blurbs. It helps them to contextualize.’’

Between fiction and nonfiction, two very different sets of promotional comment best practices apply.

In popular nonfiction publishing, a comment from a well-known expert in a precise field is what you want. If the Chairman of the Federal Reserve endorses a popular book about the stock market, people will take notice. If Neil deGrasse Tyson endorses a popular book about physics, people will take notice.

On the other hand, comments from these two same prominent sources would be less convincing, and in fact seem somehow forced and pointless and suspect, if offered in support of a book on French cuisine.

The same goes for most “celebrity” endorsements of nonfiction across the board, none of them usually game-changers unless making sense within a given discipline. Tyson’s opinion about a book on French cuisine carries no more weight than Elton John’s regarding a book about golf or Rachel Weisz’s regarding a book about the history of the Ford Motor Company. (But get Elton’s endorsement for a book on songwriting, and Rachel’s for a book about acting, and you’re where you want to be.)

A few years ago my very small press New Street published a cancer memoir by an old college friend of mine, Jim Capaldi (no, not the musician). Jimmy was a senior executive with Reuters and had a wide social circle which included a number of prominent people. He made a few phone calls, and we suddenly found ourselves with strong pre-publication comments from Susan Sarandon, David Duchovny, and Peter Farrelly. With or without these endorsements, Jimmy’s book was (and is) damned excellent. In the end, sales were good from our small press perspective — but not noticeably better than what I was expecting before I’d realized we’d have Jimmy’s celeb friends on board.

Sure, I was glad to have the comments. They certainly didn’t hurt. But I also don’t believe they helped Jimmy’s book get any more attention than it would have otherwise. I can say the same about one of my own books, Pete Seeger vs. The Un-Americans: A Tale of the Blacklist, which has a comment from well known actor/director Steve Buscemi, a longtime friend of mine. Once again: Fun to have, and certainly sincere on Steve’s part, but I’m convinced great reader reviews on Amazon do far more to make the sales happen. Also of concrete value: A comment from British musician/activist Billy Bragg — someone who works and lives his life directly in Seeger’s tradition.

From the moment I picked your book up until I put it down I was convulsed with laughter. … Someday I intend reading it. — Groucho Marx

The landscape is quite different when it comes to fiction, especially popular fiction as opposed to literary fiction. Here almost any known name will have an impact. Elton John and Rachel Weisz are allowed to have novels they’ve especially enjoyed. And their fans will be interested.

Within the various genres of popular fiction, praise from genre-specific star authors naturally goes a long way. Lasso an enthusiastic comment from Stephen King for a new work of horror, or a thumbs-up from Patricia Cornwell for a new who-done-it, and you are in a good place.

Of course, for the new writer of quality literary fiction there is nothing better than having an endorsement from Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison, Martin Amis, or others of their ilk. In such instances, you do indeed have a game-changing dynamic when it comes to getting the attention of reviewers and thereby the world.

All this being said, we as an industry should be aware of what seems to me a question of diminishing returns amid a pox of, per Paglia: shameless cronyism and grotesque hyperbole. Too often we see what is clearly just a great deal of bloated ego-boosting and glad-handing among colleagues — an exercise of mutual masturbation: one writer stroked with praise for his/her new book, and another stroked by the honor of being invited to comment. In the end, they both get their names somewhere on the dust-jacket. And six months later they do it all again, simply exchanging roles.

Readers are smart. Most booksellers and critics are very smart. And we’d best remember that before we wind up drowning in each other’s praise.