A while back a new writer tweeted to several authors, including myself, and asked if we’d blurb his first novel. The catch: He was still writing the book.
The response from the authors was predictable—finish the damn thing first, then we’ll talk.
That online exchange was rather lighthearted because everyone, including the new writer, understood asking for blurbs for an unfinished novel was a bit silly. However, there was also an unspoken seriousness. Blurbs—whereby authors and other well-known people write short statements of support for creative projects such as novels and films—has a long tradition. After all, blurbs are merely a form of viral marketing which existed before viral marketing became defined as such. Instead of waiting around for your neighbor or friend to say she loved this book, the blurb does the same trick under the name of someone famous.
For example, check out the following blurb and tell me if it piques your interest.
“Jason Sanford’s Never Never Stories is both mind-blowing and eerie, creating so many exciting worlds through his amazing prose that after finishing the book I immediately reread it. Jason is simply the best SF author alive.” — President Barack Obama
Okay, full disclaimer: Obama never said this. But you must admit it would fall under just about the best case example for blurbs. While most authors don’t expect to receive a blurb from the President of the United States, it can happen. Back in the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan praised military techno-author Tom Clancy’s first novel as “unputdownable” and a “perfect yarn,” helping to push Clancy to the top of the bestseller lists.
So obviously blurbs can be vitally important for new authors, who are rarely known to potential readers. In fact, a blurb from a well-known author not only brings extra attention but also helps tell readers what type of fiction to expect. If William Gibson praises a new author, you’d expect a different type of fiction than in a novel praised by a space opera writer like Vernor Vinge.
And blurbs can also set the tone for a book or creative work. For example, a blurb on the fifth book of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Trilogy declared it “The book that gives a whole new meaning to the word ‘trilogy’.” Or check out the blurbs which adorned the posters for the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail: “Sets the cinema back 900 years!” and “Another film completely different from some of the other films which aren’t quite the same as this one is.”
Unfortunately, not everything is perfect in the land of blurb.
There has long been a negative connotation to blurbs—a belief that the praise authors give each others’ books is, instead of being grounded in true literary criticism, is instead based on lesser human desires. Logrolling. The trading of favors. The quid pro quo. You scratch my literary back and I’ll grind my fingers down yours.
Unfortunately, this does happen. In recent years blurbs have been attacked from several fronts. For example, Amazon.com banned authors from reviewing the books of other authors due to conflicts of interest. Essentially, Amazon figured authors would either praise the works of their friends or pan the authors they hate. Not that this is totally true, but there’s enough truth to understand Amazon’s actions.
There have also been authors like A. J. Jacobs, who positively blurb almost every book he reads. As authors, editors, and marketers realized Jacobs would praise anything, he received more and more books to blurb. It became so bad that a New York Times book critic eventually tweeted, “Half the crap galleys I’ve seen in the past year were blurbed by one human: A. J. Jacobs.”
Obviously Jacobs could have benefited from a policy like the one SF author John Scalzi states on his website:
“All blurb requests must come through editors/publishers, not authors. This is to avoid me having to tell an author I don’t like their work enough to blurb it. That’s awkward.”
Insincere blurbing does nothing for either the author or the reader, and this type of false praise is a major reason blurbs might eventually cease to matter. After all, while a funny blurb on a Douglas Adams book is a good thing, a blurb which is unintentionally funny is no laughing matter. Far too many blurbs have praised far too many different novels as a “page-turning epic” or a “love story for the ages.” Such insincerity, to use the phrase from that Monty Python blurb, merely makes a novel seem completely different from some of the other novels which aren’t quite the same as this one is.
Which isn’t to say insincere blurbs are always given for bad reasons. As A. J. Jacobs said, he started writing so many blurbs to help authors whose works might otherwise go unread. But in the end, it doesn’t matter if a bad blurb is given for noble or selfish reasons—all that matters is readers were misled.
So what can be done? Can blurbs be saved from both too many blurbs and the baser needs of authors?
I suspect they can. There will always be authors—and people—who are too free in their praise. But in our increasingly social media driven world, those who do nothing but praise are soon found out, meaning people eventually lose trust in their opinions. That happened to author A. J. Jacobs, whose publisher told him to stop giving blurbs before his reputation was destroyed.
But just as the world can easily figure out which authors give fake praise, so too can we determine those authors who rarely blurb at all. Because when authors don’t give their praise too easily, the praise they do give will actually matter to readers.
So the next time you see an author’s blurb, think about how often you’ve seen that author’s praise on books. And if the blurb doesn’t match the truth of the book, there’s a good chance you’ve just entered the negative side of the blurb kingdom.
Jason Sanford is a Nebula Award nominated author whose science fiction stories have been published in a number of magazines and books, including Interzone, Asimov’s and Analog. His website is www.jasonsanford.com.