Monday, March 12, 2012

To Blurb, or Not to Blurb...

This past week, the New York Times ran a piece, Riveting! The Quandary of the Book Blurb, where a couple writers, an agent and an editor/author all weighed in on the question of what, if any, purpose a book blurb serves. Are blurbs obsolete? Do they really say anything to a reader, or are they cues to reviewers, the marketplace, etc., etc.? Go read the various opinions; they're pretty interesting.

The piece got me thinking about my own feelings/thoughts about blurbs: as a reader; as someone who's had a book blurbed; and as someone who's been asked to provide blurbs.

1) As a reader, well . . . yeah, blurbs have made a difference, sometimes. I know for a fact that there are two books I picked up, within recent memory, on the strength of blurbs: not what was said but who provided the blurb. I mean, really, are blurbs going to say anything other than how amazing a book is? Of course not. But I think that blurbs provide some meaningful information to the genre reader, on a par with Amazon recommendations that try to match up what you're looking at with books of similar ilk.

So, if Stephen King or Lee Child has raved about a book, I'll be much more likely to take a look. Will I always agree with either? I can tell you, unequivocally, that I have not; indeed, have felt cheated and lied to by an author I admire when I feel as if I get suckered into a book that isn't my cuppa.

Which then makes a blurb a bit of a problem, doesn't it? Put your imprimatur, your seal of approval on a work, and the work also reflects on you. You're presuming on our unspoken contract; I, the reader, trust you, the writer, because you've always kept your end of the bargain. But now, you've shaken my trust. You got me to read a stinker. So I'll be much less likely to pick up another book just because your name is on the cover.

Very tricky business.

On the other hand, the important thing is that the blurb lead to a sale. It won't lead to a repeat sale, but money in the bank is money in the bank.

2) It seems to be de rigeur these days to ask writers to gather up authors who might be willing to provide a blurb. I've been asked for suggestions, but I've never directly contacted a writer--friend or otherwise. Although I do have friends who have asked me or other writers, if I were asked to do the same? I'd rather stick pins in my eyes. I would feel incredibly awkward. Presuming on someone's good graces or friendship just doesn't sit well with me. Since I've never had to make that contact myself, I have no idea what would happen if a writer suggested that the editor or publicist do this instead. Anyone out there with experience on that? Anyone ever said no and asked that someone else do it?

But as someone who's had her book blurbed, I can tell you that more than one reader said he/she picked up the book on the basis of who blurbed it (not what the blurb said). Just as fascinating to me is the difference between readers in the States and overseas. If you take a look at the ASHES US edition, James Dashner's blurb is featured on the front and Michael Grant's is on the back cover. But for all the overseas editions--including those put out by different publishers--they're reversed. Grant's on front; Dashner's on back. I have no idea why that might be, unless we're talking name recognition or one blurb being seen as somehow better than the other. (Trust me, I was thrilled to have just one of these guys on the book. Two? Died and gone to heaven.)

3) Before ASHES, I'd been asked by several friends to provide blurbs for books. After ASHES, I got, well, a lot more. I've never blurbed a single book, for several reasons. Mostly, it's that I honestly haven't had the time. Yes, I read while I'm writing, but that's usually to turn off my brain a bit, not overheat it more. Blurbing would be, for me, more work. Now, if I were to read a great book and THEN be asked for a blurb . . . that would be a different story, I guess, but then the book would've been out there awhile and why would anyone need me?

This does make me wonder about writers who blurb, and seem to blurb a lot. Either they read much more quickly and work more efficiently than I do--always a strong possibility--or they are blurbing as a favor to an editor or friend, or ... they are being PAID to blurb. Now, if an editor asked me for the favor, I wouldn't refuse. I just flat-out wouldn't. I'd find the time, somewhere--because the editor's signaling several things with the request: a) we're at that stage in our relationship where manus manum lavat; b) the editor is telling me that my name carries clout; c) putting my name on the book might actually be to my benefit, too. Then, attaching my name to a book would have the same impact as, say, introducing a new writer at a conference or festival: my name carries weight, and this gives me more exposure and legitimacy. Blurbing reaffirms me as an important voice.

So . . . then blurbing becomes very loaded, doesn't it? Yes, it's flattering; there are all sorts of implied and explicit meanings. But blurbing can backfire, not only if I lend my name to a dud (no matter what I think of it) but if I agree only to discover that I actually can't say anything nice.

This once happened to me. I agreed to do someone a favor and read his book. It was downright terrible. It was SUCH a bad book that I ended up skimming the whole thing in about an hour. And then I was stuck because this writer said that even if I hated the book, writing a review would generate hits and drive up the Amazon rating . . . etc.

Well, I declined. I wrote him a very nice note and said that the book just wasn't my cuppa. In all conscience, I couldn't recommend the book--but I also declined to slam it. Really, life is hard enough without that kind of nonsense.

After that experience, though, I've become very leery of requests to blurb. As I've said, I've been much too busy to even consider it. For me, I think that if I were to provide a blurb, the circumstances would have to be akin to those I outlined above: a favor to an editor. Otherwise, I think that, for us authors, blurbing is full of all kinds of pitfalls and unforeseen consequences--not just that we might give only a lukewarm endorsement or, worse yet, lie, but blurbing something that isn't all that great might also provide unwanted blowback. For example, I know that a few writers' blurbs, seeing their names? I won't pick up those books because of my prior experience with stinkers they thought were so great.

Like, I said . . . life is hard enough. I don't need any additional headaches.


For those who follow me on Twitter and Facebook, you know I bake just about every Sunday and then post a picture of what I've done, unless it's just too gruesome. [There is, I am sure, a deep, dark psychological reason why I bake, too. I've got a coupla ideas about that.] Anyway, I figured to start carrying this over to the blog because . . . I dunno . . . I like pictures of pretty cakes. Today, I had to slog through my taxes and decided that my weekly cake had to be both beautiful and bright in the mouth. So, today's cake: a lemon-blueberry done in my bran'-spanking new bundt pan. Quite the beauty. Tastes pretty darned good, too.


Jordan Dane said...

Nice bundt. We need a Scratch & Sniff app.

Blurbing is such a tricky business. I've never bought a book based on a blurb, but editors sure love having an assortment to choose from & they use them for all sorts of promo. I've always been astonished & grateful for bigger authors who blurbed me & I've made friends from the agonizing experience of asking them. But the best is getting a blurb unsolicited after they read my books.

Paula Millhouse said...

I'd feel so smarmy asking for a blurb.

If someone picked up my novel and read it and took it upon themselves to tell me they loved it and wanted others to read it because they believed in it, then fine, I'd ask.

I'm with Jordan - it's better in retrospect.

I do think leaving reviews is important if I liked the book.


Ilsa said...

Yeah, I'm with you. That's why I do a monthly recommended reads. If you've got nothing good to say, keep your mouth shut; that's what my mom always said. But if I've liked a book (or audiobook or movie), I'll talk about it.
Having said that, though, I tend to agree with the agent in the New York Times article. I think the blurbs are signals in the industry--so they're still important and maybe most important there. Although, as I've said, I've picked up a book on the basis of the blurb--or, at the very least, given it a second look.
But I also am still surprised by the sheer number of times I see certain authors' names appearing on covers as ad copy/blurb. Makes me wonder about the payment aspect, you know?
And, Jordan: yeah, agree 100%. They're not blurbs at that point, but if they do a nice review . . . good enough for me.
Yeah, the bundt: did you know that the first recorded US recipe for a bundt can showed up in a cookbook around 1900 and published in Milwaukee? Given that this is the German belt of the US, that makes sense.
Even better, that Nordic Ware bundt pans--which is the brand I used for that cake (and now shall always use; there's just no comparison) were developed in Minneapolis--but a Jewish guy? I'm telling you: we are a table-based religion, without question.

Jordan Dane said...

I can have faith in a table-based religion.

Read an article on blueberries & their anti-oxidants. They suggested putting them in lean hamburger to keep the meat moist. Weird but interesting.

Jordan Dane said...

I avoid doing reviews as an author. I have a recommended reading list for my YA workshop, but doing ongoing reviews under my author name or on Goodreads feels like a nasty can of worms to me. People will wonder why I haven't reviewed their book or assume I hated it if it's not there. Even if I liked it, they may want more gush. I avoid the drama.

As a reader, I would only review books I enjoyed & was excited about. Ilsa--I agree with you & your mom on keeping my mouth shut.

Anita Grace Howard said...

What a great and timely post! I recently was asked to blurb a very good friend's book. She's going Indie w/ a book club friendly adaptation of Cinderella. It just happens that I really liked it, so I gave her a good review on GoodReads, and gave her a nice blurb.

But I tried not to be gushy in the blurb or the review. I specified the reasons that book appealed to ME. In hopes other readers can decide if those are the kinds of elements they look for in a book, instead of just going off of my saying it's good.

That way, if they don't like it, hopefully they won't hold it against me.

Anonymous said...

I think that's hilarious and hypocritical that you eagerly get your reps to solicit blurbs to grace the cover of your books, but refuse to blurb anyone else's. How arrogant!

Michelle said...

I've been in both camps, too, enough to develop a policy. If it's an author I know, I usually agree to read the book, but leave myself an out by saying that I might not be able to find the time, but I'll do my best. Then, if I love the book, great--if not, I can gracefully say that I wasn't able to get to it.

Blurbs are actually good promotional tools, however, for both you and the author. You never know when a book you blurbed will become a bestseller, and there's your name on the front of x number of copies in people's hands, many of whom might not have known your work before. Plus this business tends to rely heavily on favors. I've been lucky to have Lee Child, John Lescroart, Douglas Preston, James Rollins, and Harlan Coben blurb my work. Even though they're busy, the fact that they've taken the time means a lot, and I always talk up their books whenever I get the chance.

So I think there is a payback loop involved. And a lot of the time, the books I'm asked to blurbs are ones I'd read anyway; getting an advanced copy of them is a huge plus.

Michelle said...

Oh, and as far as reviews go; if I can't give a book at least four stars out of five, I don't review it, period. The community of writers is a small one, relatively, and it's never a good idea to pan someone else's work.

Pamela Kramer said...

I agree with Michelle. I only review books I can give 4 or 5 stars to. I honestly don't want to hurt anyone's feelings (I slammed one book and still feel bad about it but it was a second book by an author and so much inferior to the first one I felt cheated). But I also have been told (by a librarian friend) that they WANT to know when books aren't that good so they won't purchase them. I know that I just prefer to not review books I don't like. Luckily, I like a HUGE range of genres...