Friday, September 24, 2010

The Blurbs

Last week I received a parcel in the post. I still become ridiculously excited whenever a package arrives in my name, probably because so few do. It's even more exciting when it's an unexpected parcel (though often the only reason the parcel is unexpected is because I've forgotten I've ordered something from Amazon, or something for the kids.) But this package wasn't one of those. It was from a publisher. Not my publisher either.

Inside was a book, an advance proof, written by an author I genuinely like, though I've not caught up with his latest couple of books. I stared at it for a few seconds. My first instinct was that it had been sent to me by mistake. Oh no, I thought, it's this author's first copy and for some strange reason it's been sent to me. Sounds weird but I remember once being sent a contract by mistake. For a very, very popular authoress (it was glimpsing those zeroes, as a poverty-stricken non-fiction hack, that made me think it might be worth a punt at fiction.) Anyway, I looked at the letter accompanying the book. It was definitely addressed to me. Below my name was a brief outline of the book from its editor. Then a sentence asking whether, if I enjoyed reading it, would I mind contacting them?

I switched between staring at the letter and book several times, trying to work what was going on. Why did they care what I thought of their book? I can be impossibly slow on the uptake some times. My wife, slightly less gormless than I, wandered past, noticed the sound of whirring from my clanking brain. I showed her the letter. 'They want you to give a quote for the cover,' she said, matter-of-factly.

At last it clicked. A blurb! They wanted me to give a blurb. Now, I have nothing against blurbs. My first book came with a few attached and as a nervous debut novelist convinced my book was about to be laughed off the shelves, I was thrilled to get them. Particularly when one came from Reginald Hill, whose books I love.  But this was the first time I have ever been asked. I felt a shiver of flattery run down my spine. But there was some unease too. Why me? Browsing the bookshops of Britain you can be forgiven for thinking there are only about five authors who give blurbs, and I'm not one of them. I am not a bestseller. Not by any stretch. Why me? 'Because they like your books and think people who like this guy's book also like yours,' my wife added, by now entirely fed up of the whirring noise. 'Why not read it, see if you like it, and give them a quote if you do?'

Ah, I thought, naive woman. If only it was so simple. From what I can glean, blurbing is fraught with peril. Do too many and you become a blurb whore. Your name is splattered across so many books it becomes as much part of the cover as the price tag. It means nothing. You look pathetic, desperate. People send books to you thinking you will lift your skirt at the slightest request.Then they realise your name has become so ubiquitous you actually harm a book's chances. You turn people off. The books dry up. You sit shivering in front of a keyboard blurbing your friends. 'John quite simply gives the best dinner parties out there....they fairly coruscate with all the ingredients that make a classic meal.' Would this be the top of a very slippery slope? Give this book an endorsement, whatever that might be worth, and the next thing you know I'm telling everyone that Dan Brown is the heir to Nabokov?

Then there's what to actually say. Blurbs rarely sound natural. Often they make the blurber sound like an insufferable smartypants. 'The Hungry Caterpillar is a journey into the core of the human psyche. Eric Carle carves in stone the insatiability that throbs within our soul, and our desire to be transformed.' Some just make me wince. I'll always remember the worst blurb I've ever read. It was on the cover of Man and Boy by Tony Parsons. 'I cried five times and laughed out loud four,' it read. Er, that's supposed to make me want to  read it? I read the book and it was so saccharine and sentimental it made me want to vomit three times and carve my eyeballs out with a teaspoon once. Not sure they would have used that though.

I'm sure you've all got your own examples. I'd love to hear them. (And the weirdest or most spurious choice of blurber. I remember a quote on the cover of one of Jake Arnott's book from David Bowie. Yes, that david Bowie. Now, whatever you think of his music, I'm not sure Bowie's imprimatur is going to have you forking out for a crime novel...) I have to know what pitfalls to avoid. Because, yes, I've read the book and I enjoyed it. I've decided to break my blurb virginity and go for it. Now I just have to write one and not sound like a smug ****...Could be my biggest challenge yet.


Dan - Friday


  1. As a reader, I have never been very interested in the blurb, but if Val McDermid should want to say "thrilling debut" or something on one of my future books, I don´t think I would say no.

    (Not very likely, because she can´t read my Danish manuscript and my English manuscript is cosy, not thriller, but I am entitled to dream, aren´t I?)

    Not sure what my point was but probably something about perspectives.

  2. Hi Dorte. I have doubts about the effectiveness of blurbs myself (he says, speaking from experience, including a Val McDermid blurb! Thanks Val, but what happened to the millions of readers your endorsement was supposed to bring? I joke...a bit) I think most people would buy a book on the word of a trusted friend rather than an author. I suspect publishers, and authors, get more excited about blurbs than readers do.

  3. Hi Dan,

    Go for it - when I see an author's name accompanying a blurb on a book (no matter how lame) I automatically assume this is a writer of acclaim. As you are.


  4. Dan, I think it depends on who is the author of the blurb. If I saw a book you endorsed, I'd pick it up. If it was endorsed by Patterson, Evanovich, or either of the Browns, I wouldn't.

    I have been taken to task on a few occasions because of my frequent mention of the Murder Is Everywhere blog and the bloggers but why would I not pay attention to the opinions of those writers whom I enjoy? And why would I not want people to know where to find authors I know they will like?

    I have come across books with blurbs that are so generic they could be applied to the mystery on whose cover they are printed or on a book about economic theory.


  5. "Waddell has reinvigorated the flagging blog form, managing a twist with every paragraph and bringing to life a half-lit world where the double-blind and the triple-cross are just conversation-starters. THE BLURBS may be the blog of the year."
    -- Edith Marie Remington

  6. Like you Dan, I'm a "virgin blurber," fortunately for me at the request of an author I respect and admire. Seems many writers have a talent for pumping out those one-sentence gems that guarantee them exposure on the backs of books - and possible discovery by new readers. Better than standing out in the cold with a sandwich-board, I guess.
    -- Joyce Yarrow