Reading Rage Tuesday: Blurb is the word.

13 March 2012 by 44 Comments
Marketing Team

So, did we decide--is this book enchanting, or is it more of a magical dream?

Here’s what I don’t like: book blurbs. Actually, book marketing language on the whole frustrates me often.

Someone in the comments of a recent post mentioned that they never wanted to hear the words “tour de force” again describe a book. I see your tour de force, commenter, and I raise you a riveting, a gripping, an astounding, and a poignant. You can only use words so many times before they come marketing cliches, meaningless and empty and soulless–you might as well slap Patrick Bateman with his off-white (sorry, eggshell? bone?) business cards and his dead killer’s eyes on the back of your book instead, as far as I’m concerned. As far as those tired phrases move me.

Most blurbs I find to be worth less than the cost of the ink that they’re printed with. “Magnificent!” “The best book I’ve come across in a long time!” “Magic!” “Evocative!” “Hilarious!” These words would mean a lot more to me if I didn’t already know that these blurbs were favors curried author to author–and that, next month, or next year, these writers writing blurbs would receive gushing blurbs for their own books from that same author that they blurbed before. (Also, I’m going to get hella sick of the word “blurb” here in short order.) A blurb means nothing to me–it’s the literary equivalent of fishing for compliments.

Fashion show fitting

"This prose looks good on me, right? The adjectives don't make me look fat?"

If one has to ask for a blurb, we all know the result is a pretty lie; even if the blurber enjoyed the book, even if they mean every word they said, it’s still dressed in a lie, couched in glittery marketing language designed not to portray an honest opinion but to entice, to seduce. Blurbs are the pick-up lines of the literary world; blurbs are the high heels and the stockings and the fire-engine lipstick, the perfectly gelled hair and the fancy cologne. Sometimes, you take them home, and sometimes you gravely reconsider your choices in the light of day. (You’ve been there, right? Right? Oh, please tell me I’m not the only person who’s had morning-after horror.) Picking up a book based on a cheezy line leads to a lot more remorse than I have time to feel, considering the teetering, high-rising nature of my TBR pile.

Every now and then, you get a blurb that makes you sit up and pay attention. Personalities that hand out praise sparingly never fail to persuade me to read a book, provided I’ve actually caught the blurb before I’ve started reading it; more often than not, I’m halfway through a book before I even bother to glance at the back cover. In the case of a book I read recently, Blood, Bones & Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton, I didn’t see the blurbs until after I’d fully completed the book–a shame, really, because those blurbs would have been persuasive, coming from Anthony Bourdain and Mario Batali. They gave it high, honest praise–but I found the book on my own, intrigued not by the hype surrounding it but by the book itself. I didn’t need the blurb.

Another thing that irritates me is reading the copy that’s supposed to tell you what the hell the book is about and not being able to make sense of it. Some people might say that what the book is about isn’t as important as how it’s written; I tend to politely disagree, as I judge whether or not I will jibe with an author by what the book is supposed to be about. If someone wrote about about a man who was, I dunno, very similar to Glenn Beck, and the guy turned out to be the awesomest awesome superhero and the best person forever and saves the day and the universe, there’s a decent chance that I’m not going to enjoy reading this book because I’m going to be too busy grinding my teeth and wishing that the protagonist falls down a hole and dies. I’m also probably not going to mesh with the author at all as far as worldview, morals, ethics, or even aesthetics, and those things do affect whether I will enjoy a book, regardless of how well it’s written. So, when I come across copy that reads like this:

Book takes the reader on a wild journey through the perils of the post-modern world as juxtaposed with the thrills of being and nothingness in the urban jungle, making us question exactly where we’re going, and where we’ve been, against the backdrop of war and violence and also Skittles. Can you taste the rainbow?

I click away as fast as I can, because I just read this:

Some not-very-well-defined characters follow an ill-advised, murky plot looking for some vague answers to the meaning of life, and also, overuse of candy and rainbow symbolism.

I know that book publishers have their own special secret codes that allow them to navigate the enthusiastic seas of book marketing, but publishers, did you know that we have translated your codes into our own codes? Examples:

  • “hilarious” = “trying too hard to be funny”
  • “witty” = “funny only to pretentious people who think they’re smarter than they really are”, or “everyone says this is funny but the stick shoved up my ass prevents me from laughing very much”
  • “complex”, “genius”, “multi-layered” = “unreadable and/or dense”
  • “I was obsessed” = “This is a popular author and I want to seem popular too”
  • “sprawling”, “on a grand scale”, “magnum opus” = “really fucking long”
  • “beautiful”, “gorgeous” = “uses too many adjectives” and/or “I think the author is hot”
  • “well-researched” = “boring because there’s no story”

You know what I, as a reader, would like the best? If the author wrote the book summary. Then I could find out two things simultaneously: what the author thinks the book is about, and also, if the author can succinctly communicate an idea. If the author passes these two tests, I will read the book, no question. Words like “dazzling” and “brilliant” and “breathtaking” just make me suspicious.

Because I believe in doing good work for the community, I’m going to offer my services to you for free, publishers. If you send me books, I will blurb them. Good blurbs, too. People would totally believe my blurbs because I will always be honest about the work. “This book was so terrible that I wanted to wipe my ass with it and set it on fire.” “I loved this book so much that I forced my husband to read it. He didn’t want to, but I restrained him and read it out loud to him.” “I laughed so hard I actually peed myself a little bit. Luckily, I was already on the toilet.” Your book sales will skyrocket if you use my blurbs.

All I ask is that you put my link on your books because, you know, nothing’s ever really free. Oh, and I would like for you to put “most awesome and attractive book blogger in the history of forever” after my name, too, so people know who I am. And you’re not allowed to change it at the last second to “crazy girl” or “mild alcoholic” or “sad, delusional person who came into our offices and cried for three hours and begged us to let her do a blurb, and how could we possibly say no? It was the only way she would unchain herself and go away”. I’m onto you, publishers.

Self-published authors, you can have me blurb your books, too. But for individuals, I don’t work cheap–I require at least minimum wage (that’s in ‘merican currency) and you have to listen to all of my suggestions about how your book could be better, even if I’m drunk when I write them. Even if I lie and say I was drinking fancy cocktails with friends and lost track of how many I drank, but really I was drinking cheap whiskey out of the bottle while lying in my bathtub, surrounded by cats. Those are the terms.

Whisky

"I'm not saying this book drove me to drink--wait, actually, I am saying that."

Ahem, but I digress.

What do you look for when you buy books? Do you read the blurbs at all, and do they have any sway in your decision? Are there any blurby words you think we should retire, because if you read them again you might lose your mind? Give me your blurb rage in the comments!

Susie

Susie is the Bitch-in-Chief at IB and is also a contributor at Food Riot. She's an ice cream connoisseur, an art fanatic, a cat-mommy of three, and a wife. She runs the @thebooksluts Twitter account and may be slightly addicted.

44 thoughts on “Reading Rage Tuesday: Blurb is the word.

  1. So, through the whole first half of this piece, I was thinking: Well, why wouldn’t the author just write the blurb…and then you took the words right out of my head. When it comes to blurbs, I think a rule that I was taught when I started studying journalism applies – use minimal adjectives (or none at all really).

    Honestly, I’m more interested in the the actual story than what so-or-so thought of the book and I generally find that popular opinion of a book rarely matches up to what I think of it (much like movies and critics). If I pick up a book and the blurb is all wonderfully unimaginative adjectives, I put it right back down.

    Loving the photo of the whiskey!!

  2. Now I actually want to be a writer just so you can blurb my scintillating, exquisite, mesmerizing…. Wait, did you already use mesmerizing? This blog just keeps getting better and better!

  3. OMG I just said this in my latest review about overused words. The word I detest was ‘refreshing’ which often stands for ‘I don’t read very much so I can’t comment on how this book sounds just like everyone else’s’.

    I do read blurbs, but am not often disappointed in the book after. The blurbs usually catch me and if I read a blurb that said ‘it made me pee’ I’d pick it up immediately.

  4. I actually despise having to LOOK for the blurb- especially when paper backs have random quotes from different authors (that are meaningless too, but even more so) and the “blurb” is on the inside little flap dealy- like they’re pretending to be hardcovers.

    I agree- I have no idea why the author isn’t writing their own blurb.

    I also didn’t know that author’s give each other “favour blurbs” or “quotes”- cuz that was influencing my book choice- if an author I really liked says they read book x i was looking at, i’d be more likely to purchase it than book y. ugh- so dishonest of them!

    • weeeel, to be a little fair, they’re probably not all dirty liars–but they definitely use that marketing language to make it, y’know, enticing to us. It’s hard to tell who’s being totally honest and who’s just doing another author a solid. From what I understand, books get “shopped” around for blurbs; authors and publishers ask other authors/celebs to read and blurb, so it’s not like these readers are calling up the publishers saying, “WOW! This book is amazing! Let me give you my unsolicited opinion. Oh, you want to use that for the cover? BY ALL MEANS, DO!”

      Some authors are much stingier with giving out blurbs; Stephen King never writes one unless he means it, for example. Really famous and well-known authors are often way too busy for it, so they might be more trustworthy insofar as they wouldn’t have taken the time unless the work was really something special.

  5. First, Tuesdays. I’ve never been that fond of them, but now I have something to look forward to on a Tuesday.

    Second… Right, I’m a self-published author so I have to write my own blurbs. I wish I didn’t, because I hate doing it, but no one else is going to so… It’s a real chore, seriously. I sit there trying to write something that tells you about the story, but doesn’t give away too much because my books tend to be mysteries of a sort’ if you know what’s coming, what’s the point? But you’re right, I tend to avoid superlatives since that’s kind of bragging if you’re writing them yourself. You get a teaser of what’s coming if you open the book and that’s it. I think I may be getting better at it; the last one seemed pretty good (witty, well-researched, grogeous, a work of genius even). I still wish someone else was doing the things. They suck.

  6. Here’s the thing: I’m a marketing and advertising copywriter as well as a fiction writer and book lover.

    So I get what these marketing folks are trying to do with the blurbs and dust-jacket copy. The problem is that they’re doing it horribly.

    This crazy, hyperbolic “BEST EVER PUPPIES EPIC MAKES-YOU-SMARTER” copy is so disingenuous that it turns even my marketing-hardened stomach.

    Though, it might not be a great idea to let author’s write their own blurbs, either. We’d be reading a lot of “I can’t distill five years of work into two paragraphs. Just read the damn book—I promise it’s got words in it.”

    • This is something that authors already have to do, though, when they’re writing pitches and sending out queries. They should have the distillation down pat :D

  7. I completely relate to the “can’t decipher what the hell the blurb is trying to tell you about the book.” If I read it a couple of times and don’t know what they’re trying to say, I probably won’t read it. Unless it’s one people have been telling me “OMG IT’S SO GOOD READ IT NAOW!!” Then I might. Maybe.

    • Great Post as usual. I want to know something about the story. I don’t give a fuck about the blurb. Blurbs or reviews do not influence my book buying or reading.:)

  8. The book I just read (and hated, but I anticipated that going it…it was for Trashy Tuesday, after all) had many of the words you’ve mentioned (enchanted, witty and rapturous) in the blurbs. And the definitions you gave are pretty spot on.

    The thing that really sucks (for me) is that I was planning on checking out one of the other authors because many of my bookish friends enjoyed her work. Not anymore – no way, nossir, no HOW! I don’t care if she was doing a solid for her bestie, this ish is just straight up lies, yo.

  9. Yeah, I don’t tend to pay attention to blurbs. I read the back cover summary or front flap summary (if it’s a hardcover), but like you said, blurbs can be so meaningless by now that they’re just taking up space.

    That and “#1 Bestseller.” Seriously, what supermarket paperback ISN’T a “#1 Bestseller”? It’s the same with commercials for movies (not trailers, but commercials about the movie once it’s in theaters already) — “Audiences are raving!” “America loves [Movie Title]!” “This is one of those films that will make you stand up and cheer!” Is it possible to roll one’s eyes and gag at the same time?

    P.S. …blurbs are the high heels and the stockings and the fire-engine lipstick, the perfectly gelled hair and the fancy cologne That imagery is much too interesting and concrete to serve as a metaphor for a book blurb :)

  10. Pingback: Reading Rage Tuesday + The Author’s Guide to the Internet | Insatiable Booksluts

  11. First this: “Can you taste the rainbow?” !!! The f*ck is that? I’m embarrassed for whoever wrote that.
    And secondly, I need to bookmark this blog post, if for no other reason than to keep the handy examples of blurb code.
    I think the word I hate to see on a blurb is “riveting.” Really? The hell is riveting? Does that mean I’ll be so moved (shaken or stirred) that it loosened my rivets? But then, wouldn’t that be “unriveting”? And where the hell are my rivets?
    I also hate when book blurbs (and author bios) talk about the “trials and tribulations” that the protagonist (or the author) has been through. If your name ain’t Job or Jesus Christ, you’re over-doing it.
    Book blurbs generally make me do the eye roll, but I would so hire you to do my blurbing if I were already publishing books. Even if you panned it, I would want to read what was so sucky about it, so I could agree or disagree. Similar to movie reviews, I guess. If the preview is intriguing enough, I must see (read) for myself.
    There must be an untapped niche market for honest book-blurbing out there. A blurber who honestly tells how great or sucky a book is, and a publisher who publishes it. Yes. Yes. I must bookmark this. Hmmm.

    • (coughs, smiling) actually, I wrote the “Can you taste the rainbow?” part. I didn’t want to use anybody’s actual copy, I felt that might be rude. Also, writing fake copy is fun. :D

      I always assumed “riveting” meant that I would be stuck to the story–riveted to the story. Which I think would be painful and probably bad for one’s health.

  12. UGH! I just read a book that someone blurbed all over, and NOT in the good way. She raved and raved (think lunatic here) about this particular book. I kept thinking “I know I’ve heard of that author before.” Yeah, turns out I hated HER book, too. Small world.

    I rarely read a summary because I hate spoilers, so I do a lot of judging books by their covers. I also go with recommendations from others. I love catching an interview with an author on the radio. I picked up “Night Circus” after hearing the author handle questions from a listener who was all fired up about circuses and cruelty to animals. If an author has the ability to handle stupid people gracefully, they’ve earned a read from me.

    • (cough) I also judge a lot of books by their covers. Which, I know the covers are just as much marketing as the blurbs, but at least … I dunno, most of them could be separate artworks unto themselves, unlike blurbs, so that draws me in more, I guess.

  13. I think I got it into my head when I was a teen (don’t remember how) that people who right the blurbs are paid to do so, and sometimes haven’t even read the book. I haven’t read or trusted blurbs since then (although, funny enough, a part of a review I wrote for a book was used as a blurb recently, and without my permission ahead of time, and I wasn’t paid, and I had definitely read the book, so there’s that). ANYWAY… I do tend to read the description of books that shows up on the back cover or the inside flap to get a feel for what the book is about, IF I haven’t heard of said book before. And yes, I have been turned away from buying a book because that description annoyed me or totally sucked.

      • I do that allll the time–get into a typing groove and start typing phonetically. I “talk” to myself really loud in my head as I’m writing, ha.

    • Oh, which book illegally used your blurb?! (I think that is very likely illegal, isn’t it?) I would like to know which publisher or author this is so I can avoid them ^_^

      • Well, it is actually someone whom I speak to frequently on Twitter and for whom I actually proof read the book when she self-published it the first time around. I wrote the review when I read the finished, self-published version. THEN it got picked up by the publisher, who apparently found my review and used my words for the blurb… without even telling the author. She was as surprised as I was when she received her first author’s copy to look over, or whatever it’s called. So I can’t blame her. It’s some horror publisher. Honestly, I’d have to look up their name. It really irked me, though, because they also made a typo when they printed my blurb and made me sound like a total idiot who doesn’t understand proper grammar. Nice, huh?

        • OMGGG I hate that. It’s bad enough when people drag you into things that you had no idea what they were and didn’t give consent, but it’s EVEN WORSE when they do it carelessly and make you look bad (rather than them looking bad, even though they’re the dickbags). GRRR.

  14. Blurbs are meaningless to me. Until you wrote this here post about them, I hadn’t realized how accustomed I am to filtering them out. What is up when sometimes there’s pages and pages of blurbs at the front of a book – usually about previous works by the author? Does that sell people? Really?

    I do rely more on the summaries or dust jackets to tell me why I should read a book. I admit that certain settings or topics can turn me off. The basics I am looking for are bones of a story that sounds like it could be interesting or something that suggests the characters are more than shallow archetypes.

    My no-no word is “romp.” Gross.

  15. If you’ll blurb my self-pub novel, I’ll happily put “most awesome and attractive book blogger in the history of forever” after your name. Further, I’d let you make up adjectives, as in “A cromulent yet frabjuous journey through the wottleschotted mind of a zettascalloping intern at an evilicious law firm. Howler monkeys could not have written a better novel!”

    As a bonus, you can write your blurb based solely on the title. No pesky reading required.

  16. First: loved this post.
    Second: The word I hate to see is “poignant.” To me, that means “self-indulgent sentimentality that adds nothing to the story, and if you don’t feel the poignancy you’re some kind of insensitive creep.”
    Third: Nathaniel, you took the words right out of my mouth. Authors should really know how to distill that whole novel into a few lines, after all they’ve been revising for months and probably years (and as greengeekgirl pointed out, they should have already perfected their pitch, which should do the same thing).
    But authors seem to hate doing this. I know I do, and I don’t even have a book finished yet. Take a gander at the many, many examples and critiques at Query Shark for a good laugh (or cry).
    It boils down to this — how would you describe a book if your coworker or friend asked you what it was about? Most of us can do that.

  17. P.S. Would love to see more honest book blurbs, à la “I’m not saying this book drove me to drink…” I can think of only one actual example:
    “Why stop now, just when I’m hating it?” — Marvin the Paranoid Android, on the sequel to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
    For overblown fantasy epics I’m often tempted to blurb with, “Too long, too many characters, and a world-shaking conflict you’ll soon forget.”

  18. I read this book once. . . it was scifi genre. . . here’s what happened. . . wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. First of all: I always thought the blurb was the part that summarized what the book was about and all that other stuff was “reviews for:” Is it all part of the same thing? Or is the blurb one thing and the summary is another?

    Okay. . . back to my story. I read a book by Sharon Shinn. I really liked it, so I got another. I read the blurb (as defined by me) to figure out whether the premise was something I found intriguing. I did. Only. . . it turns out the blurb revealed a GIGANTIC mystery before the book even starts.

    Through the first three quarters of the book the reader is led to believe one thing but then the big reveal occurs and . . . “OMG, it’s a MACHINE!!!!” happens. . . but since the blurb says that it’s a machine before I even opened the book I was PISSED.

    So. . . my contribution to your blurb “how to”. . . don’t reveal important plot points in the blurb itself.

  19. We discussed Twitter & Goodreads as being ‘musts’ in last week’s #bookmarket chat. Wanted to share a story with you in more than 140 characters.

    I think it must be very difficult for authors to read the reviews of their books on Goodreads, whether positive or negative. I tend not to write negative reviews of books on Goodreads unless they really really annoy me. That happened with a marketing book last year that I had gone to great pains to procure – this was definitely ‘work’ reading, not ‘pleasure’ reading. Several months after my review was posted, the author commented on my review. He said, rather feebly, that he couldn’t understand why they were still typos in the book because three people had read it. He didn’t seem to think marketing case studies were important (his book contained none). And he still thinks customer service is marketing (I certainly don’t disagree that no amount of slick marketing can be useless if customer service isn’t superlative, but they really aren’t one and the same thing, nor one a subset of the other). I replied to his comment as tactfully as I could, saying I wasn’t sorry I’d read the book.

    What made this exchange truly hilarious though was the fact that it took him so long to discover my review. And yes, he’s a social media guru. Self titled, of course. ;)

  20. Pingback: Ebook-troversy 2: Scott Turow is a dolt + I stop supporting major publishers. | Insatiable Booksluts

  21. I don’t have any pet peeves when it comes to blurbs…. I don’t read them. I do make sure to read the first page or two, then flip to about 3/4ths of the way through to make sure the writing’s consistent. Oh, and I read the back cover copy.

    How many times would I get shot if I also admitted that I do, in fact, judge books by their covers. Often? :/

    • I judge books by their covers, too. . . it’s not an absolute judgment, or anything, but I tend to be drawn toward certain designs and I let myself be drawn to them. Considering that the cover should be based on the tone and content of the book, I don’t think this is a bad thing; you can tell a lot about a book by the cover design sometimes.

      • I find a good cover design doesn’t induce me to buy a book, but a bad cover design usually puts me off buying it. The cover on the ARC for Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was beautiful — I kept it after I reviewed it, and when the hardcover came along, with the version used when it became a sensation, I gave that away. Boring! Annoying! The cover, anyway. I liked the book.

    • Eh, I’m guilty of it too.

      A good cover attracts attention and should definitely look appealing in the least, I mean it’s the first thing a potential reader sees. Sadly a cool looking cover says nothing for the actual book and I’ve made the mistake of hoping the cover matched the story too many times to count.

  22. I’ve always been curious about that. As of late all that takes up the so-called ‘blurb’ is a mildly interesting extract with some other random author claiming loudly beneath, “AMAZING!”

    Bite me.

    You already tricked me once into reading Twilight with all the hype you graffitied onto the back, so to you Random Author I do not know, I say: fuck you.

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