What’s the matter with blurbs?

Last week Lesley Thomas (Flight of the Goose, Far Eastern Press, 2005) tackled the sticky subject of blurbs. A spirited discussion ensued, wherein I for one learned that authors routinely blurb books they haven’t read. No wonder Wharton’s Age of Innocence is one of my favorites.

Apparently it does matter what authors say about one other’s books, whether they read them or not. While we batted around the issue of blurbs, blockbuster author Stephanie Meyer recommended a first novel, The Girl Who Could Fly, on her website. The publisher is rushing another 10,000 copies into print to meet the fresh demand.

Meanwhile, Stephen King sent the writing world into a tailspin with another genuine opinion, comparing Meyer with Rowling in an interview with USA Weekend: “The real difference is that Jo Rowling is a terrific writer and Stephenie Meyer can’t write worth a darn. She’s not very good.”

My oh my. Dueling authors. Name recognition gone wild. In a world where even bad publicity is good publicity, look for skyrocketing sales all around.

Read on for more from Lesley Thomas on blurbs.

I don’t want to write about blurbs and other icky marketing devices anymore.
Maybe it feels too whorish now, my old conditioning kicking in, suffusing me
with hot-faced shame when blurbs become self-serving rolls in bed with
strangers – though as cultural anthropologists and sociobiologists know,
there is a noble tradition in all circumpolar and probably all archaic
cultures to do just that, in order to expand the gene pool and secure a
possible future shelter from a storm, or sharing of a meal in famine times –
something maybe we all should start thinking about.

Suffice to say, most famous types who agreed to blurb my novel were kindly
and sharing Alaskans. Famous Outsiders – with a few exceptions – simply did
not respond to my queries, or a card was sent by a secretary: “Ms So and So
does not write blurbs.” (Sorry, a kind lie: Ms So and So does indeed blurb,
but only for someone with a high status press.)

The famous Alaskans seemed sincere – like they had read the story, liked
it and wanted to support its ideals. It is one of those “socially conscious”
novels that you are not supposed to write, because literary fiction with
“ethnic” themes by a “non-ethnic” person with a social conscience or a
progressive stance was agit-prop or pedantic non-art according to critics; I
say “was” because the tides have swiftly turned and novels with climate
change and Big Oil and draft-dodging are okay now, but my book was born in
the dark depths of the Bush era and was a reaction to it too, so could be
called reactionary.

Alaskan blurbs and blurbs by big name anthropologists did not seem to have an effect on Outside bookstores or lure the big fish: a deal with a big NY press.
And I have to tell you a sad adventure cold-calling an indie Alaskan bookstore in a town where the 10,000 tourists get off the megaships – to get Flight of the Goose into that store would’ve been a big fish indeed. The buyer said, “I see the blurbs, but you have to understand, we are not the Arctic here, this is Southeast Alaska and we are very far from the Arctic and Eskimo culture.” I said, “I know that. But you are far from India and you carry novels set in India, don’t you? And novels set in New York? Memoirs of a Geisha? And – and – my story may be set in an Inupiaq village but there are white people too, it’s really cross cultural just like all of Alaska, and the story is just as applicable to a Tlingit village –“

Click (the sound of the book buyer hanging up the phone).

Actually I never said that about India and villages. I was so flabbergasted
about the “we are far away from the Arctic so we can’t carry an arctic book”
that I just clammed up.

I failed at the Anchorage airport too: “We see the great blurbs by Alaskan
writers but we already have a novel set in an Inupiaq village in the 70s.”
Apparently there can be only one. So the blurbs have been helpful – my novel
has sold well for a small literary press – but they are not always helpful.

20 thoughts on “What’s the matter with blurbs?”

  1. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Lesley, I’m impressed that you were persistent enough to call those bookstores directly, even if you felt you did “clam up” (I certainly would have) when forced to come up with a retort. With the overabundance of published and self-published books out there, booksellers might have a good reason to bristle at some of those calls, but it seems your persistence has paid off well in the long run — and it also seems authors have little choice but to call attention to their own books.

    To Deb — the anecdote about Meyer’s “blurb effect” was perfect for this discussion. My own daughter is a Twilight fan; I’ve never read the book. Of course, now Stephen King’s disparaging remarks have made me more curious than ever…

  2. These anecdotes almost make me want to get out of writing, or rather, out of writing for publication. The worlds of commerce and art rarely intersect in harmony. I just had a big disappointment, finding out that my new book isn’t going to be ready by the time my first reading is scheduled (delays at the printer) — people have been putting up fliers around town, and I’ll look like a fool. We bare our souls in our writing and then sell them to the devil. Or are expected to. If it wasn’t for the desire to share stories and make a living of sorts, we might as well write on note pads and never have those leave the house.

  3. This is the crux of the matter – the painful but seemingly necessary intersection of literature and “business.” (I don’t recall who first pointed out that “publishing industry” is an oxymoron.)

    We must, as Andromeda points out, call attention to our books. That’s one reason for this forum at 49 writers – collective, empowering, and strenthened by every reader and writer who joins in the dialogue.

    Blue, I hope you shrug and smile and do your reading as scheduled – surely the bookstore will take orders, and you can sign bookplates, and you can all have a good laugh while we wait for the publishing model to change. Which it will. Eventually.

  4. Blue, reschedule the reading! No books is the worse thing that can happen an an author appearance. Books and two people showing up is better than that. Any bookseller will tell you that they sell as many of the copies you sign the week following your appearance as they do at your appearance.

  5. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    I wanted to jump in and also tell Blue 1) it’s ok to feel irritated and mope privately (including here) but 2) when it’s time to go out to the bookstores, just smile and say, as many times as necessary, “It happens to everyone at some time or other.” And it’s true. Please don’t feel like a fool or let your embarrassment show. Books arriving post-event are a fairly common occurrence, and it happens to all kinds of authors (famous or not, big press or small). Your audience will take cues from you. Give them a good show anyway, and a bookplate; try to create a celebratory air despite the delay. Think of all the work that led up to this moment, and the many successes you’ve had along the way.

  6. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    P.S. Dana’s comment showed up just after I wrote mine, so I didn’t get to consider the option of rescheduling the reading. I think that might be harder than it sounds. (Though an interesting idea.) But it’s hard enough to get the word out about the event, and to schedule it in the first place. I think loyal readers are willing to place “advance orders” on a book and will be willing to pick it up later.

    The worst option of all — a total cancellation, which will not win over any bookseller. Because, as Dana said, you’ll continue to sell books post-signing as long as the bookseller has display piles, fliers up, etc. Sometimes the biggest benefit of a reading comes in the week after the reading.

  7. One of the cruel ironies of the writing life is that we get into it with the idea of enjoying two freedoms: to create what we love, and to spend our time pursuing our passion. From there it seems control is snatched from us at every juncture, unless you self-publish, and I suspect even that is replete with disappointments and lack of control when it comes to inventory, distribution, and sales.

    Whether to reschedule a bookless reading or carry on and take pre-orders depends hugely on your venue. Whatever you decide, take another action to promote your book in the meantime – write a guest post on a blog, branch out in social networking, etc. You’ll feel better and your book will love you for it.

  8. Thank you all, for your encouragement. I just feel that I’m losing face; the organizer (a non-profit organization, not a bookseller) doesn’t know that it’s not my fault. And I don’t know if they’re willing to re-schedule. This is really mostly getting to me because throughout the production process, I met every single one of my deadlines, and the publisher didn’t meet a single one!

    But back to blurbs:

    Lesley — After seeing the two dozen blurbs in your book, I find it a bit strange to hear you lament the relentless push to promote and the inflation of blurbs. Half of your blurbers aren’t even credited as recognizable “authorities” of one kind or another. And a retired English professor in Sedona, who compares the book to Romeo and Juliet? Come on — these two Renaissance sweethearts belonged to the same culture, while one of your central themes, I believe, is the clashing of cultures personified in your lovestruck protagonists.

    That said, I look forward to reading the book. (And hope to be in a better mood tomorrow.)

  9. Maybe I’m missing something here (I certainly was with the read- before-you-blurb notion), but since when must the blurb for a novel be from an authority of one kind or another? And if one market for a novel is as reading for college literature course, isn’t a professor’s opinion worthwhile? And I don’t know that the blurb writer’s location is especially relevant, even for Alaskan books.

    Maybe the real question is whether it’s the more the better, or whether a smaller number of blurbs targeted to the book’s market is more effective.

  10. Okay — let me try a different tack here. Figure it takes a reader ten hours to read a book. In that time, he or she could make 100 bucks working at a minimum wage job flipping burgers or at a bookstore. That is in addition to investing in the price of a book. That’s a substantial investment — so, I gotta kinda be pretty sure it’s worth it. Reading twenty-some blurbs takes about five minutes (I’m not even going to tally what that amounts to according to my calculation.) But it should tell me — and I’m speaking for myself here, a voracious reader of northern stuff — if this is worthwhile. And I just have a problem taking English teacher’s word for it, when, judging by the book’s summary, his Romeo and Juliet comparison is way off the mark. And honestly, after six or seven blubs, even the best “evaluations” tend to become repetitive.

  11. It doesn’t matter if the blurber has any expertise in the subject matter of the book, all that matters to the publisher is that their name may be recognizable to a potential buyer. Blurbs are not about truth in advertising, blurbs are about marketing.

  12. Well, it matters to me; and often, the publisher is not the one soliciting the blurbs, but the author is. Not to belabor the point, but for a book supposedly rich in authentic ethnographic detail, anthropologist Jean Briggs (whose blurb graces the book’s back cover) qualifies as an authority (for that aspect of the book). A Shakespeare lover from Vortex City — or a “shamanic practitioner” from Eagle River — are dubious references and perhaps even detrimental to my curiosity about this book. Who is the targeted reader here?

    Lesley: This has nothing to do with the quality of your book, which I am reading and enjoying right now. We cannot, I feel, decry the excesses of the publishing industry and be eager helpmates.

  13. I agree on targeting readership and also that less (to a certain extent) may be more when it comes to blurb. But I’m sticking with my contention that a book may appeal to both anthropologists and students of literature. And at just about every turn, who is a more eager helpmate to the excesses of the industry than the poorly compensated and oft-abused writer?

  14. I need to defend “shamanic practitioners”, (see above). They are a diverse, unfairly maligned group – many are reknowned scholars, cultural anthropologists, Jungian psychotherapists and MDs, many are indigenous and well know what authenticity is. As a group, they are some of my most ardent readers worldwide, from Ireland to Australia to Sedona and Eagle River, and I owe a lot to them.

    And I have to come to the defense of the English professor, stereotyped for his current unAlaskan abode (though he would laugh heartily if he knew, and say Anchorage was no different, which is why he left Alaska): he is an erudite scholar of Shakespeare and was raised in the Alaskan Bush before AK was a state, he worked in villages and has relatives in villages and knows villages well and knows analogy well, and I was delighted and honored that he called my lovers “Romeo and Juliet of the Arctic”. His blurb is my favorite; I was honored by it.

    That is the difference between a big press and a tiny freewheeling press that allows (wants) input from the author. For surely a big press would not have allowed his words to grace a cover.

    Well, there is no way all of this background for blurbers can be given, (even if we did make room by leaving out some of the multifarous blurbs. But you know, I don’t think PhD cred and fame matters to a lot of the masses; in fact, I’ve learned it is the commoner blurb (and reviews), those from the “housewife nobodies” that make more of a trustworthy impression to a lot of readers. Many people just are not that interested in the opinions of academics, and I can understand that. In fact, it is one of the big issues my main character has with Outsiders.

    I guess what kind of blurb you are lured by or scoff at depends on whether you are choosing to buy a novel for academic purposes or for a story, for entertainment, or something else. If it is academic, those readers may also be appalled that I supplied no bibliography or index. But I didn’t think a novelist had to supply those(recently I learned there is pressure to, which is weird – why not just write nonfiction, then?).

    My press made a conscious unNewYorky decision to market to a wide range of readership, really diverse educational and cultural backgrounds, and it has panned out. Non-elitism, if you will. When in bookstores, I used to watch customers quickly put the book down after reading the first issue’s blurbs, which were academic like Dr. Briggs. I wanted to tell them, “Wait, it’s not like that! It’s not a dissertation or ethnography! It’s a real story, with plot and characters, and it is humor, violence, love, and horror, the whole human mess.”

    After we got some of the hoi-polloi blurbs on there, sales picked up among “just folks” and lowly lowbrow housewives, many even from the Midwest. I don’t regret those choices, and take pleasure in thumbing my nose at the rules. That might be the Alaskan bred into me. Like I said in my blog, I was raised very far from the power centers. That attitude has led to some grief and plenty of insults aimed at me and the book, but more joys than insults. I have to be thick skinned about elitism because of the way I look, I guess: I have had total strangers, upon being told I am an author, scoff “Ha, I bet you write romance.” Or “Really, you mean just anyone can write a book?”

  15. I did not mean to wave a flag for elitism; in my last post I clearly state that for me, Dr. Briggs’ blurb lends credibility to “that part of the book.” (Meaning the ethnographic details and their authenticity.) Short of an Alaska Native person making a statement, that’s as close as you can get — not because she’s an anthropologist, but because she’s an anthropologist who has lived intimately with Central Canadian Eskimos for an extended period of time. I just wish there would have been a blurb that could do the same for the fiction / novelistic quality of the book. And one each, for every other dimension of it. That would add up to the sum of “necessary” blurbs. Blurbs that carry only a name don’t tell me much. Anybody with 50 literate friends can round up 50 blurbs.

    As for “shamanic practitioners,” I’ve met a few myself, though not a single one who had that printed on their business card or charged for his / her services, or even called themselves that. This ties in with a thread we’ve had going under another post at this blog, about the appropriation of cultural practices / knowledge for personal gain — by outsiders.

  16. Ah yes, the insider/Outsider, cultural exploitation/cultural exploration topic is queuing up for a post one of these days…if anyone wants to toss in a guest post on the subject in the meantime, let me know.

  17. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Whew. I’m glad none of the frequent-commenters here seem to have thin skins. Good thing. Though I do hope people will stay civil and enjoy debates about blurbs (and everything else) while remembering not to be unnecessarily harsh or critical. No need to point fingers at individuals (including members of our community of writers) without exceptionally good cause, I’d say. Want to rail against a practice or trend? I think it’s possible to do so without specifically targeting one author or book. (I know some readers will disagree with me on this. But I had to state my preference.)

    On the other hand, it looks like Stephen King isn’t being so careful about the insults he tosses around. Deb mentioned in her post about King’s praise of “Jo” Rowling and utterly undiplomatic dismissal of Stephenie Meyer. When I shared King’s comments with my family at dinner, it started a firestorm. The experts in the house — 14-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter — squared off for at least 30 minutes on the relative merits of J. K. Rowling (“lack of character development, overly simplistic morality, but better than Meyer” according to my son) versus Meyer (“absolutely perfect” says the pre-teen daughter; “I couldn’t stop reading.”)Tempers flared. Fingers were pointed. Tastes collided. A metaphorical “talking stick” and much refereeing was required.

    Which only goes to show how much readers care. It’s far better than the alternative.

  18. I wholeheartedly concur with Andromeda here. It’s important to separate issues from what could easily be perceived as attacks that stifle rather than promote the exchange of ideas.

    Those of us who publish walk willingly onto a precarious ledge where everyone can take potshots as they like. We understand we’ll be criticized. We thicken our skins as best we can.

    But we also expect within the community of writers there will be a healthy deference to sensitivities, as there is in all functional communities. Reviews have their etiquette. With a few notable exceptions, writers don’t blast other writers, which is why King’s judgment of Meyer caused such a stir.

    Self-publishing. Cultural sensitivity. We want to feel free here to take up difficult issues like these, issues for which people will have strong feelings and personal investment. We want the dialogue to remain inclusive and meaningful. Opinions must be argued without attacks on anyone’s judgment or work.

  19. I guess I was mistaken about the nature of this blog. Rather than a forum for critical exchange, it seems to be a place of mutual back-patting. I am surprised that people who pride themselves on nuanced expression would equal criticism with “insult,” “attack,” etc. I was not aware that I indulged in any name-calling or even bad-mouthing.

    I still stand by my initial assessment that 24 blurbs is excessive and does the reader no service, and that it’s contradictory from somebody who complains about the excesses of marketing.

    I feel that this exchange also feeds into the previous thread about the absence of critical book reviews. Edward Abbey once said that a writer worth his salt raises hackles long after he’s dead. Some consider that part of their mission while still alive.

  20. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    I was tempted to let Michael have the last word, because I don’t want to quash discussion, and we love to get comments, but I must consider the opinions of others, and I have to consider my own responsibility as a moderator. It is precisely because we want to be able to discuss serious and thorny issues — not just backpat (though any fellow Alaska authors out there can pat or scratch my back any time they like)– that we have to draw some lines about basic etiquette. Deb and I both take an encouraging approach to most of these discussions. Note how much we encouraged you, after your no-books-for-the-reading issue arose, “Blue!”

    We’ve already distinguished between commenting on a general issue and selecting a person or singular book or narrow point for repetitive critiquing. As in all artistic activities and discussions, there is a question of balance and proportion: if a point has been made once, or perhaps even twice, then that probably suffices.

    It’s tempting to make quick comments at any blog (just as it’s tempting to dash off error-filled emails — I’ve sent my share of those!), but thanks to the internet, those comments hang around, so use caution. And if any regular reader here finishes a round of commenting still feeling he or she has more to say, or feels misunderstood, consider submitting a longer post — again, as long as it doesn’t single out a particular author or book unnecessarily. And there is a scale-of-fame to this: if you criticize J.K. Rowling or the latest Pulitzer winner (who hasn’t visited this blog, as far as we can tell), you can be a little more pointed (though not without some kind of reason and tact) than you should be when talking about your neighbor or fellow mid-lister. That’s just how it goes.

    As always, we reserve the right to edit posts and moderate comments. As Deb once mentioned, we’re kind of like the hosts at a party, passing around the martinis, hoping everyone will have a good time.

    I will add that if a drink gets spilled, I won’t mind too much.
    But reader (and I address this to any reader out there): once you start running around with the lampshades or swinging a golf club, I reserve the right to cut you off.

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