What is a Blurb?

What is a Blurb?

This week, blurbs. The scourge of blurbs. The supposed necessity of blurbs. Let’s define our terms:

You need spend only half an hour in a bookstore, reading blurbs on the front and back covers of books, to wonder about the practice of blurbing. Every book by every author is some species of awesome:

If, back in the day, you picked up Spy magazine and read it’s regular feature “Logrolling in Our Time,” you’re already cynical about blurbs. Spy liked to spot writers servicing one another:

In the same cynical spirit, a 2015 New York Times article noticed that Malcolm Gladwell “hands out blook blurbs like Santa does presents:”

When Malcolm Gladwell was asked to write a blurb for the 2005 book “Freakonomics, ” he did not explain that it explored the dynamics of the Ku Klux Klan or the impact of naming a child “Loser.” Instead, the New Yorker writer and best-selling author of “The Tipping Point” and “Blink” simply wrote, “Prepare to be dazzled.”

None of the many books Gladwell blurbs is ever short of dazzling, even Jonah Lehrers’ Imagine, which was found to contain fabricated Bob Dylan quotes. “Specific mistakes don’t invalidate the work of the author or the book,” shrugged Gladwell.

More disturbing, the Times found that writers were trying to out-blurb each another to get better real estate on dust jackets. Said A.J. Jacobs, author of The Year of Living Biblically: “It’s hard to compete with Malcolm Gladwell. He is always going to get the front cover. I get the back cover or, maybe, inside.”

Thank heavens for the novelist and formerly promiscuous hype-artist, Gary Shteyngart, who a few years back retired from blurbing and sought redemption by mock-blurbing several of the world’s worst books:

It turns out blurbs have been a joke since the word was invented. U.S. scholar Brander Matthews coined the term in 1906 and it was popularized a year later by the humorist Frank Gelett Burgess. From Publisher’s Weekly, May 18, 1907:

Gelett Burgess … then entertained the guests with some characteristic flashes of Burgessian humor. Referring to the word “blurb” on the wrapper of his book he said: “To ‘blurb’ is to make a sound like a publisher. The blurb was invented by Frank A. Munsey when he wrote on the front of his magazine in red ink ‘I consider this number of Munsey’s the hottest pie that ever came out of my bakery.’ … A blurb is a check drawn on Fame, and it is seldom honored.[“]

Blurbs are now inescapable. By a rough scan of my own shelves, 90 per cent of books have multiple blurbs. Yet there is no evidence that readers are swayed by them. The audience research firm Codex Group tested variations of book covers, some with blurbs, some without, in surveys of several thousand readers. A very small number of participants found blurbs meaningful, and only when the person doing the blurbing mattered to them, and the blurb itself contributed to their understanding of the book.

When it comes to purchasing decisions, 2.5 per cent of participants admitted to discovering a book through the recommendation of a favorite author, and 1 per cent bought the book as a result.

If they’re of no use to readers, who are blurbs for? It’s not clear because no one in the book chain will admit to taking blurbs seriously. Not the book trade magazines, not booksellers, not book reviewers. There is nothing but cynicism about blurbs from one end of the literary supply chain to the other.

The best that can be said for blurbs is that they signal to various audiences — the trades, the retailers, the reviewers, and the reading public — that this author hangs with these members of the literary community. He or she is a member of a blurboisie. It’s a price of admission to literary credibility, albeit without credibility.

I have grave doubts about the utility of blurbs but my promotions and sales agents are convinced they are essential so I play along. I hate asking writers to blurb books, although most understand the process and respond graciously and positively, especially those who have written books themselves.

An exception to the rule are authors who have written hugely successful books. They are more likely to say no, not because they are ungraciousness but because the price of fame is a weekly bushel of blurb requests.

Margaret Atwood has a form letter that her assistant uses to decline blurbs. This practice is explained in the frequently-asked-questions section of Atwood’s website:

It takes four to six hours to read the book, and I get 10 or so of these requests a week. Multiply 5 hours times 10 requests and you get a 50-hour a week job. Choosing a few of the books to blurb doesn’t make things much easier, partly because it takes a long time to make a well-informed choice, and partly because choosing between books is akin to choosing which of your two sisters should be your maid of honour … no matter what you do, someone’s bound to have their feelings hurt.

If you get a chance, spend a few minutes on Atwood’s website. There’s promotional material: how to buy her creative writing lessons, how to buy her latest books, very occasional blog posts, a touching tribute to her late husband Graeme Gibson. The fun part is the contact page, which details the many ways you can’t contact Margaret Atwood:

It’s entirely understandable. Between writing and costume changes, Atwood has no time.

To her credit, she has done more than her share for literature and maintains a lively presence (two million followers) on Twitter where she pseudo-blurbs from time to time:

What about poor souls with no friends or literary talent? Where do they get their useless but essential blurbs? There’s always Ava Mallory, a level 2 seller on fiverr.com who will blurb your book for $6.98. She’s done a thousand of them and has a perfect five-star rating. Judging by her picture, she may even open the books:

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