David Louis Edelman David Louis Edelman

Do the Blurbs Sell the Book?

Believe it or not, I’ve never read anything by Terry Pratchett. Which, for a science fiction writer, is kind of equivalent to a film student admitting that he’s never seen The Wizard of Oz. Today I decided to rectify the situation by purchasing the first Discworld novel, The Color of Magic.

Terry Pratchett's "The Color of Magic"I haven’t had time yet to read more than the first dozen pages or so, but it’s already clear to me that my novel Infoquake is a far, far better book.

How do I know that? Well, The Color of Magic only has three pages of blurbs inside the front cover — in large type, no less — while the Solaris edition of Infoquake has four and a half. The upcoming trade paperback of MultiReal ups the stakes considerably, with over nine pages of blurbs inside the cover. Nine and a half pages! By my reckoning, that makes Infoquake somewhere between 50% and 216% better than The Color of Magic.

Of course, by this standard I’m still playing catch-up to Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind. If you open up the mass market paperback for Pat’s debut, you see page after page of ecstatic blurbs and reviews from folks like Orson Scott Card and Robin Hobb, explaining why they would gladly burn the world’s last copy of Crime and Punishment if only to feed the fire that’s keeping Pat’s feet warm for twenty minutes. (I’m not saying this to be mean-spirited; it’s awe-inspiring stuff. We all love the guy who’s a scrappy loser, but less frequently admitted is how much we love the guy who’s an overbearing success. A part of me wishes that Pat was eligible for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer this year. I would have loved to see him win by an overwhelming, blow-out margin. Remember how cool it was to watch The Return of the King take just about every Oscar in existence?)

Okay, back to the blurbs and review snippets. To quote Triumph the Comic Insult Dog: I kid! I kid!

We all know that this inside-the-cover blurb stuff is really just a marketing game that the publishers play. We all know that the presence of a ton of laudatory quotes might — might — signal the presence of a worthwhile book, but the lack of these quotes doesn’t mean the book is lacking in quality. We all know that the number of mouth-foaming quotes you find on the jacket or inside the cover serve one purpose and one purpose only: to sell you a book.

Nonetheless, it works. There are plenty of readers out there who claim that review snippets and author blurbs are totally meaningless and don’t impact their purchasing decisions. I’m not one of them. I utterly depend on compelling review snippets and/or blurbs from sources that I trust when I decide what to buy. Because to me, seeing a page of quality reviews and blurbs indicates several things:

  • The blurbing authors thought highly enough of this book to have their name slathered all over it, knowing that it’s going to be used specifically for promotional purposes.
  • Discerning, thoughtful critics liked the book enough that they took the time to think up a clever way to phrase their feelings about it, knowing that it’s going to be etc. etc.
  • The publisher believes this book will appeal directly to readers like me by highlighting critical praise for the book and not putting one of those cheesy mini-excerpts on the first page.

Book shopper(As an aside: I find those miniature excerpts on the first page of mass market paperbacks incredibly condescending. I’m sorry to report that if your book has an excerpt like that, your publisher has just dramatically decreased the probability of me buying it. Why?

  1. Because you’ll usually find the most sensationalistic, cliffhangery passage of the whole book there, whether it’s germane to the plot or not.
  2. Because the folks that package the book often take liberties with the author’s grammar and/or punctuation in these excerpts.
  3. Because often these snippets give away crucial plot points or color my reading of the story.
  4. Because they’re usually printed in a large font that screams, “Hey! I know you’re already headed to the checkout line, but I’m hoping this tiny irrelevant snippet of suggestive kinkiness, frenetic action, or lobotomized ideamongering just might be enough to inspire you to make an impulse purchase!”)

So ever since I saw the final typeset version of MultiReal with the nine and a half pages of review snippets, I’ve been ((way) over)analyzing it in my head. What does this say about my writing? What does it say about my career? Should I be proud that so many people had so many nice things to say about my first book? Does the book exhibit a Napoleon Complex by trying to show off so much? Should I mention on my blog that I wanted to include a lot of the positive comments from bloggers, as a way to show my respect and gratitude to the blogosphere for being so generous? And if I do mention that, am I being defensive?

And I’m also wondering: will these blurbs influence people’s buying decisions? Pretend you know nothing about me or my writing, and you stumble across MultiReal and its panoply of impressive-looking blurbs and review snippets in your local bookstore. How much would these pages impact your choice of whether to buy the book or not?

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  1. cindy on May 18, 2008 at 7:35 pm  Chain link

    I also am swayed by blurbs for a book — but mostly only if they are blurbs by major critics (eg. NY Times Book Review) or by an author I really, really like. I pretty much skip over blurbs by people or publications I’ve never heard of.

  2. Soni on May 18, 2008 at 8:47 pm  Chain link

    I almost never read the blurbs, unless the name of someone seriously big or highly respected (by me) catches my eye. If Terry Pratchett blurbs your book and calls it the best use of a tree since lifegiving fire, that might just encourage me to read the inside jacket or back cover copy to see if the story looks interesting.

    But usually, if I don’t know the author’s work, I just go straight for the jacket copy to get a feel for the story line and judge from that whether or not I’m going to read it. I rarely if ever even glance at the review excerpts or blurbs, because I know that no one is going to be putting “Edelman’s writing could suck the wind out of a Cat 5 hurricane” in their book. The blurbs are always the best, most enthusiastic yes-fests the publisher has available, and as such they all more or less read the same and tell me nothing except that the book is not so universally repellent that not even the publisher’s janitor wants their name associated with it.

    Given the pure and irredeemable dreck that I’ve seen published (larded with enough hypetastic blurbs to represent an entire forest’s worth of non-content-bearing wood pulp), except in the few instances mentioned above I pretty much see them as so much wasted cellulose.

    But that’s just me. I’ve spent enough time writing marketing copy and whatnot (and filling web pages to the breaking point with universally chipper testimonials from my clients’ clients) that I may be just a teensy bit jaded.

  3. […] Take it from me, Rebecca Johnson. A blurb from Ann Patchett will not induce me to pick up your novel. Nor will any blurbs for that matter. The real question that should be asked is whether blurbs actually sell books. […]

  4. […] more blurb talk via Ed. Do they sell books? Maybe, but probably not the amount that’s worth the humiliation […]

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