The Trouble with Blurbing

As an author, you know you have "arrived" when editors (especially editors you don’t work with) ask you to blurb other people’s books. This is a big step up from when your friends ask you to blurb their books (they are your friends–of course they ask!) and especially a big step up from when strangers ask you to read their manuscripts and give free critiques (and blurbs against the day said book finally gets published, which speaks more to where you happen to be standing at the time.) Among other things, an editorial request for blurb implies that your profesional opinion is valuable and carries some weight with readers and that you have enough readers to be significant in sales terms. This makes the author feel very warm and happy. But the giving of blurbs is much more treacherous territory than it at first seems….

The whole point of a blurb–or "sell quote"–is to link a book by a new or breaking author with the fan base of a more successful author in the same or similar genre/niche/sub-niche, etc. The idea being that Better-known Author’s fans might also like this similar book by New/Breaking Author and therefore buy it. And that is the key: basic similarity and association. It’s not just a matter of any-old-body saying nice things in print about the book, but of presenting the formula </begin mock-forumla here>:

[X likes Y; U like X; QED: U will like Y!]
which is followed by the assumption [U will buy Y].

Writers, agents, and editors scramble about like bugs escaping from an overturned rock looking for good blurbs that will persuade all the U out there to buy their Y. The tricky bit comes in getting the right association of Better-Known Author to Brand New Y.

You can’t get just anyone, as I’ve noted; you have to have the right someone. It doesn’t matter how much Neil Gaiman likes your book if it’s not a fantasy/horror/comic in a similar niche and vein to Gaiman’s work. It doesn’t matter how much your mother or friends like it either, even if they are also writers, unless they have big writer-names in your genre. Nor does it matter how much I like your book if it’s a bosom-heaving romance novel since I don’t write those. If the book in question isn’t a good fit for the audience associated with the writer giving the blurb, a quote from that writer may do more harm than good. At best, it just looks odd and people ignore it, which was a waste of everyone’s time.

Editors do try to get the best quotes they can from the highest-profile, best-fit writers they can persuade. They may ask a lot of writers for quotes because they know some won’t come in or won’t come in on time for the press run. The editor may have to ask a dozen writers to blurb in order to get three or four useable quotes. Sometimes, unfortunately, the connection between blurber and blurbee isn’t as good as might be wished.

I have blurbed two books I wish I hadn’t. Not because I didn’t like the books, but because my audience and the audience for the new books didn’t have a great overlap. It associated the book with a sub-niche that isn’t representative of the author’s focus, and me with a book that I’m no kind of authority on. That’s a disservice to the author of the new book and it makes me look like a blurb whore–which isn’t good for my repuation either.

This is why, even though I love Katie MacAlister’s Aisling Grey novels, I’d never blurb a similar book; I’m not a paranormal romance writer, but that’s the audience the book would really need to be successful. While it’s true that some of my fans are also ParaRom readers, that’s not the core of my audience, nor what they expect from my books. So a quote from me on the cover of a frothy, funny, sexy book like that would mislead the readers into thinking they were getting something darker. They might still like it a lot, but some would be very upset and the chances are good they’d take it out on the new book. A few might send me a snotty note saying I misled them, but for the most part, once I’ve given the quote, I’m off the hook and it’s New Author who will get the bad Amazon reviews and rude emails about how much their book isn’t like mine.

Now, I think pretty hard whenever I’m asked to blurb a book. It may be a great book and I may like it a lot, but if the subject, tone, or general direction of the book is at odds with what I’m known for, I may refuse to provide a quote. Not because I’m a bitch, but because I don’t want to mislead readers. Would you feel confident about a hard SF book with a cover blurb from me on it? Probably not. At least not at this stage in my career when I have no reputation as a hard SF writer or reviewer. I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to blurb pure, high-fanatasy novels either, since I don’t write them. That’s not to say I don’t like them: I enjoyed The Name of the Wind and Lamentation very much, but a blurb from me does nothing for those books (my apologies to Pat on that score.)

There is also the associated problem of the "blurb-whore"–and you’ve seen this, I know. This is the writer who appears willing to provide a boffo quote that means absolutely nothing to damn near anyone who asks. Their quotes are everywhere as a result and it devalues the reputation of the author providing the quote while reflecting badly on the author receiving it (what… they couldn’t get anyone else?) It’s kind of like those Amazon reviewers who never give anything but five-star ratings and manage to review seven books out of every dozen. Readers just stop believing in these authors’ blurbs and it reflects badly on their work as a result.

So, when giving blurbs, thoughtful authors need to consider if their quote:

  1. Will bring the New Author an appropriate audience or steer readers to a wrong assumption;
  2. Will reflect well on themselves and their brand by association with the New Author’s book and niche;
  3. Will add value by being selectively given or devalue their author-meme by over-saturation of the blurb market;
  4. Says anything that will pull a reader into purchasing/reading the book.

When you ask for a quote, consider the same points–after all, what others say about you on the cover is intended to sell the book, not just say nice things about you or prove that you know cool writers.

When you provide a quote, you’re not just doing New Author a favor, you’re associating yourself with their future fan base in hopes of spreading your own author-meme into a potential pool of new readers for your books, too. It’s a sort of reciprocal promotion. You say good things about them and when they get new readers, those readers notice you, too and (we all hope) buy your books because U like Y! (And Y likes you back.)

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About Kat Richardson

Writer, editor, eccentric pain in the tail, bestselling author of the Greywalker novels.
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7 Responses to The Trouble with Blurbing

  1. Alex says:

    I love these posts about the authoring process / business. A sort of cinematic equivalent of the blurb whore of course are those reviews who are prepared to say something nice about any movie no matter the quality. It devalues not just their reputation but also the movie, as you point out.

  2. I know it will make a few people annoyed, but we all have to think about the blurbs we give and the ones we don’t. It’s not always a service to blurb or to give positive reviews. The audience wants information, not a lot of empty platitudes.

  3. Hairy thing says:

    So, does a blurb whore have a blurb pimp? Big hat with a feather in it, drop top Cadillac and a pimp stick? “Yo! you got my blurb biach?” Ouch. Don’t go there honey, your face don’t need no marks. 🙂

  4. Well, of course: her agent. Though I have a very hard time imagining mine in a pimp hat…

  5. MD says:

    Mhm, very interersting post. Of course, you’re totally lost as a reader if you don’t get recommendations. There are simply so many publications of new stuff that you cannot read everything – and in turn it’s very likely that you’ll miss out on something you would probably have liked. Therefore, blurbs are good. It’s a very short recommendation. If I like your books (which I do) and I read on your blog that you liked book xyz I might be tempted to check it out. If I hold a book in my hand and there’s your blurb on the back I might be tempted to buy it.

    It still holds the danger of giving people “more of the same” all the time. Which is not good since it doesn’t broaden your horizon. But maybe that’s just my opinion: I really like to be surprised by a book!

  6. Pogonip says:

    I’m going to argue the point, Kat. I think that you can blurb a book that isn’t the same as your own. You can simply say so in the blurb. A good book is a good book, and if we get so narrow in our reading that we only read in a selected sub-genre, we will stifle! It would also mean that if an author were breaking new ground (I know, that’s unlikely with the millions of books already out there), nobody could blurb because nobody else had a similar book.

    If a writer I respect and enjoy for straight mysteries were to blurb a sci-fi or urban fantasy, I would be more likely to pick up the book than less likely. If you follow my drift.

  7. Dave says:

    I have picked up books because of “blurbs” and have seen both good and bad associations. But it could be me, rather than the blurber (and blurbee) that are at fault. 😉 I have also seen newer authors that continue to use the same blurb on more than one book. Now it may be that the blurber did, in fact, read all of those other books in the series, but couldn’t they have come up with a different blurb?

    Blurb. It’s fun to say. 😎

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