The Blurb is the Word: Uses (and Misuses) of the Book Blurb

Likely StoriesTwo weeks ago, I happened across a Twitter conversation sparked by Michael Bourret, a literary agent at Dystel & Goderich. “We need to talk about the blurb game,” he wrote. “Are we doing a service to anyone, the blurber or the blurbee?” I know a cry of exasperation when I hear one, so I invited three voices in that online conversation—an agent (Bourret), an editor (Andrew Karre of Carolrhoda Lab), and a writer (Gayle Forman, bestselling author of If I Stay)—to join me here, so that we might unload with problems and reload with ideas.

These days when I get a blurb request,
my first thought is: Ugh. More homework.

Daniel Kraus: As an editor, agent, or author, what is your reaction upon getting a blurb request? I want to feel your emotion.

Gayle Forman

Gayle Forman

Gayle Forman: These days when I get a blurb request, my first thought is: Ugh. More homework. In the past, I’ve tried to at least look at most things that fit my criteria (would appeal to me, my readership, debut author, etc.) but there has been such an onslaught lately that even though some of it is really good, I feel overwhelmed. I still say yes, though.

DK: So why do you do it? What do you hope to gain from it?

GF: I’ve never had much luck getting blurbs. If I Stay got one blurb, from Patty McCormick (who I approached personally—do as I say, not as I do). I created my own blurb policy [to only blurb debut authors], I suppose, as a reaction to my experience with If I Stay. It felt so insidery, all about who you knew. So I wanted to blurb people who might not have that access.

Andrew Karre

Andrew Karre

Andrew Karre: The perception is that an author gets a blurb and it helps sales. I do think blurbs can help sales in indirect but important ways—especially for smaller houses like mine. I don’t make inevitable books—books with massive marketing plans and thousands of ARCs and a shot at mass market appeal. I do try very hard to make books that some fraction—hopefully a decent-sized fraction—of the readership will find unusual and worthy of discussion. The whole blurbing mechanism can be a way to start that conversation. In so many words, I try to send manuscripts, ARCs, and finished books to authors who might have something interesting to say about the book—these are people who, in an ideal world, I would be able to discuss the book with over a drink.

Sometimes this results in a few sentences in an email a month later that we eventually stick on the book, but that’s the least valuable part in my mind. More valuable are the times when I know the person I sent the book to is talking about it over drinks with other people or on Twitter or whatever. And then there are the exceedingly rare “blurbers” who turn into co-editors and beget whole new last-minute drafts of the manuscripts. That’s pretty great too. Blurbs are more valuable as a conduit for conversations. Unfortunately, the emphasis on using them as jacket accessories is fucking up that conduit pretty badly.

One scenario I actively avoid is intramural blurbing. My authors blurbing each other is generally not good for unit cohesion or imprint integrity.

Michael Bourret

Michael Bourret

Michael Bourret: These days, the requests just make me exhausted. Aside from queries, they’re the most common type of email I get. And, for the most part, the requests come in for the same authors over and over and over. I understand the motivations of the people requesting, as I’m sometimes the one doing the requesting! But the volume of requests has increased dramatically for YA authors in the last year or two, and I’ve come to question the necessity of these blurbs. It seems to me to be yet another part of the YA echo chamber, in which we’re all just preaching to the choir.

GF: There’s an echo chamber in YA. YA. YA. YA. YA?

MB: The “indie” authors all blurb each other too. Yet another echo chamber, clique, etc.

AK: Self-published authors participating in the blurb economy strikes me as the book equivalent of an escaped convict breaking back into the prison.

 It seems to me to be yet another
part of the YA echo chamber,
in which we’re all just preaching
to the choir.

MB: When authors complain that getting published is about who you know, I truthfully tell them it isn’t. But if they said the same thing about blurbs, I couldn’t really argue—it’s very much influenced by who an author knows. More than anything, I love that Gayle has a blurb policy. It makes it much easier for me to say no to a whole bunch of requests that just don’t fit the rules, and I find that people on the other end respect that there’s a reasoned, thoughtful approach to narrowing down what books will be considered. And I think we all agree, the real power authors have is in going out and discussing the books they love.

AK: Specific example: I did not send author Andrew Smith Carrie Mesrobian’s Sex & Violence for a blurb (he’d already generously blurbed something else of mine that year). I can’t remember how he got it, but he did, and he eventually sent me a blurb, which we used but that’s inconsequential compared to the advocacy he did for Carrie’s book. Gayle, correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t that how you got a hold of the book? And, however it happened, your support of the book has been extremely valuable.

GF: I started hearing about Carrie’s book before it came out. I’m not sure where. But whispers of it here and there. And then one night at an event, a group of authors, including Andrew Smith, Ted Goeglein, Christa Desir were all going APESHIT over it. I bought it as soon as it came out and loved it. Tweeted to Carrie about it. Told Michael about it. You then asked me if I’d give you a blurb for a repackage and that was easy because I already read it, already loved it and it was a debut.

AK: I have enormous respect for a thoughtful blurb policy and clear-eyed view of what a blurb will mean. In the one case where I did help connect a ms (not mine) with an author of mine, that author told me she adored the manuscript (as did I, which was why I agreed to carry it over) and we had a very nice off-the-record chat about what a good, successful book it would be (it was). It was off the record because that author’s blurb policy was, essentially, that a blurb from her was a buy-it-now recommendation to the youngest of her readership, for whom the manuscript in question would have been generally inappropriate. This is, in my view, a wise policy, though by no means the only one.

DK: I’ve actually had authors (more than one!) have to rescind a blurb for me on the advice of their editors due to the content of my books versus the lower ends of the authors’ readerships.

MB: Frustrating to hear that they figured that out after the fact. It’s not like one gets a Daniel Kraus book thinking it’s about puppies. Or at least live puppies.

AK: And then there’s the awful process of voting blurbs off the island at reprint as the jacket fills up with review quotes. I hate that a lot.

Adele Griffin quoteDK: Some blurbs on my books have felt to me like body armor. For Scowler in particular, I liked having Adele Griffin’s name on there. It was like having somebody trusted say “this guy is not a psycho, it’s okay to like this book.”

GF: And here is where I think blurbs do work. Positioning. Announcing to the world what kind of book this is. It’s read through a certain lens then. I wish it weren’t so. I wish we were all objective and immune to such things but no one is. If a blurb tells you that this book is “important” or “the next big thing,” you start reading it with that expectation already suggested.

AK: The body-armor aspect of blurbs is real and should not be discounted. There’s a long period between final manuscript and the first journal reviews where a book is just standing with its head above the parapets. It’s a very vulnerable time, and it’s no fun when the first word on a book is some one-star review from a NetGalley on Goodreads.

I don’t want to have to curb my enthusiasm
when I rave about something but my tweets
are not advertisements.

GF: This is also maybe off topic but is this something you have seen: people repurposing social media responses to a work without permission? Such bad form. Just ask me. I’ve heard a rumor, unsubstantiated, that something I wrote on Twitter was printed on a foreign jacket. And I have seen my tweets used in advertising. I don’t want to have to curb my enthusiasm when I rave about something but my tweets are not advertisements. My policy is very specific. So I don’t like a publisher deciding to blurb for me.

AK: I have seen this. It is a can of worms, to say the least.

DK: And it’s probably legal, right? I feel like I’ve seen this with a Stephen King tweet.

MB: Legal, yes. But I’ve found (and this has come up for me more than once), that everyone wants to go to the author for approval. No one wants an author complaining about their name being on a book. But no one wants to miss an opportunity to point out to booksellers that a big author liked a book.

DK: I saw some of you discussing earlier the idea that one of the places blurbs work best is “in-house.” To a newer author (hell, even to me), that’s a bit of a head-scratcher: “Why does our publisher need to promote our book to itself?” Explain, please, and how blurbs factor in to that.

There’s limited money to go around for
promotion, and publishers need to figure
out which horses they’re going to bet on.

MB: That is a good question, and I feel like it should make you scratch you head. But the truth of the matter is that books are always competing with each other inside of the publishing house. There’s limited money to go around for promotion, and publishers need to figure out which horses they’re going to bet on. Getting feedback from the outside world that confirms the positioning from the editorial team can go a long way to changing (or cementing) how a book is perceived, especially since even trade reviews come so late in the process that decisions on marketing, sales, and publicity have already been made.

AK: In my small-house experience (where I’m basically the only one making these books), if I can hand off a book to salespeople with a couple unassailable blurbs, I feel like I’ve given them all they could possibly ask for—and some insurance if they’re ever in a selling situation and are at a loss for words. I can only imagine this is ten times as critical in an environment where there are hundreds of trade titles vying for finite attention. Relationships within publishing houses are just as real as they are among established and aspiring authors and they probably mean just as much.

DK: So if you were to issue a statement of “best practices” for your particular job,  what would that statement be?

It’s the hoops we go through in the name
of that orthodoxy that needs rethinking.

GF: That’s the thing . . . I don’t have a best practices because publishing is not one-size-fits-all and I think we can all come up with a situation in which a blurb—a particular blurb for a particular book— would be a game-changer and in such a situation, as an agent, editor, blurber, or blurbee, we’d probably all really want to make that blurb happen. But it’s rather the accepted orthodoxy that blurbs must happen, and it’s the hoops we go through in the name of that orthodoxy that needs rethinking. As for best practices, I go with the golden rule on this one: Do unto others and all that shit.

MB: 1. Remember to respect all the people in the process, both in asking and being asked. 2. Go through proper channels, even when the temptation is to do whatever it takes to get a “yes.” 3. Continue to search for innovative ways to get the word out about books that don’t involve blurbs.

GF: Except that golden rule does not imply a quid pro quo with blurbs, which is the worst!

AK: For editors, the process of getting established authors to read and endorse the work of your up-and-coming writers should not involve sacrificing integrity, making unreasonable demands, alienating colleagues, or diminishing the value of honest praise. Editors should help authors set rationale expectations for blurbs and their meanings, and editors should facilitate the process in a way that serves each book and author’s needs. The campsite rule applies: leave the author, agent, and editor as nice or nicer than you found them.

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About the Author:

Dan Kraus is Booklist's Editor of Books for Youth. He is also the producer and director of numerous feature films, most notably the documentary Work Series, and the author of several YA novels, including Rotters and Scowler, both of which won the Odyssey Award. Follow him on Twitter at @DanielDKraus.

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