Do Blurbs Actually Work?
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Blurbs. Few parts of the publishing process cause more anxiety for writers. As a blurb requester, it’s stressful and a bit pathetic to beg for praise from writers you may have never met. As a potential blurber, the number of requests can be overwhelming and blurbing is always time consuming. Hell writers have been complaining about blurbs since the dawn of, well, blurbs. In the 1930s George Orwell said:
Question any thinking person as to why he ‘never reads novels’, and you will usually find that, at bottom, it is because of the disgusting tripe that is written by the blurb-reviewers…Novels are being shot at you at the rate of fifteen a day, and every one of them an unforgettable masterpiece which you imperil your soul by missing.
While blurbs might suck, it doesn’t follow that blurbs are unimportant or don’t work. About every month I see a writer—sometimes an emerging writer, sometimes a well-published and acclaimed one—ask, “Do blurbs ACTUALLY work?” Typically this is followed by a sentiment like “I’ve never picked up a book in a bookstore and bought a book based on a blurb.” (Note: I wrote a draft of this newsletter, including the above paragraph, a few weeks ago before today’s twitter blurb discourse. This newsletter is not subtweeting anyone specific.)
Do Readers Actually Buy Books Based on Blurbs?
Yes, sometimes. I myself have bought books thanks to blurbs now and then. Recently, I was browsing a translated literature table and saw The Houseguest by Amparo Dávila. I’d never heard of the author, but the book had blurbs from Carmen Maria Machado and Julio Cortázar so I thought, hell, let’s give this author a try! I’m glad I did.
Whenever blurb discourse heats up, plenty of readers say blurbs are a factor. So yes, they can sell books.
At the same time, yes, it is perhaps true that blurbs are rarely the deciding factor. Most likely a potential reader has heard word of mouth recommendations, read reviews, or simply seen the cover all over the place before they even pick up the book to see the blurbs. But that’s actually the point. Most of the work that blurbs do happens long before a customer sees the book on the table.
The blurbs might be what put the book on the table in the first place.
How Blurbs Sell Books
The thing one always has to remember about publishing is that the sheer number of books published each year is enormous. Even ignoring the countless self-published books, there is an avalanche of traditionally published books each month. It’s unending. Because of this, everyone—readers, reviewers, booksellers, etc.—has to find ways to winnow the number down to something manageable. There is simply no possible way a human could read every book published to “decide for themselves” what’s worth reading or promoting or placing on the bookstore shelf. It’s just impossible.
Take for example the “most anticipated” lists that appear in every magazine every year. How are those books picked? It’s not because the list writer has read 100,000 forthcoming 2022 books and picked the best. It’s not that they’ve read 10,000 or even 1,000. They’re reading a tiny fraction of what’s forthcoming and sometimes include books they can’t possible have read because they aren’t in galleys yet.
Blurbs help winnow down the flood. They are only one of many winnowing factors, but they are one of them. To use publishing speak, blurbs especially help with “positioning” a book. Is a debut novel literary horror fiction? A commercial thriller? Meditative autofiction aimed at millennial readers? Blurbs help signal where a book fits in the marketplace and the reader’s shelf. Maybe they aren’t an objective measure of quality, but they’re actually a pretty good measure of a book’s milieu.
Obviously I’m speaking mostly of emerging authors here. No one cares about what blurbs Stephen King gets today, dozens of books into his acclaimed career. His reputation and positioning are already known. On the other hand, a blurb from Stephen King would absolutely increase the sales of a debut novel in the way few things else would.
I don’t want to overstate the importance of blurbs here. They are just one piece of the publicity and marketing puzzle. But there is a reason they exist, and it’s not to torture writers.
Blurbs Are Icky… But Not as Icky as Other Things
Part of the reason people dislike blurbs is they are somewhat icky. Blurbs mostly come from connections. A friend of your editor. An old professor. Someone else on your agent’s list. Etc. Blurbs can feel like a cheat code that the connected have access too. That’s not entirely wrong. (That said, I do think the nepotism of blurbs is sometimes overstated. Some of my books’ blurbs came from authors I had no connection and had never met yet whom I simply wrote a polite email slash fan letter. Authors are actually pretty generous people.)
The problem is that so much of what determines book sales has little to do with “objective artistic quality” or whatever ideals we might have. Money still runs the world. Are blurbs any ickier than, oh, corporate publicity and marketing dollars purchasing ads in magazines? Or buying bookstore table placement? Or high-paid publicists using connections to get a book in front of a celebrity influencer? In some ways, blurbs are one of the few things that authors without lots of money (either their own or their publisher’s) can use to get attention.
A world without blurbs would alleviate some stress for us writers. But it wouldn’t be a meritocratic world in which books are objectively measured by dispassionate connoisseurs. It wouldn’t prevent the flood of books published each month or the various scams and paid reviews that plague sites like Amazon and Goodreads. It wouldn’t end nepotism or the advantages of money. Perhaps there’s no ethical blurbing under capitalism, but the alternative doesn’t seem any better.
Lastly, as stressful and icky and hated as the process is… it can also be one of the loveliest parts of publishing a book. There’s few things more validating than having authors whose work you love say they love your work too.
If you like this newsletter, please consider subscribing or checking out my recently released science fiction novel The Body Scout, which The New York Times called “Timeless and original…a wild ride, sad and funny, surreal and intelligent” and Boing Boing declared “a modern cyberpunk masterpiece.”