A soon-to-be published writer wrote to ask my opinion about blurbs, which led me to think about this whole horrific world of publicity (some would call it marketing) and sales in the book-publishing business.
First let me say that I think that being a publicist is a much more difficult job than being an editor. There's an inherent satisfaction in being an editor--and, quite frankly, we get to do the rejecting most of the time. But publicists face rejection as much as aspiring writers do. Requests for reviews go unanswered, attempts at getting media attention are abortive, and people in general are delighted to get free books while not wanting to pay for them. There's just way too much going on in the 21st century, and getting a new writer or a new book to stand out amidst the information overload is a big, intimidating job.
That said, let me offer what I see as some quasi-truisms of blurbing. (I was going to write a post about publicity in general, but I see how long this post is becoming, so I'll return to that topic next time.)
So...BLURBS. Do they work? I think they used to. I have in front of me my treasured first printings of Mary Higgins Clark's WHERE ARE THE CHILDREN? and Marlys Millhiser's THE MIRROR. Both of these feature just one blurb on the inside jacket flap--amazingly, by the same woman: Phyllis A. Whitney. Ms. Whitney was for many years the grande dame of the American Gothic, and I do believe her opinion carried a lot of weight.
Now? Well, it's kind of hard to tell. I have new hardcovers sitting on my shelf whose back covers are filled with blurbs by other mystery writers. I have to ask myself what readers think of these (and I hope some readers will respond by clicking on the Comments button below). I personally don't take any of them all that seriously. I assume that all of the folks being quoted are fellow members of MWA, or people the writer has met through the convention circuit, and that there is a sort of quid pro quo going on--"You say nice things about my book, and I'll say nice things about yours." My hardback copy of Louise Ure's THE FAULT TREE (a good, but flawed, book) has blurbs on the back from Laura Lippman, Lee Child, Gayle Lynds, Jacqueline Winspear, Marcia Muller, Cornelia Read, and Jan Burke. Front flap has blurbs from Ken Bruen, Louise Penny, and James Crumley. Back flap has blurbs from Karen E. Olsen, Elaine Flinn, and Barbara Seranella. (Of this list, I had never even heard of two of these writers, and had only the most baseline knowledge of two others.) In contrast, Ms. Ure's latest, LIARS ANONYMOUS, has excerpts from Publisher's Weekly, Kirkus, and Library Journal, and Booklist.
I take those reviews from the review publications much more seriously than I take blurbs from fellow writers. This is not to say that THE FAULT TREE didn't deserve a lot of praise, but the gushy nature of blurbs does make the critical thinker take a step back and think, "No book can be this perfect." Interesting how blurbs and excerpts from reviews often make use of that fabulous punctuation device, the ellipsis (...), or a single sentence from a multi-paragraph review, isn't it? And I don't mean to get on my high horse about this, because we do it with our books all the time.
Let's say I write a review of Welcome to My New Mystery Series, by Jane Doe. In it I say, "While Ms. Doe's book is expertly plotted, her mastery of characterization leaves much to be desired. The book moves at a snail's pace, and none of the characters is remotely believable. While some might find this to be a great beach book, there are many better options out there." 6 months later, when the paperback comes out, I see the following on the back cover:
"Expertly plotted...a great beach book." --Agatho, Mysterious Matters
See what I mean? Now, I am the first to admit that a good review in the right places gives bookstore buyers and librarians great faith in the book, and that does lead to orders (and, in the case of libraries, sales. Anyone in publishing will be happy to go on at great length about the difference between orders and sales, as well as that dirtiest of words in publishing, returns.)
Perhaps we as an industry are turning to blurbs more because fewer and fewer media outlets are reviewing books, which leads to fewer quotable quotes. We're also quoting more and more from Websites, where really fine reviewing is happening these days. But at the end of the day, does a blurb on a book jacket influence the reader to buy that book? Does one think, "Oh, Stephen King loved this book, therefore I will too"? Somehow I doubt it. I mean, it's nice to have, but does it make the difference in terms of the sale, in a consumer saying "Here's my $8 for this book I want to read"? Probably not. The sole exception is the endorsement of Oprah, and I need not go into that self-evident truth here.
So what DOES a blurb do? Well, certainly any writer who can query an agent with ready-made blurbs does go to the head of the class, if only because s/he has demonstrated an awareness of what it takes to get attention, as well as a savviness about networking. Review excerpts and blurbs have become SOP in our industry, so NOT having them might count against us. For example, let's suppose our friends at Library Journal get 150 ARCs in one day. 35 of them have blurbs and the rest do not. Isn't there some sort of undeniable psychological mechanism that is going to imply that the 35 with blurbs are worthier than the 115 without? Probably.
And it's true--most publishers these days are sending writers out to get their own blurbs, to do their own networking. We will, occasionally, ask one of our luminaries to blurb a new book if we really, really believe in it. I have a writer who is asked for blurbs occasionally. Recently she wrote to me and said, "I read the manuscript and it's awful. What do I do?" My response: "Find something nice to say." A lot of writers see blurbing as a way of giving something back, as a way of being giving members of the community. And kudos to them for that, but I can't help but think that readers (being readers, and being critical by nature) must take a series of a dozen blurbs cum grano salis.
At the end of the day, I think I can say that blurbs do no harm; and they may also have the effect of giving a reader who's developed an interest in the book the feeling that s/he is making the right decision in purchasing and/or reading it. The blurbs may also help prevent buyer's remorse, but they can also lead to great bitterness when the reader ends up hating the book. It does create quite a sense of cognitive dissonance when a writer you admire says good things about a book that you end up hating. Have a look at the Amazon reviews of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle sometime. It's sort of amazing how many people express anger at Stephen King and Oprah Winfrey for recommending the book. I like to think that reading should be a positive experience, not one that makes the reader think, "What is wrong with me, that luminaries should adore this book and I should find it awful?"
That, for me, is the joy (and sometimes the sorrow) of well-written reviews by people who take the job seriously. Most really good-quality reviews talk about both the positives and negatives of any given book--and, honestly, isn't it true that all books have their good and not-so-good qualities? When one reads those kinds of reviews, one assumes that they are true, fair, unbiased. Blurbs seems biased; I wonder if people treat them the same way they do infomercials--getting sucked into them, being momentarily dazzled by them, and then saying "Whoa...nothing can be this wondrous or perfect."