Anatomy of the e-book blurb: who ya gonna call?

You’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but everybody does. In fact, we do it twice. First we judge the cover based on its image, often from a distance, as we scan a shelf or table, trying to decide which book to pick up. Then, if the cover was good enough to get  us to pick it up, we judge it again, flipping the book over to read the blurbs on the back.

But who writes these blurbs and why? What do we get from blurbs and are we really getting what we think we’re getting? Follow past the fold and let’s have a look…

With physical books and bookstores, all you are ever likely to see are blurbs written by critics and other authors. Once upon a time, those reviews and quotes from famous people were paramount. But increasingly, I find myself ignoring them, in favour of the more widely available reader reviews. Why? Because quotes from other authors have a built-in bias. Here’s how it works.

Suppose Author A has written book B and asks Famous Author F to write a blurb for him. Ms. F has three options. She can:

  1. write a positive review, which will be featured on the back cover of B
  2. write a negative review, which will never see the light of day anywhere
  3. decline to write a review at all

In practice, option 2 is a waste of everybody’s time, so only 1 and 3 ever really happen. Where does the bias come from? Well, obviously Mr. A is hoping that Ms. F loves his book and says so, but in addition to helping out a fellow author, Ms. F also sees Mr. A’s blurb as a marketing opportunity. For herself. The more blurbs Ms. F writes and gets printed on the covers of other people’s books, the more readers will hear about her. Think about it. If you wanted to get your name in front of 50,000 horror fans, referring to you as an expert judge (and producer) of horror fiction, which would be the better bet? Spending money to place ads in a few horror magazines and journals, or writing a couple of gushing book blurbs to be featured prominently on the covers of other horror novels?

As a means of building an author’s profile, blurbing for other people is gold.

Now, I’m not saying that authors are gaming the system. I’m sure most of them either write something good, focusing on the parts of the book that they liked, or they take option 3 and decline to blurb at all. But whether they actually do so or not, blurb authors have a clear incentive to gloss over the problems in a book, and this bias is one that I (as a potential reader) find difficult to ignore.

Fortunately, the average reader has no such bias. True, that average reader may not be able to articulate the weaknesses of a book with as much clarity and authority as another author working in the field might bring to the party, but we’ve just finished saying that authors never say anything bad in a blurb – so who cares how precisely they might have been able to skewer their subject? They never do.

And then it gets worse. If you read the text of these expert reviews, they rarely employ any of the tools of critiquing that such experts are uniquely qualified to employ. Instead, they say things like, “Great read!” or “Compelling and exciting adventure!” They know that a person standing in a book store deliberating over which book to buy, does not care about “the consistency of the POV voice in Chapter 3” or “the use of limited narrative intimacy to convey a sense of alienation for the antagonist.” Those readers care about exciting plots, vivid characters, despicable villains, and so on.

So, paradoxically, when expert authors write book blurbs, they tend to check their expertise at the door, blurbing from the perspective of the average reader. Sure, the expert blurb might be more eloquently phrased than that of an amateur reader, but what amateurs lack in eloquence, they make up for in a far more useful commodity: balance.

If the characters are wooden, an amateur will say so. If the dialogue seems forced, or the plot seems contrived, they’ll tell you so. But the experts won’t. In the end, author blurbs are just noise – a roomful of writers all chirping about how great each other’s work is, each trying to chirp louder and more often than the next. I suppose it helps sell books – it must, because publishers still do it – but is anybody really swayed by any of this?

So if you’ve ever wondered, that’s why there are no famous author blurbs on Strange Places. We could have solicited them, of course, but we already knew what those would have been: boring congratulatory quotes from other authors who just want to keep their names in circulation. Where’s the fun in that? Instead, we chose to put something on the back that might actually help a reader judge the book: samples of the writing. Funny quotes from inside the book that give you a sense of the tone and style you’ll find within.

After all, if my own writing isn’t enough to make you want to read the book, then tricking you into buying it by having other people exaggerate how great it is hardly seems fair now, does it?

Exploiting the Golden Goose Effect
Putting the spotlight on being IN the spotlight

About the author

Jefferson Smith is a Canadian fantasy author, as well as the founder, chief editor and resident proctologist of ImmerseOrDie. With a PhD in Computer Science and Creativity Systems compounded by a life spent exploring most art forms for fun and profit, he is underqualified in just about everything. That's why he writes.