Should you trust blurbs on the back of books?
One of the many reasons I never want real, live, actual bookstores to disappear from our lives is because browsing through books is one of life’s most enjoyable activities. Even if my night table is stacked to the ceiling with books I should be reading, I can waste hours in a nice little bookstore, glancing through tables of books the owners specifically chose to display, picking up the ones whose covers or titles pique my interest, reading the first page or two . . . and checking to see what kind of blurbs it got.
I admit with only a certain amount of shame that I’m likelier to check out a book that someone has called “sexy” or “fun” or “fast-moving” on the cover and a little less likely to pick up one that’s described as “moving,” or “thoughtful,” or “emotionally devastating.” But that’s just me.
I’ll also make a point of scrutinizing books that boast a blurb from an author I already know and love. If Robin Hobb puts her stamp of approval on a fantasy novel by an unknown author, I may well take give that new author a try. Same with graphic novels and Alan Moore. And if Jane Austen were around to recommend modern women’s fiction, I’d be grabbing at anything she said was worth reading.
The funny thing is, I know better than to trust blurbs. Because . . . you know . . . I write them.
Back in the days before TMZ and Perez Hilton, Spy Magazine was the ruler of snark. Among their regular columns was something called “Logrolling in our time” which called attention to the authors who traded favor for favor and blurbed one another’s books.
I didn’t actually know what the term “logrolling” meant in this context, until my sister who actually wrote for Spy explained it. I also looked it up on Wikipedia and it can actually refer to any quid pro quo exchange of favors, but most often does refer to authors who will trade blurb for blurb.
That’s not to say that every time you read a positive blurb on the cover of a book it means that its author is returning a favor or expecting a future one. No, sometimes the blurber is simply the author’s friend. Or an acquaintance. Or they share an editor in common or an agent. Or they have editors or agents who are friends with each other. Or their first cousins are married to each other. Or they went to the same writing program. Or one of them taught the other at a writing program. Or . . . well, you get the idea.
I’m being overly cynical, of course. There are blurbs that are genuinely from the heart. And most reputable authors won’t put their name on something they truly despise. But you do have to remember that somehow that manuscript got to that well-known (or moderately known) author and that he or she was willing to give up a fair amount of time to read someone else’s manuscript and write something concise and glowing about it. That’s a big favor. Odds are good you need a connection to even get to the place where you can ask for that favor.
Obviously, the bigger the author, the truer that is. I do remember someone once gushing about a very well-known women’s fiction writer: “I didn’t know her but I emailed her and asked her for a blurb and she said yes! She’s the nicest person in the world.” That made an impression because that kind of thing is so rare. Usually the big ones let it be known that they simply don’t have time to read just any book that comes along. In general, you need an “in” with the big names.
So. given that the majority of blurbs are given by people who have some prior connection to the author, how much can you trust them? The answer is somewhat.
Remember how I said above that I look for certain words in a blurb? That works regardless of whose name is below the writing. If you like a “sexy, fun read,” and you see those words on the cover of a book, it doesn’t matter if Helen Fielding or Joe Schmoe wrote the blurb: odds are good the book will deliver something in that vein. (No guarantees of quality, of course, just intention.) I still recommend reading the first couple of pages, but if something calls out to you when you’re looking at a table of books, you might as well answer the call.
Besides, as my nephew once said, “What do you mean, don’t judge a book by its cover? How else are you going to judge it?”