The pre-publication endorsements—“dazzling!” “a masterwork!”—that litter book covers have long been a staple of publishing. Are they of any value or mere relics that deserve to go?
Pulitzer-winning novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen would have preferred that his forthcoming book, The Committed, have no praise-laden blurbs at all, he says. “Kill it. Bury it. Dance on its grave. They create so much work, emotional labor and guilt, whether one is writing one or one is asking for one.”
Often fawning and sometimes composed after only a casual skim of the book, pre-publication endorsements have been an entrenched part of the publishing industry since Ralph Waldo Emerson mailed a little-known Walt Whitman a note about his first poetry collection, Leaves of Grass, in 1855. Sensing an opportunity, Whitman’s publisher emblazoned a standout line from Emerson’s letter on the second edition of the book’s spine in gold letters: “I greet you at the beginning of a great career. RW Emerson.”
As blurbs multiplied, however, the public’s distaste for them also grew. In 1936, George Orwell claimed that “the disgusting tripe that is written by the blurb-reviewers” was causing the public to turn away from novels altogether. “Novels are being shot at you at the rate of fifteen a day,” he wrote in an essay, “and every one of them an unforgettable masterpiece which you imperil your soul by missing.”
“The blurb has become its own idiom, its own genre,” says Brandon Taylor, author of Real Life and the forthcoming story collection, Filthy Animals. “What happens is [blurbers] try to take their enthusiasm for and their enjoyment of the work and turn it into something that can be used as marketing copy. Because the marketplace is so noisy, they’ve got to turn the volume to a 10 just to cut through.”
Hence the impossibly common claim that a book is “a masterpiece,” “life-changing” or “un-put-downable”—an occurrence humorist Fran Lebowitz claimed to have found out the hard way when she bought a book based on the blurb of a writer friend she admired. “It was a horrible book,” she said in the recent Netflix series Pretend It’s a City. She contacted him and gave him a verbal dressing down, she says, asking him to warn her of any bad future books he might blurb.
Orwell, too, sensed what nearly everyone in the contemporary publishing world continues to conclude: As onerous as the blurb process can be, no publisher wants to be the first to do away with it. “They cannot put an end to it for the same reason as the nations cannot disarm—because nobody wants to be the first to start,” he wrote.
“When I see the back of a book where there’s just a whole wall of quotes, it’s very boring and uninteresting to me as a reader,” says Judith Curr, president and publisher of HarperOne Group. “I know that they’re just blurbs that the editors have sent out to the people who are friends with or have had some interaction with the author.”
But will Curr stop publishing blurbs on her imprints’ books? Not anytime soon, she says.
Nguyen, too, eventually received a number of blurbs for The Committed, with Booker-winning novelist Marlon James calling it “a masterwork.”
There may be some upside to blurbs. One study from 2013, conducted by BookTrust, a U.K. reading charity, found that of the 1,500 adults surveyed in England, 40 percent choose what books to buy based on “blurbs/book covers,” more than any other aspect, including professional reviews and recommendations from friends and family. But the combination of blurbs and covers in this survey makes even this statistic a difficult one to rely on. Mostly, publishing insiders see blurbs as more hassle than they’re worth.
“When I see the back of a book where there’s just a whole wall of quotes, it’s very boring and uninteresting to me as a reader”— Judith Curr, president and publisher of HarperOne Group
The process of getting one usually begins well before bound galleys—an uncorrected version of the book—are sent by the publisher’s publicity department to reviewers and influencers. The author, editor and sometimes the agent will share the book, often at the manuscript stage, with a targeted list of notable authors, in the hope that they will lend a few kind words—and, crucially, their name—to the work.
A blurb from a major author can be a publicity coup, such that writers who regularly top bestseller lists are inundated with requests. Gary Shteyngart wrote so many blurbs (over 150 in a decade) that he had to mostly swear off it in 2014, writing, in the New Yorker,“Literature can and will go on without my mass blurbing. Perhaps it may even improve.” Zadie Smith has a self-imposed rule that she only blurbs debut writers. Stephen King, also a frequent blurber of first-time novelists, spotted Gillian Flynn’s talent long before she was known for her bestseller-turned-movie Gone Girl when he blurbed her first book, Sharp Objects. (“To say this is a terrific debut novel is really too mild,” he wrote.) For the established authors in the equation, blurbing is a way both of giving back to a profession that’s been good to them and, ideally, of establishing their trend-spotting bona fides. (Sometimes this backfires, as when a number of authors who blurbed Jeanine Cummins’s American Dirt recanted their praise after the book was criticized for racial insensitivity.)
Even with all the credibility and buzz a blurb can generate, its insider ethos makes getting a strong blurb more about who you know than the quality of the book. In the 1980s, Spy, a now-defunct humor magazine co-founded by Graydon Carter and Kurt Andersen, ran a regular feature called “Logrolling in Our Time,” which showed the incestuousness of blurb culture by juxtaposing the praise of two authors who had blurbed each other. Take, for instance these two blurbs: “ ‘One of our most original voices.’—John Irving on Stanley Elkin’s The Dick Gibson Show,” which was placed next to “ ‘Irving is one of the best’—Elkin on Irving’s The 158-Pound Marriage.”
Positive feedback from a book critic isn’t the same as pre-publication praise from a literary ally, but even the perception of influence-swapping has caused some reviewers to watch their words more carefully. Mary-Kay Wilmers, a co-founder and former top editor of London Review of Books, established a policy of cutting parts of reviews that could be used as future blurbs. “Those are never good sentences,” she said, according to a recent LRB article.
With the power afforded to readers from crowd-sourced reviewing on Amazon and Goodreads, authors have an incentive to watch each other’s backs, to try to nullify the negative reviews with effusive blurbs.
Aaron Hicklin, a writer and owner of One Grand Books in Narrowsburg, New York, has centered his bookstore on the power of the book influencer. He asks well-known authors, actors, musicians, chefs and others, from Gloria Steinem to Gabrielle Union to Ta-Nehisi Coates, to “guest curate” his store, listing the 10 books they’d take to a desert island and using their responses to determine what he stocks. (No one has ever chosen their own book, Hicklin says, though among those selected by George Saunders was the novel The Distance Home by his wife, Paula Saunders.)
“I’m not really as subject to having to make those decisions around which books to bring in, because they’re made for me by the people I’ve asked,” Hicklin says. “It’s a powerful organizing principle.”
Some see the blurb as a way of raising the profiles of historically disenfranchised people who might otherwise slip under the radar. “I want to help spread the word widely for debuts and marginalized folks,” says Linda A. Duggins, senior director of publicity at Grand Central Publishing. “Sometimes the blurbs are very, very helpful, especially when they come from people who are not so much from the same exact space as the author.”
Other times, however, blurbs reinforce the hegemony of the literary establishment. “Authors latch onto what they know and who they know,” says Regina Brooks, founder and CEO of Serendipity Literary Agency. “Oftentimes that means classism and marginalization.”
“Can blurbs help illuminate authors?” asks Nguyen. “Yes, but if the publishing industry really wants to illuminate marginalized authors, it should publish more of them.”