Kieran Shields here, thinking about author blurbs today — those quotes from other writers that you see on a book jacket. I suspect that I’m the same as many book buyers when I glance at the quotes. Generally, I lend more credence to a review by a reputable media source. Perhaps I’ll take note if there’s praise from an author whose work I enjoy. But otherwise, these author quotes are so commonplace that I don’t pay too much attention. It’s hard to scan a bookstore shelf without being inundated by all the glowing praise that leaps from the various covers. It’s almost gotten to the point of collapsing into a form of white noise.
It’s certainly hasn’t fallen to the same low point as many movie commercials. For films, you used to at least hear the voice-over declare that Siskel & Ebert or some other trusted reviewer had vouched for the film. Nowadays, we just get stand-alone adjectives pasted across the screen in gigantic fonts, usually requiring a pause button and a microscope to see the fine-print name of some random person or website willing to declare each and every single movie coming out to be one of the “best/funniest/most thrilling” films of the year.
The last time I put much thought into author blurbs was about two years ago when my first book was being prepared for publication. Since I didn’t personally know any other published writers at the time, my agent and editor were the ones who rustled up a couple of quotes by successful authors. I was deeply grateful to those individuals for taking the time to read my book and comment on it. Perhaps I’m being naïve, but I assumed they were sincere when they praised my novel. But I can certainly understand the perception that author quotes in general are likely to be coming from the writer’s friends or acquaintances in the business and, therefore, may not be entirely genuine and reliable.
So why am I thinking about blurbs so much now? Last week the shoe finally landed on the other foot. I received an unexpected, paperback-sized package in the mail. I was a bit confused to see an advance copy of a new novel, Rustication, by an author I wasn’t overly familiar with, Charles Palliser. Truth be told, I was a bit confused to see an advance copy of any book other than one of my own. I’ve never been asked to provide a blurb for another writer. I assumed if anyone did ask for a blurb from me, it would be someone I knew. I was relieved that wasn’t the case here since it took care of one concern that leaps to mind when I consider blurbing.
Among those concerns are (a) whether I’ll like the book at all; (b) if I don’t, will I have to pretend to in order to avoid offending my friend/fellow author; and (c) will my name and opinion have even the slightest impact on that book’s sales.
Never having met Charles Palliser prevented (b) in the above list of concerns. It only took a few pages to convince that (a) wouldn’t be a problem here either. Rustication is a masterfully plotted and written Victorian Gothic novel featuring an unreliable, opium-addicted narrator who’s frantically trying to unravel a series of crimes and threatening letters (featuring lots of not-suitable-for-work language), all leading toward an inevitable murder in which he may or may not be the prime suspect. Highly recommended.
That left only concern (c): Will my review really be of any value to Charles Palliser? His first novel, Quincunx, came out in 1989 and sold over a million copies. Now I’m no math whiz, but that’s somewhere around a million more copies than my first novel sold. It’s likely more people could see my name on his book than saw it on my own book. My own case aside, does anyone really pay attention to author’s quotes (except when the reviewing author is named Steven King?) Are most of these quotes even worth the effort of getting in the first place? I suspect it may just be they’ve become expected window dressing, something that’s hardly noticed unless it’s missing and maybe, just maybe, they help a little, so now they’ve been deemed necessary.
I’m wondering what others think about author blurbs. Would you hesitate to buy a book with no positive reviews on the cover? Are they persuasive at all or do you take them with a big, fat grain of salt?