You Can Quote Me … But I’m Not Sure it Will Help

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?

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10 Responses to You Can Quote Me … But I’m Not Sure it Will Help

  1. thelma straw says:

    Nowadays I ignore 300% the glowing tributes by other authors on a book cover! I figure this is usually a way of their getting a little publicity – for many of the books they praise are not worth my time. I DO often find, especially nowadays, that many of the non-top-tier writers are the really great current writers in the kinds of books I cherish!!! They are often small names pubbed by smaller presses and yet they grip me far past suppertime or bedtime!!!! Thelma in Manhattan

  2. MCWriTers says:

    Kieran–I’ve been the grateful recipient of so many generous blurbs from people I admire–Laura Lippman, Michael Connelly, S.J. Rozan, Anne Perry, Gerry Boyle, Archer Mayor–that I have to hope they meant what they said about my writing. I still find it hard to ask for blurbs, and like rely on reviews.

    When the shoe is on the other foot, it is so anxiety-producing, especially when the books aren’t very good. I fear, perhaps because of all the manuscript critiquing I do for students, that I’ve become too critical. So it’s flattering to be asked, and I’ll do it if I have time (which is a huge consideration, since I believe in reading the whole book), and I always wish people wouldn’t ask me.

    I agree with you that movies are much worse. Recently I saw a trailer for a movie that I’d seen, that there were many things in the trailer that weren’t even in the movie. At least we haven’t fallen that far.

    Glad you were able to give the book a good review. It sounds fascinating.

    Readers–what about you? What influences you to want to read a book?


  3. I don’t pay much attention to blurbs other than to see how many names I recognize.

    I haven’t been in the position (yet) to ask for blurbs for my work, but I have written blurbs for other authors and it’s stressful (see a and b above).

    What influences me to read a book — if I’m in a book store, I admit that a cover can get the book in my hand, a write up on the back cover that makes me curious will get me to open the book, and a few scanned paragraphs will decide if I buy or put back on the shelf.

    Online, it’s really being able to see some sample paragraphs of the writing that decides me on whether I’m interested in reading the book or not. All readers, like all people, have different likes and dislikes, so even if all the blurbs for a book shout “read this book!” it just may not be for me.

    So, bottom line, the writing decides me on whether I read a book or not. 🙂

  4. Barb Ross says:

    Like Kieran I was recently asked for my first blurb. It was hard! I kept writing things that sounded like the marketing paragraphs authors are asked to supply for their own book–not quippy, quotable commentary. I finally got it, but I don’t know if it will be used when the book is published in September. (Actually writing this just motivated me to go and look at the author’s website–and there was my quote.)

    I have to say, the Maine Crime Writers have been very generous to me about blurbs. Kaitlyn Dunnett and Sarah Graves both gave their time to read Clammed Up and responded to it. Kate Flora blurbed my first mystery, The Death of an Ambitious Woman.

    I am so grateful, it makes me want to pass it forward. When I can–which is to say when I genuinely like or love the book. And though my endorsement probably (undoubtedly?) won’t sell a single copy–I do hope for that sunny day in the future when it can.

  5. Arlene Kay says:

    I fear that I may become a serial blurber, because I find it difficult to say no, especially to someone I know and like. The 1st time I agreed to blurb, the author stuck my words on a very different, quite dreadful book that I had never read.

    I’m shy about asking for blurbs, but usually solicit them from writers who know my work especially if they have been my instructor.

    Personally, I’m skeptical about book blurbs since I know that friends do favors for friends often without even reading the work in question.

    • Barb Ross says:

      Arlene–what a terrible thing to happen. To take the time to read a book and respond to it thoughtfully and then have the writer stick it on a different book.

  6. Lil Gluckstern says:

    As a reader, I do read the blurbs because I enjoy seeing who has read this book. I like it when I see a favorite and, although I tend to choose books based on a whole myriad of things, a familiar name carries some weight for me. Now I have two new authors to check out.

  7. jt nichols says:

    I read ’em. when my brother’s novel came out (Hull Creek), I was pretty impressed at what Carolyn Chute had to say…

  8. Paul Doiron says:

    Good post, Kieran.

    Like you, I have been a getter and a giver of blurbs. Publishers seem to think that blurbs *do* sell books, especially if the writer is unknown. A blurb can be an additional piece of information that a reader uses to decide to buy a book. I genuinely believe quotes from name writers helped launch my own first novel—but even more important were the pre-publication reviews.

    One important element that hasn’t been touched on here is that, while many readers disregard blurbs as so much log-rolling, they can mean a lot within a publishing house. Excitement for a book in-house usually (although not always) translates into better promotion: even more publicity and marketing dollars. Also keep in mind that sales reps have a lot of titles to push, and they are eager for any additional tools they can use. So a book that appears with lots of great quotes from famous authors gives them confidence which they bring to their discussions with retailers and library buyers.

    Authors often forget that your first audiences are booksellers and librarians. Winning them over is key to building word of mouth for your novel. I think that will remain true for a while even as more and more people skip the middlemen and order books online.

  9. John Clark says:

    Zen thought: Is a cry in the wilderness better than an interview with a mime?

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