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I Greet You in the Middle of a Great Career: A Brief History of Blurbs

3 February 2012

From The Millions:

Let’s be clear: blurbs are not a distinguished genre. In 1936 George Orwell described them as “disgusting tripe,” quoting a particularly odious example from the Sunday Times: “If you can read this book and not shriek with delight, your soul is dead.” He admitted the impossibility of banning reviews, and proposed instead the adoption of a system for grading novels according to classes, “perhaps quite a rigid one,” to assist hapless readers in choosing among countless life-changing masterpieces. More recently Camille Paglia called for an end to the “corrupt practice of advance blurbs,” plagued by “shameless cronyism and grotesque hyperbole.” Even Stephen King, a staunch supporter of blurbs, winces at their “hyperbolic ecstasies” and calls for sincerity on the part of blurbers.

The excesses and scandals of contemporary blurbing, book and otherwise, are well-documented. William F. Buckley relates how publishers provided him with sample blurb templates: “(1) I was stunned by the power of [ ]. This book will change your life. Or, (2) [ ] expresses an emotional depth that moves me beyond anything I have experienced in a book.”

. . . .

If you needed beach reading in ancient Rome, you’d probably head down to the Argiletum or Vicus Sandaliarium, streets filled with booksellers roughly equivalent to London’s Paternoster Row. But how to know which books would make your soul shriek with delight? There was no Sunday Times; newspaper advertising didn’t catch on for another 1,700 years, and neither did professional book reviewers. Aside from word of mouth, references in other books, and occasional public readings, browsers appear to have been on their own.

Almost. Evidence suggests that booksellers advertised on pillars near their shops, where one might see new titles by famous people like Martial, the inventor of the epigram (nice one, Martial). It’s safe to assume that even in the pre-codex days of papyrus scrolls, a good way to assess the potential merits of Martial’s book would have been to read the first page or two, an ideal place for authors to insert some prefatory puff. Martial begins his most well-known collection with a note to the reader: “I trust that, in these little books of mine, I have observed such self-control, that whoever forms a fair judgment from his own mind can make no complaint of them.” Similar proto-blurbs were common, often doubling as dedications to powerful patrons or friends. The Latin poet Catullus: “To whom should I send this charming new little book / freshly polished with dry pumice? To you, Cornelius!” For those who weren’t the object of the dedication, these devices likely served the same purpose that blurbs do today: to market books, influence their interpretation, and assure prospective readers they kept good company.

. . . .

In the 1600s practically everyone wrote commendatory verses, some of which were quite beautiful, like Ben Jonson’s for Shakespeare’s First Folio: “Shine forth, thou Star of Poets, and with rage / Or influence, chide or cheer the drooping stage, / Which, since thy flight from hence, hath mourned like night, / And despairs day, but for thy volume’s light.” (Interestingly, Shakespeare himself never wrote any — one can only imagine what a good blurb from the Bard would have done for sales.)

. . . .

Perhaps the best [18th century] example is Samuel Richardson’s wildly successful Pamela, an epistolary novel about a young girl who wins the day through guarding her virginity. Richardson made excellent use of prefatory puff, opening his book with two long reviews: the first by French translator Jean Baptiste de Freval, the second unsigned but likely written by Rev. William Webster, which first appeared as pre-publication praise in the Weekly Miscellany, one of Britain’s earliest periodicals.

Hyperbole? “This little Book will infallibly be looked upon as the hitherto much-wanted Standard or Pattern for this kind of writing”; “The Honour of Pamela’s Sex demands Pamela at your Hands, to shew the World an Heroine, almost beyond example…”

. . . .

Witness the advent of two recent innovations in paperback design: the blap and the blover (rhymes with cover).

The blap is a glossy page covered in blurbs that immediately follows the front cover. In deference to its importance, the width of the cover is usually reduced, tempting potential readers with a glimpse of the blap, and perhaps even accommodating a conveniently placed blurb that runs along the length of the book.

The blover is essentially a blap on steroids, literally a second book cover, made from the same cardstock, that serves solely as a billboard for blurbs. Blovers are not yet widespread, but given the ubiquity of blaps it is only a matter of time.

Link to the rest at The Millions and thanks to Elizabeth for the tip.


18 Comments to “I Greet You in the Middle of a Great Career: A Brief History of Blurbs”

  1. Oh my, now I want a blap of my own.

  2. Unfair! I want a blap for my ebooks!

    (With foil and embossing too!)

  3. And I keep thinking about the fun I could have if a publicist ever handed me a template.

    (1) I was stunned by the power of [this book once I set it on fire and used it fuel my car. Treacly excrement will do that, you know, although it could have exploded and wiped out an entire city, and then I would have felt really, really bad.]

  4. So if those are blurbs, what do you call the bit on the back the tells you a bit about the book and usually reveals the single most important plot point?

    • *that

    • Well, I usually call it “annoying”….

    • Some people call everything in the book other than the pieces the author wrote a blurb. Others limit the term to the hypes by other people.

      Deciding this question is one of the great issues of our day. 🙂

      • I always called the back-summary the “blurb,” even if I’m writing it myself! I suspect the word has been mangled from when I learned it, umpty years ago.

        I’ll keep calling the other parts “hype,” methinks. 🙂

    • Blurb is fine, but if you want to separate it from other kinds of blurbs, call it a logline or pitch.

      • This has been driving me bats all day (as if I need much of an excuse to get distracted, heh).

        My editors always called it (“it” being the copy on the back of a paperback novel) back cover copy, or a blurb. Except blurb, actually is the little promo stuff (according to a few online dictionaries). I’ve heard others call description back matter or end matter, but that’s not right either, since that’s been in use for a long time to describe the stuff like indexes and appendices that go after the text. Maybe I’m looking in the wrong places, but I can’t find any specific term that describes the actual book description printed on the outside cover.

        Since that we have blurbs, blaps and blovers, maybe the actual description should be called blather.

        That would work for me.

        • “I can’t find any specific term that describes the actual book description printed on the outside cover.”

          I used to write that, and we just called it jacket copy.

          • Mary, I’m reminded of a conversation I had with an editor. She was explaining to me why hardcover books really cost so much more than paperbacks. She said, “And the book jacket jackets are very expensive.”
            I said, “The what?”
            “The book jacket jackets that go around the book.”
            “The dust cover?”
            “Yeah, exactly. The book jacket jacket.”

        • Good one. I almost daren’t read blathers any more. They’re suppose to help you decide if you want to read the d*mn thing, but more often than not they just spoil it. It’s not fair.

  5. This is awesome!

    IIRC, in the 1700s they published using what was called the subscription system. Originally, the idea was that a printer wanted to know that he could sell a certain number of copies before he would print the book, so before it could come out the author had to run around getting people to “subscribe”–i.e. promise to buy the book (or they’d actually buy it in advance at a discount).

    But eventually it became more of a marketing thing, because if, say, you got the Prince of Wales to subscribe to your book, that was a huge endorsement. Big numbers of subscribers were good too, but more as a marketing tool than to reach a set number of pre-sales. So the first few pages of the book were a list of subcriberers, with the names of any celebrity/royal subscribers in big print at the top of the list.

    • Mary – I just want you to know that the Prince of Wales is a huge fan of mine, but he can’t acknowledge it publicly. 🙂

  6. A famous writer from our town used to brag about “delivering the goods” for her publishers without bothering to read the novels sent her, which she imagined were practically unreadable in some cases.

    Blurbs that show the connectedness of writers, especially to MFA programs, are actually useful when judging whether to pick up a book (answer: at your own risk). SPY magazine used to run a hilarious “logrolling” feature, showing the blurbs alongside the connections between blurber and writer (mother-in-law, boss, employee, etc.).

    Of course, if a Pulitzer Prize-winning author agreed to blurb my books, I wouldn’t give her a quiz to see if she’d actually read the things. I’d just say “yeah, baby!”

    • Rebecca – If you look in the right column, you can find lots of New York Dimes Bestsellers to blurb your book.

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