Do Blurbs Actually Work?

From CounterCraft:

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Blurbs. Few parts of the publishing process cause more anxiety for writers. As a blurb requester, it’s stressful and a bit pathetic to beg for praise from writers you may have never met. As a potential blurber, the number of requests can be overwhelming and blurbing is always time consuming. Hell writers have been complaining about blurbs since the dawn of, well, blurbs. In the 1930s George Orwell said:

Question any thinking person as to why he ‘never reads novels’, and you will usually find that, at bottom, it is because of the disgusting tripe that is written by the blurb-reviewers…Novels are being shot at you at the rate of fifteen a day, and every one of them an unforgettable masterpiece which you imperil your soul by missing.

While blurbs might suck, it doesn’t follow that blurbs are unimportant or don’t work. About every month I see a writer—sometimes an emerging writer, sometimes a well-published and acclaimed one—ask, “Do blurbs ACTUALLY work?” Typically this is followed by a sentiment like “I’ve never picked up a book in a bookstore and bought a book based on a blurb.” (Note: I wrote a draft of this newsletter, including the above paragraph, a few weeks ago before today’s twitter blurb discourse. This newsletter is not subtweeting anyone specific.)

Do Readers Actually Buy Books Based on Blurbs?

Yes, sometimes. I myself have bought books thanks to blurbs now and then. Recently, I was browsing a translated literature table and saw The Houseguest by Amparo Dávila. I’d never heard of the author, but the book had blurbs from Carmen Maria Machado and Julio Cortázar so I thought, hell, let’s give this author a try! I’m glad I did.

Whenever blurb discourse heats up, plenty of readers say blurbs are a factor. So yes, they can sell books.

At the same time, yes, it is perhaps true that blurbs are rarely the deciding factor. Most likely a potential reader has heard word of mouth recommendations, read reviews, or simply seen the cover all over the place before they even pick up the book to see the blurbs. But that’s actually the point. Most of the work that blurbs do happens long before a customer sees the book on the table.

The blurbs might be what put the book on the table in the first place.

How Blurbs Sell Books

The thing one always has to remember about publishing is that the sheer number of books published each year is enormous. Even ignoring the countless self-published books, there is an avalanche of traditionally published books each month. It’s unending. Because of this, everyone—readers, reviewers, booksellers, etc.—has to find ways to winnow the number down to something manageable. There is simply no possible way a human could read every book published to “decide for themselves” what’s worth reading or promoting or placing on the bookstore shelf. It’s just impossible.

Take for example the “most anticipated” lists that appear in every magazine every year. How are those books picked? It’s not because the list writer has read 100,000 forthcoming 2022 books and picked the best. It’s not that they’ve read 10,000 or even 1,000. They’re reading a tiny fraction of what’s forthcoming and sometimes include books they can’t possible have read because they aren’t in galleys yet.

Blurbs help winnow down the flood. They are only one of many winnowing factors, but they are one of them. To use publishing speak, blurbs especially help with “positioning” a book. Is a debut novel literary horror fiction? A commercial thriller? Meditative autofiction aimed at millennial readers? Blurbs help signal where a book fits in the marketplace and the reader’s shelf. Maybe they aren’t an objective measure of quality, but they’re actually a pretty good measure of a book’s milieu.

Link to the rest at CounterCraft and thanks to Elaine for the tip.

2 thoughts on “Do Blurbs Actually Work?”

  1. I have often contended that the reason people use their phones in bookstores (which bookstores hate) is so that they can get information “beyond the blurb”.

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