Some Unconventional Advice About How to Write the D*mn Blurb

From Anne R. Allen’s Blog… with Ruth Harris:

Your blurb (aka Production Description on Amazon) has one — and only one — purpose:  to make the reader an offer s/he can’t refuse.

How do I know?

Because over the years, I’ve written hundreds — more likely thousands — of blurbs.

From the slush pile to the editor’s office.

When I started out in publishing at Bantam, my first assignment was to slog through the slush pile.

The second? Write the d*mn blurbs.


Because no one else wanted to.

I was clueless and inexperienced, but I learned right away that the “real editors” (unlike novice moi) didn’t like (hated) writing blurbs.

Not knowing any better or even what to do, and too intimidated to ask for advice, I studied the company’s current releases. I paid special attention to:

1— the front cover tag line

2 — the back cover sell block

3 — the first page (more sell text)

When I finished emulating them as best I could, I was required to take my efforts to my boss, the Managing Editor, a savvy old-timer, for his OK. We met in his office almost every morning when he would go over my attempts and show me in word-by-word detail how my blurbs could be improved.

Which was by a lot.

. . . .

Those blurbs went through draft after draft until the ME was satisfied, and I was unleashed on the next month’s list. And so it went, book after book, month after month, year after year.

I learned to write headlines, how to use reviewers’ quotes to their best advantage, how to write short, appealing sell blocks.

I wrote blurbs for genres ranging from westerns (Louis L’Amour anyone?) to nurse romances, from to scifi to classics, from horror and thrillers, from gothic suspense (remember Victoria Holt?) to mysteries, and big-ticket mmpb reprints of hardcover bestsellers to which Bantam had acquired the rights.

. . . .

After the ME retired, I endured an epically neurotic and insecure EIC who stroked his mustache and agonized over whether compelling or fascinating was preferable.

After lengthy consideration, he would — finally! — make a decision.

The next day, he’d require me to rewrite the d*mn thing again. Under his direction, I’d swap compelling with unforgettable and, after the obligatory period of extended anguish, he’d finger his mustache and bestow his approval.

And back again the day after that, when he would reverse his second opinion and I would have to replace unforgettable with memorable.

He would hem and haw, dither and dawdle, furrow his brow, and pull at his mustache while I wracked my brain for another synonym for whatever adjective was currently causing him such psychic pain.

In the end, only the demands of the printer’s stringent deadlines forced him to eventually make a decision.

Link to the rest at Anne R. Allen’s Blog… with Ruth Harris

One of the main benefits that traditional publishers say they offer authors
is marketing and promotion expertise.

PG will note that none of the individuals mentioned in the OP gives any
indication that they had any training, experience or background that suited
them for writing advertising copy, which is what a blurb is.

Does a literature degree prepare one to write compelling advertising copy?
Does a creative writing degree prepare one to write compelling advertising

PG thinks not.

A very long time ago, PG worked for a massive advertising agency with
clients spending many millions of dollars for compelling advertising. Fall
short in that task and the agency lost the account to another agency that did a
better job. If the agency lost an account, people expected to be fired.

PG was not in the creative department, but he worked with people in the
creative department because he was responsible for talking with the client
about what the client was looking for and making sure the client would be happy
with what the agency produced.

During that time, PG worked with copywriters who wrote copy for print ads,
billboards, television commercials, etc.

PG thought he was a pretty good writer, but these folks were writing
geniuses. They always had limited space (billboards, for one example) limited
time (for television and radio commercials), but the most important challenge
they had to overcome was limited attention span on the part of people who would
be reading what they wrote.

The agency had conducted studies concerning consumer attention spans for
advertising materials. PG doesn’t remember specifics, but the bottom line was
that an advertisement had only a low-single-digit number of seconds to engage a
reader/viewer, etc. Failure meant the consumer’s attention went somewhere else,
and the advertisement did no good for the client. If there were many failures,
the client went somewhere else and management took a close look at the people
involved in the failure to keep the client satisfied.

Everybody involved would have been fired if a brand-new copywriter was assigned
to write advertising copy for anything more than the in-house announcement of
the Agency Christmas Party without going through a serious learning curve
working with a very experienced copywriter. PG doesn’t ever remember the agency
hiring anyone to write copy straight out of college. It was more efficient to
watch for good copywriters at smaller agencies and pirate the best who were
already trained.

One final point: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Salman Rushdie, Dorothy Sayers, Don
DeLillo, Joseph Heller and Helen Gurley Brown each worked as advertising
copywriters early in their careers .


11 thoughts on “Some Unconventional Advice About How to Write the D*mn Blurb”

  1. Bill Gaddis was also an advertising executive, so brevity… not so inevitable (The Recognitions).

    I will cautiously disagree with one implication of the OP: Yes, one needs to grab a prospective customer’s attention quickly. But don’t do it with a misrepresentation (as distinct from “mere puffery,” and I’d love to strangle the early-twentieth-century con artists who developed that theory!). And this is particularly an issue when the product is something that needs to directly engage the customer’s mind… like a book. There is almost nothing that, umm, irritates heavy readers more than truly deceptive blurbs, because we know the signs. If you get my attention for the wrong reason (especially if it’s a blurb produced by someone who didn’t read the book), you just might not like the consequences. Exhibit A: Marion Zimmer Bradley and her blurbing practices (which weren’t just at the end of her life) resulted in my wholesale rejection of both books blurbed by her from the mid-1980s on… and skepticism toward her publisher (and I was far from alone in that).

    • Indeed.
      The same is true for cover art, which has been discussed here repeatedly.
      Grabbing people’s attention is important but reaching the right audience is more so.
      Misrepresentation might gain you one sale but lose you a customer forever.

      (Btw, which of the Bradley books did you wrong? One of the early ACE titles or a latter DAW book? I suspect the former.)

      • More than one, Felix, and counsel sayeth further not because the matter later came inside of representation of… well, even disclosing that is probably inside the scope of the nondisparagement clause that I vehemently opposed but my client wanted things over.

        I should add that Ace and DAW have the same RPIs (real parties in interest) in control, notwithstanding the… posturing.

        • I was thinking of the ACE of the 60’s vs the DAW of the 70’s. (Even though Don Wolheim was involved in both places.)

          In her ACE days, MZB sold stories (under the 3chapters and summary approach, presumably) that turned out to be more than a bit different that what she proposed. Not bad, in fact they were quite good (SWORD OF ALDONES got a HUGO nomination), just idiosyncratic; not straight SF, not fantasy, but with elements of both. Writing blurbs for those books in those days would’ve been a strain.

          Eventually it didn’t matter after the DARKOVER brand exploded.

    • Agreed. Customers won’t forgive you if you lie about what it is you’re promoting.

      Plus, it’s dead simple to return ebooks to Amazon.

  2. My personal opinion is that the vast majority of advertising is wasted, anyway; in most cases, the product quality matters more (word of mouth advertising – if your new WhizBangMobile car is a lemon, you’re very unlikely to buy another car from them OR recommend them to your friends). Of course, this depends on the market (more important when selling a car than selling lipstick).

    Culture, age, and market make a huge difference, too.

    Selling industrial machinery is very different from selling consumer goods.

    Selling to consumers or industrial customers in China or Germany is very different from selling to consumer or industrial customers in the US.

    Selling to teens is different from selling to retirees.

    • There is the old story about the VP of marketing at a large consumer goods company who said, “I know that half of my advertising is a waste of money and does nothing to sell my products. The problem is, I don’t know which half that is.”

    • There’s advertising and there is advertising.
      Sometimes an ad will directly sell a product, sometimes it will sell a brand, sometimes a category, and sometimes an idea. That first type is the smallest category.

      Look at Apple, spending hundreds of millions a year to promote pretty much everything but a specific product. Their brand loyalty is such they can get away with things like “you’re holding it wrong” with zero bottom line impact.

      You’ll see similar effects from car advertising, most brands of booze, and fancy european perfumes. The benefits aren’t directly attributable to specific ads but they are real; switching style or approach can produce noticeable effects, sometimes positive, sometimes negative.

      Thing is, as PG pointed out, advertising isn’t predictable.
      What works for one client or one market, will totally fail in another, but the best agencies deliver. How? Why?
      “It’s a mystery.”

      • Brand-focused advertising is consumer focused advertising.

        On the other hand, I don’t choose an industrial servo motor based on brand. Brand advertising doesn’t matter; previous experience with the company matters, along with the product specs, availability, quality, and price.

        And even in the consumer space, experience with the company outweighs brand advertising. Maybe the best way to say it is, advertising can get a pet owner to try the dog food, but it can’t make the dog like it.

        • Methinks you’re still conflating product advertising with the other varieties. It’s not all about selling, be it products or brands. It can be about activities or even feelings. And it’s not all about money. Ideas and concepts can be the subject of advertising too.

          Think of advertising as the business of distributing *ideas*–via stills or 30 second stories–to influence people’s thinking. And maybe, down the road, their actions.

          Try this Sony ad for the “Playstation 9”:

          They weren’t promoting the PS3 or any game, they were promoting the *idea* that gaming takes you to new worlds, new experiences. They were “selling” the act of gaming, trying to draw in non-gamers, under the idea that the more people game, the more will buy Playstation.

          MLB has long had a series of ads promoting the game to kids. Not to the parents and not to get them to go to the park or watch on TV, but to *play* the game, in the hope that today’s kids will be tomorrow’s MLB stars. (Remember the “chicks dig the long ball” campaign?) The purpose is to maintain a vibrant employee pool for the next generation.

          This is similar to the Army’s “BE ALL THAT YOU CAN BE” ads and the SPACE FORCE “GUARDIANS WANTED” campaign. They’re “selling” the idea that military service can be a fullfilling career. (Which it is for many.)

          Or how about anti-smoking and anti-vaping PSA’s targetting young people? Where do those come from?

          For that matter, a lot of today’s “news” media is about ideological advertising and a lot of books, including some of the best ever, are about selling specific ideas and viewpoints, some subtly (say, STARSHIP TROOPERS or FOUNDATION) some sledgehammering readers (ATLAS SHRUGGED, among many).

          Advertising has a few things to teach to writers is you only pay attention to their tricks. A couple years back, PG ran a piece here about one of the all-time greatest ads, “Somewhere west of Laramie.”

          See below:

          • Somewhere west of Laramie:


            “Somewhere west of Laramie there’s a broncho-busting, steer-roping girl who knows what I’m talking about. She can tell what a sassy poiny, that’s a cross between greased lightning and the place where it hits, can do with eleven hundred pounds of steel and action when he’s going high, wide and handsome. The truth is—the Playboy was built for her. Built for the lass whose face is brown with the sun when the day is done of revel and romp and race. She loves the cross of the wild and the tame. ”

            It was all about evoking emotions and feelings, selling the idea of what we now call off-roading, the sizzle instead of tbe steak.

            A good blurb can and should do that for a book, distill the idea of the book into a sentence or paragraph.

            Some authors have gone further, doing trailers for a book (covered here a couple times) and even rarer, actual TV ads. (Way back in 1987, Piers Anthony so believed in his SHADE OF THE TREE. He paid out of his own pocket for a TV ad. It mostly ran late night but it ran for quite a while.)

            Again: willing authors can learn a thing or two about storytelling from ads.

Comments are closed.