“I greet you at the beginning of a great career.”
How nice of Ralph Waldo Emerson to say this in 1855 to the then, relatively unknown, Walt Whitman, who sent Emerson his unsolicited *gasp* manuscript, Leaves of Grass. It's said to be the first book blurb ever written. It appeared in gold-leaf lettering on the spine of the Whitman’s book that came out the following year. It wasn’t until 1907 when American author Gelett Burgess wrote, Are You a Bromide? and coined the word blurb by featuring a woman on the cover he called Miss Belinda Blurb, who testified to the book’s greatness.
Where are we today with book blurbs?
Do they work? According to this NPR article, the jury is still out, and many publishers, like Hachette Book Group's CEO, Michael Pietsch, have their own theory. He says blurbs are used by agents to entice publishers, not so much the readers. With roughly 300,000 books published a year, a glowing endorsement from a well-known wordsmith can go a long way with a potential publisher.
I tend to think some book blurbs are a bit over-the-top. Some readers have called them “overwritten and unbelievable.” We’ve gone from compelling, enthralling, and delightful, to transcendent, dazzling, and sweeping. One book apparently induced pulmonary conditions because the blurber had to “ . . . remind myself to breathe.” Others go beyond: “ . . . every page bears witness to the deepest longing of the human heart.” And what if someone said this about your novel?: “ . . . most powerful, shattering, and unflinching story . . . To read it is to have yourself taken apart, undone, touched at the place of your own essence; it is to be turned back, as if after a long absence, into a human being.”
Wow. (Just FYI: if someone of influence ever said that about my book—whether they meant it or not—I’d build them a shrine.)
Okay, but as a reader? Doesn’t it induce some eye rolling? Frankly, I think readers are more likely to read a book based on a friend’s recommendation, rather than Stephen King’s or Neil Gaiman’s. A lot of bestselling authors are eschewing this practice of handing out these sugary sentiments like . . . well, candy, and are turning to Twitter and other social media outlets to sing the praises of books they enjoyed. Author Jennifer Weiner says that method is more spontaneous and honest, and feels less forced and less encumbered.
Author Gary Shteyngart, called the Baron of Blurbs, has written over 150 of them. His criteria is simple: “I look for the following: two covers, one spine, at least 40 pages, ISBN number, title, author’s name. Once those conditions are satisfied, I blurb. And I blurb hard.” He has since retired from the blurb business, but you can read a full list of his notable quotes that Weiner says are “a thing to behold, soaring past quotidian praise to the level of performance art.”
How important do you think blurbs are for writers? And for readers?