Thursday, November 17, 2011

Do Book Blurbs Say Anything?



I've done a lot of thinking over the last few months about book blurbs. Actually, a lot of the thinking on this topic came up at and following Book Expo America, and it's something I've mulled since.

For those of you who don't know, a book blurb is what you see on the cover of a book (or sometimes on the back or inside), where a publication or an author's comments about the book's contents are summed up in one or two tight sentences. The goal's to entice a reader to pick up the book. It sells the book based on a publication or author's reputation -- and for the sake of simplicity, I plan on talking about the author book blurb here and not a publication's blurb.

As the YA market continues to grow, so has the book blurb. At least, these are my observations in the past few years as a librarian. It seems any new author needs a good blurb by a well-respected author in the field; it's a seal of approval. It's a well-known phenomenon that people trust the opinions of their friends and people they respect over research, so it makes sense that blurbs exist and that they're used as a marketing tool. It's word-of-mouth. It's trust.

But my question is and remains, who is the blurb for?

If you break down the idea of a blurb, it's got a few functions: part of it is the writing/publishing field as a whole. It's one of those things authors do for one another. Those who are established work to help new people establish themselves; it's almost a system of networking and mentoring. It's a formality of work, but it's one (I hope) most authors who choose to do it find pleasure and enjoyment in. They get to discover new voices, just like readers do. For a lot of mid-list authors, I suspect blurbing actually helps them, too. Their names get more exposure the more they blurb. It takes a lot of time away from their own writing, but from the marketing/exposure aspect, it's probably worthwhile, especially if the book they blurb ends up doing really well. See the name enough attached to good books, and there's a good reputation to be had.

Outside the writing world, the blurb serves as a selling point to gatekeepers. First, the biggest gatekeeper of all: booksellers. I mean beyond the indies, too. We're talking your box store (singular). There's only so much room on the physical shelf, and that means decision making. Imagine staring at your catalogs and hearing reps trying to sell you on a particular book to add to your store to sell, knowing your goal line is the bottom line and that's it. You've already purchased your front list titles and your best-selling authors, and now you're choosing one book among three. You've never heard of any of these authors and you've checked your database and see you've never held those authors titles in your store before, so you have no prior sales figures to reference. Reading the descriptions of the books only tells you so much, as do the reviews from your typical sources. But, one of the three books has a blurb from, say, Suzanne Collins. She calls the book suspenseful, praising it as one of her favorites of the year. The other two books don't have a blurb or they come from authors you've never heard of. Take a guess which book has a higher chance of being selected?

Selection for librarians isn't all that different from how book sellers do it, except, of course, their end goal is much different. They're not looking at selling a book and making a buck; they're looking at how they can sell a book to a reader based on content, appeal, and a host of factors, including filling holes in a collection so that it's balanced and meets a community's needs and wants. There's also a budget to watch, and sometimes that means making similarly tough decisions as a book seller (though the issue of balance within a library's collection reigns supreme over a store's). I realize I talk from a bit of a place of privilege since I feel like I have a good command of what's out there in the young adult market, and for the titles I'm not aware of -- usually those outside of my favorite genres -- I pick up enough in the review journals to feel I'm meeting the needs of my library. For me, the blurb never even plays into a purchase decision, and I tend to believe this is the case for most librarians. Those who don't go to trade shows or see advance reader copies of books often have no idea there are even blurbs involved. Review journals don't show enough cover images to even make this a factor.

But blurbs come into play in the library in a different way: they're shelf talkers. Face a book out on a display and there's a Cassandra Clare blurb on the cover, chances are it'll catch the attention of one of her fans. Or maybe one of her fans will remember Clare mentioning reading and loving the book. That one sentence cover blurb? The book's gone from the display into their hands and out the door. For the library, it's almost easy reader's advisory. It's a tool.

In the book seller's case, that's meeting a bottom line.



I looked through a ton of blurbs after BEA out of curiosity, and I noticed two interesting trends. The first was that James Dashner and Lauren Kate both blurbed a LOT of books this year. The second, and maybe the more interesting one, was how blurbs are placed on a book. Scroll back to the top of this post and look at the very first cover for Elevent Plague. Is it just me, or is Suzanne Collins's name as big as Jeff Hirsch's? With the blurb in a big black panel, it almost looks like she's actually the author of the book. Same with the Marion book -- his name looks buried, but Stephenie Meyer's name? It stands out.

One of the things book blurbs helps with, at least from the librarian's perspective, is something I touched on a second ago, and that's reader's advisory. We cannot possibly read everything or know everything, and sometimes, these book blurbs can be helpful. James Dashner blurbs a book? Well, his fans will probably enjoy it. Cassandra Clare blurbs a book? Likely going to work well for fans of paranormal or supernatural books. And the new John Green book? That is a book with CROSSOVER APPEAL. I mean, Jodi Picoult blurbed it, and while she certainly has her teen readers (usually already Green fans, in my experience), she's huge among a certain demographic of adult female readers. If Picoult calls Green's book "electric," well. Seems like it's one her readers should pick up, too.

If you thought I wouldn't say it, well, here it is. This is a marketing game, and publishers are playing it really well. The right blurb sells a book, whether for reading pleasure or for cash. The right blurb can launch a career and a reputation. The right blurb can get an unexpected book into the hands of the right people. Marketing is influential.

Here's the thing: do readers care?

Gatekeepers -- and in here I lump book bloggers, authors, librarians, teachers, book sellers, and anyone beyond a casual reader -- are privileged in their knowledge of a market. Part of it is because we need to be to do our jobs well, but the bigger part of it is because we care about it a lot. Emphasis is important. We choose to be knowledgeable. We care a lot about the field, and we care a lot about who is talking up what books.

Taking gatekeepers out of the equation, do blurbs mean much? Are readers really influenced by them? I mentioned above that hypothetically, seeing a blurb by Cassie Clare could snatch the interest of a reader. But I put that in the context of the reader being familiar with Clare and her reputation and perhaps having read Clare talk about the book via her social media presence (marketing and promotion, mostly because Clare wants to talk about good books with other people who want to know about good books, not because she's in it for any financial gain). A casual reader, though, who isn't engaging with Clare on any basis or maybe who hasn't read any of her books -- would that person even notice the blurb? Does it mean anything to them or is it simply more noise on a cover? We've all read those blurbs on movie trailers or restaurant reviews and product reviews and mostly ignored them because, well, they don't mean anything if we have no connection to the source.

I took my questions to the source: my teens. Granted, my teens are a small group of dedicated readers in one semi-rural community. But I asked them what they thought of book blurbs and what value they place in them.

The truth? They didn't pay attention. They told me I thought too much about them because I was a librarian. They just liked to read a good book, period.

Did the book blurbs matter to them? They didn't notice them unless it was an author they really knew and loved.

I mulled these two simple questions and sets of answers for a long time. My teens didn't notice book blurbs because they said they preferred to notice the cover image and titles. A good cover or interesting title catches them. Once they're hooked at that point, they don't care about the other jacket text.

And then I asked what authors they paid attention to. I waited, but they could really only give me one response:



Ellen Hopkins. Which isn't to say they don't trust other authors, of course, but it was the only one that rolled off their tongues. And I don't know if it's because they had any sort of interaction with Hopkins outside the library (she's hugely active on social media) or because they like Ellen's books a lot and want to read more books like them. The assumption then becomes are they reading books because she blurbed them or because they want to read more books like hers? If it's because they want more books like hers, well, maybe they're heading down the path we want them to.

Here's the humor in it all, though: they couldn't recall any books she had blurbed.

During a later book club discussion, when I showed them Reed's book, it wasn't the blurb they noticed at all. It was the girl on the cover. When I book talked it and said it would appeal to them if they liked Hopkin's edgy, raw writing style, they were sold. It wasn't the blurb that sold it. It was the content within the book.

20 comments:

  1. I asked one of my voracious teens, who was walking out with a stack of about six thick books, what kind of books she liked and if she had recommendations, since I'll have a little more money next year. "Oh, I just pick up the ones with interesting covers" she said.

    I have a feeling that's a LOT of my teens.

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  2. That's fascinating! I can see how marketers would think blurbs are good - it makes sense really - but I have to agree with your teens...it's the cover that sells, with or without a blurb. I never really look at them. If I hear something good about the book, I'll read it. If the cover is catchy, I'll read it. Sure, having JOhn Green say a book is FABULOUS may push me in the direction, but I didn't need him to say Huger Games was good to read Hunger Games. (For example.)

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  3. For whatever it's worth, an excerpt from a review journal isn't generally considered a blurb - it's just a review. The author comment solicited prepub is a blurb. Blurb is also a verb; ie, "Lauren Kate blurbed a lot of books this year." This is a highly competitive field, and there's a lot of stress involved - both on the publishing side (Who can we get to give us a blurb? What agent or author owes us a favor?) and the authors' side (Who honestly thinks I'm going to read and blurb 30 manuscripts this month? What can I possibly say about this really lousy book?)

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  4. You are right, Lisa. I conflated the two ideas of the review and the blurb (though the snippet of a review still serves as a blurb).

    That said, this isn't about whether or not there's stress or competition. That's a given. It's about whether or not it does anything for the reader, which I'm not convinced of.

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  5. I forgot to say that I agree that the blurbs are mostly for the middle men - sales reps and store buyers - not the end users. I always check them out of curiosity, just to see exactly how much juice the publisher/editor/agent/author of this particular book happens to have. The number of big-name blurbers on a book has little to do with the contents of the book and lots to do with who asked them to help out. Not that I'm cynical or anything....

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  6. Really excellent post! I definitely think covers carry more weight than blurbs, but blurbs do have their place, and I think you did a great examination of how (and who) blurbs influence, and also how blurbs can benefit the author quoted, as well as the promoted book.

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  7. As a reader I'm fully prepared to trust a review excerpt, as long as it's more than two words long ("Excellent!" could have been "Excellent! If you need to line your birdcage, that is."). I never give credence to the author-generated blurbs. I'm totally polling my teens about this over the next few days.

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  8. I don't usually read reviews before picking a book to read. I like to read them after (except of course when doing selecting, since there are a lot of genres and books I'm not reading). I like knowing how I felt vs. how another reviewer felt, ESPECIALLY in the professional journals.

    As far as the author-generated ones, I pay attention, but more out of the curiosity of the thing than the words themselves. The words are usually pretty inter-changable.

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  9. I don't trust author blurbs. I think they say nothing about the quality of the book. Friends blurb for friends is what I've discovered.

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  10. I don't look at blurbs. They just annoy me because they wreck what could be a beautiful cover. *shrugs*

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  11. As a reader I ALWAYS notice blurbs and I have since before I started blogging. Of course, I don't pay attention unless it's an author whose books I've read, but when I do see a book blurbed by an author whose writing I like, I definitely pick up that book over others.

    I'm always surprised when people say they don't notice/pay attention to blurbs, maybe because they're such a big selling point for me personally.

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  12. No, I really don't pay attention to book blurbs when making purchasing decisions. I think when students see a blurb by, say, Stephenie Meyer, they think, "Oh, this book must be like Twilight." Although, that may not be the case. Interesting thoughts.

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  13. I've also noticed a lot of what Kim said. I think friends blurbing for friends is huge.

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  14. @Jordyn: I suspect even before blogging, you were more than a casual reader though ;)

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  15. I can tell you I've had many readers let me know the reason they picked up a book was because they saw my blurb on the cover. Which is why I've developed a strict blurb policy: Not only must I LOVE the book, but I have to believe my readers will, too. I've turned down some very good books (some by well-established authors)that either I only liked, or thought my readers wouldn't read them all the way through. Thanks for this!

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  16. @Ellen: And THAT is one of the things I think that makes the phenomenon of blurbing in YA lit a really, really different beast than, say, literary fiction. Authors who do it do it because they TRULY BELIEVE the book is good. That builds the trust for readers and for the gatekeepers, and that's huge.

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  17. Blurbs help me decide which books to read if I'm unfamiliar with a title or author. I would absolutely take notice of a book if Ellen had a blurb on it. I only picked up Beautiful Creatures because on the back there are blurbs by Melissa Marr, Holly Black, Cassie Clare, Carrie Ryan, and Michelle Zink. When I first read the book, the only author I was unfamiliar with was Cassie, but I trusted the rest enough to pick up the book. I think Beautiful Creatures is fantastic by the way.

    Blurbs can be turn-offs too though. I hate it when people compare books to Twilight and I'm not a fan of Meyer's books so her blurbs sometimes keeps me away from other books. Though, if a summary entices me enough I will pick it up regardless of who blurbs on it.

    Great post by the way.

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  18. What a fabulous discussion! I loved how all your teens said they didn't notice or care about blurbs. I usually look at them, but they don't sway me either way. Sometimes I'll dislike a book a favorite author blurbed and I'll feel disgruntled. But I get over it.

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  19. I completely agree with your teens. I never bought fiction as a librarian, so I can't speak to it from that aspect, but I can say that I never once paid attention to a blurb. But! I went back and looked at the library book I have (Please ignore Vera Dietz) and the blurb said the book was "funny." Ummm, that gives me a different impression of content from the book inside.

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  20. Such an insightful post! I love that your teens all trust Ellen Hopkins. She is worthy of trusting, in my opinion!

    Personally, I always like seeing who blurbs what, but you're so right that they're more like reader's advisory tools than purchasing influencers.

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