A favor economy
November 18, 2023 1:36 AM   Subscribe

While there’s nothing inherently wrong with relying on praise from authors and notable figures to decide which books are worthy of industry attention, most authors secure blurbs not based on the merit of their work alone, but rather who they know. And as is the case in all walks of life, who you know is often directly linked to the level of privilege you carry within that community. In this way, blurbs can demonstrate which authors are the most connected within the industry, perhaps more than whether or not a book is actually “luminous.” from 'A Plague on the Industry': Book Publishing's Broken Blurb System [Esquire; ungated]

Blurbs previously
posted by chavenet (27 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Former bookseller Sarah Cahill told me that in her 15 years of buying for large bookseller chains, she often relied on blurbs to decide which titles would appeal to customers.

This person is not a bookseller; this person had a job where they put product, which happened to be books) on shelves.
posted by GenjiandProust at 2:35 AM on November 18 [11 favorites]

'A Plague on the Industry': Book Publishing's Broken Blurb System

If nothing else, that is a great title.
posted by fairmettle at 2:52 AM on November 18 [4 favorites]

Great article; a must-read!
posted by TedW at 3:38 AM on November 18 [7 favorites]

This really is a good article.

-- Guy Who Has Read Dozens of Articles About Blurbs
posted by cupcakeninja at 4:57 AM on November 18 [9 favorites]

More seriously, yes, this really does hit the angles. Thank you, chavenet!

As someone who reads approximately 50 books a year and relies heavily on book blurbs from more than just marquee authors to decide what to read next, I know the purchasing power of seeing your favorite author gush about a previously unknown author’s book—and that’s with my existing knowledge that blurbs are a rigged system.

A thousand times yes. I know just how terrible, faulty, and dishonest the blurb system can be, but every once in a while I still am surprised into being interested in a book based on a blurb.

Any lingering doubts I had about the blurb system being helpful (to me as as a reader) ended some years ago when I picked up a novel from a new-ish author who'd been blurbed by everyone in or adjacent to my little publishing pool. The blurbs were glowing, the reviews and blog posts and social media posts amazing. And, in fact, not only did I not like it, but the book simply was not good. Not terrible, but resoundingly mediocre. That sentiment was borne out by poor sales and poor reviews from presumably less-biased readers. Why were the blurbs so good? The author was and is by all accounts and very nice, pleasant person who's a good literary citizen and is heavily connected. Since then, I've basically tried to ignore blurbs and just follow my nose.
posted by cupcakeninja at 5:17 AM on November 18 [4 favorites]

I only blurb books I like because it's my fucking name on the cover, along with the author's, and I'm not going to mess with my own reputation just to be nice. Also, if I'm directly blurbing a book, I will, in fact, read the thing, because, see above. I will sometimes give a general endorsement of an author whose work I perennially enjoy; I feel that's within bounds (see the covers of the recent repackaging of Ann Leckie's Imperial Radch series for an example of this). But even then, it's based on actually being knowledgeable about the material.

My set-up for blurbing is thus:

1. I require blurb requests to come through editors/publicists, and will automatically turn down direct requests from the authors themselves (and yes, this policy is on my site and has been for years). This substantially mitigates the whole "I don't want to tell an author I don't want to blurb their book" issue.

2. I make it clear to the editor/publicist that the blurb is highly contingent on my schedule, which is (usually) packed with my own writing responsibilities, and that their request files in at the back of the line of a (usually) long list of other books under blurb consideration. A lot of blurb requests go unfulfilled simply because I don't have enough time.

3. If I'm at the point where I have as many blurb requests as I can handle, I will take a "blurbing hiatus" to clear out the backlog and also to give myself a little breathing room. I am in fact on a blurbing hiatus right now, through the end of the year. I find posting about it on my site useful because then I can send the link to the editor/publicist and they'll know I'm not making up the excuse just to say "no" to them.

One of the advantages of only blurbing books I've read and liked is that it relieves the author of any sense of obligation or favor to me - I didn't do it to pocket their appreciation to be redeemed at a later time, and I don't need anything from them. They already "paid" me by writing a book I enjoyed, and when I enjoy a book, I want to talk about it anyway. If that happens to be on the cover of that book, so much the better. There's no noblesse oblige on my part; if anything, it's me being a fan.

As someone who has now been in the science fiction community of fans and writers for two decades now (and who was once the president of SFWA), it's not surprising that I will blurb the works of people I know and people who are friends. That said, I do also make an effort to read and consider for blurbage work from people who I don't know, including newer and debut authors. One recent book from an author new to the genre I agreed to read mostly because it took place in the Eastern San Gabriel Valley of Los Angeles, which where I grew up; I was curious to see how the author would capture a place I knew from my youth. As it turns out, she did a tremendous job with that, and with the book generally, and I was happy to give it blurb. The book was Light From Uncommon Stars, by Ryka Aoki, which went on to great success, including a Hugo nomination. To be clear, the book would have gone on to great success without my blurb. The point for me was, this was a book that gave me joy, and I was happy to let people know that.

I don't expect that everyone will like a book I blurb; that's unrealistic. But at the very least, I want people to know that if my name is on the cover of a book, it's there because the book (or the author's work generally) made me happy as a reader. That's it, that's all. And that's enough.
posted by jscalzi at 6:28 AM on November 18 [38 favorites]

Came to the thread to see jscalzi's expected entry, was not disappointed, either in its presence or its content.

As a counterexample, I think all SF/Fantasy readers of a certain age remember Piers Anthony having a blurb on pretty much every fucking book on the shelves. Quite apart from him being specifically problematic as a person, I also have to believe that this was exactly the kind of insider quid pro quo that the article alleges. I strongly doubt he was reading all those books.
posted by notoriety public at 8:11 AM on November 18 [4 favorites]

Who knew that people relied on blurbs? I've always assumed they were paid to shill and gave the author who wrote them a bit of extra cash. You learn something new every day.
posted by evilDoug at 8:42 AM on November 18 [1 favorite]

I was actually sitting next to [reasonably famous and successful] author when another [less known but perhaps every bit as good] author brought up the "problem" of a certain blurb that had been requested but still hadn't been delivered. It was a weird and uncomfortable moment between two "friends". I put friends in quotes because who knows? They were certainly friendly with each other, but this particular issue was clearly making both uncomfortable, illuminating a power differential that rather runs contrary to any definition I know of for friendship.

In the end, I guess, it's all just good business.
posted by philip-random at 8:43 AM on November 18 [1 favorite]

without blurbs, “The burden would be on the catalog copy, cover art, and trade reviews to really carry their weight in making a title land. I think truly, if we all stripped the blurbs away at once, we have plenty of other mechanisms to work with that are already in place.
Aah, so we should judge a book by its cover!

More seriously, while I understand that using a system of personal connections is likely to perpetuate inequities and that that’s problematic, the above proposed solutions, and the others in the article, just move the problem around. You move from personal connections to (even) more reliance on gatekeepers who, as experience has so long taught us, have deep and abiding problems and biases of their own.

Whether or not A/B testing would show if blurbs work on the public it seems fairly clear that they work as signaling inside the book selling world, and given the sheer volume of published work something is going to be used as guide; we had better hope that the replacement is not even more pernicious than the current flawed system.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 8:46 AM on November 18 [1 favorite]

Can we all just take a moment to appreciate the beauty of the word "blurb"? And just think, we owe it to Miss Belinda Blurb, captured here in the act of blurbing.
posted by phooky at 9:22 AM on November 18 [4 favorites]

I mean, have you seen Janice Meredith faded to a mauve magenta? I sure haven't!
posted by phooky at 9:25 AM on November 18 [1 favorite]

A bookstore near me invites readers to go on a "blind date with a book", in which they have wrapped the book in brown paper and written their own pithy descriptions. It's the opposite of the blurb by a well known author or fancy art and they have a refund policy if you've already read it.

Speaking of judging a book by its cover, Metafilter's Own™ cstross answered the question why did you pick such an awful cover for your new book? (tl;dr: "not the author's job", plus lots of other reasons)
posted by autopilot at 9:37 AM on November 18 [4 favorites]

I propose that we switch to a system of made-up blurbs from famous authors:

"Too short. Not enough characters." - Leo Tolstoy

"It was the best of books, it was the worst of books." - Charles Dickens

"It is a truth universally acknowledged that a reader, in possession of $29.95, must be in want of this book." - Jane Austen

"Take it slowly. This book is dangerous!" - Dr. Seuss
posted by allegedly at 10:22 AM on November 18 [8 favorites]

I don't take the contents of the blurb to mean anything in particular--it's more like a word association thing with the blurb's writer. This book here is similar to books you've read by this other author you might recognize. If you want more of that kind of thing, try this.

I remember seeing one kids' fantasy book that had a list of genres on the cover, one of which was "Harry Potter." It's like that.
posted by one for the books at 10:28 AM on November 18 [1 favorite]

I had forgotten that cstross also addressed the blurbs with an insightful example:
The review quotes on the back cover/inside the front matter ... obviously, good reviews are gold dust. But you don't need good lemons to make lemonade. If Kirkus Reviews say of a hardback "this was an exercise in meretricious misogyny, stunning in the depths of it's depravity", do not be surprised if you subsequently see a back-cover quote like this: "Stunning — Kirkus". (In general, the longer the quote, the more likely it is to accurately reflect the review. But see above about the purpose of a book cover.)
Which reminds me of this amazing two star review placement on a film poster.
posted by autopilot at 10:29 AM on November 18 [5 favorites]

i recommend that anyone scandalized by this practice absolutely never look at any scholarship on fiction and poetry publishing in early-to-mid 19th century america, because those edgar allan poe-ass motherfuckers so aggressively blurbed each other (and otherwise performed acts of totally shameless mutual puffery) that they can be considered functionally equivalent to a modern academic citation ring.

i am not familiar with the scholarship on 18th and 19th century british publishing, but i would be stunned to discover that similar things weren't going on over there as well.
posted by bombastic lowercase pronouncements at 10:54 AM on November 18 [3 favorites]

"In defence of allegory, (however, or for whatever object, employed,) there is scarcely one respectable word to be said. Its best appeals are made to the fancy—-that is to say, to our sense of adaptation, not of matters proper, but of matters improper for the purpose, of the real with the unreal, having never more of intelligible connection than has something with nothing, never half so much of effective affinity as has the substance for the shadow."

-Edgar Allan Poe on Nathaniel Hawthorne.
posted by clavdivs at 1:56 PM on November 18 [1 favorite]

or, I don't really read the blurb, I just want to know who wrote it.
posted by clavdivs at 1:57 PM on November 18 [2 favorites]

Spy magazine had a feature called (if memory serves) Logrolling in Our Time, and it showed the blatant mutual backscratching (blurb-scratching?) amongst writers. It disabused a more naive Computech that blurbs are just currency to be traded.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 2:12 PM on November 18 [3 favorites]

Huzzah I remembered the name!

I love this one: "...you may want to skip the next blurb because he uses the expression again: This Side of Brightness by Colum McCann: “In language that makes you claw yourself with pleasure, he powerfully evokes the stink of the present and the poignancy of the past.”
posted by clavdivs at 2:32 PM on November 18 [3 favorites]

Blurbing hiatus

I’m off to a good start with my Authorial practice or monsters manual entry? listicle
posted by Jon Mitchell at 3:09 PM on November 18 [5 favorites]

it could also pass for a minced oath
posted by bombastic lowercase pronouncements at 3:21 PM on November 18 [1 favorite]

Quite apart from him being specifically problematic as a person

Every time I see someone disparage Piers Anthony's character I am contractually obligated to mention the debt of gratitude humanity owes the man for penning the greatest tale of interstellar dentistry ever written.
posted by Literaryhero at 4:44 PM on November 18 [1 favorite]

Is that sort of like how I like to describe Dead Snow as "arguably the best Nazi zombie movie ever to come out of Norway?"

I am particularly pleased with the "arguably."
posted by Naberius at 4:50 PM on November 18 [6 favorites]

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