The anatomy of a blurb: A Globe Books investigation
We asked three publishing professionals about why they do it when it hurts so much, and if there’s a payoff.
Are blurbs effective?
Jennifer Lambert, editorial director, HarperCollins Canada:Blurbs are not only aimed at the final reader in the bookstore, I think they’re also aimed at booksellers and at the media when you’re positioning a book.
Lynn Henry, publishing director, Doubleday Canada:If you get a blurb from Michael Ondaatje saying “This is the most amazing book I’ve read in five years,” or something, then obviously that would have an effect, but getting a whole bunch of blurbs from people who don’t have quite the same name recognition for the general reader probably isn’t that effective.
Jamie Broadhurst, vice-president of marketing, Raincoast Books:They’re probably necessary even if they’re not effective. That’s because the blurb is important from a marketing point of view very early on in the process.
Has the relevance of blurbs diminished or changed?
L.H.:Yes, I would say that there was more of a sense, earlier on, that just getting any kind of blurb was just de facto a great thing and I think now you really need that blurb that stands out. ... Getting a whole bunch of bookseller endorsements to put on an advance reading copy that is sent out to influencers who can influence other people within the industry is a much bigger thing.
J.B.:There’s almost an inflation of blurbs and so if someone blurbs too often, their impact is less. But it still can really work. Didn’t Margaret Atwood blurb the Vincent Lam very early? That really broke his career out in a way that wouldn’t have been the case otherwise. A timely, thoughtful blurb can still have impact.
How skeptical should a reader be about blurbs?
J.L.:I think people who are giving blurbs understand that their reputation and their names are involved as well. There have been many times when people have been approached for blurbs and they have simply said, with great respect, “No, I’m not going to blurb.” That happens all the time.
L.H.:I do think that one should be skeptical, but also there is a real sense of the part of writers of trying to be honest about which books they endorse. I think there’s more of this now.
J.B.:It’s a bit of buyer beware. I would say I think they should, but I don’t know how they could. You could say the same about reviews.
Do you wish you could do a book without them?
J.L.:Yes, often, because it is hard. Multiple books are published at any given moment and you’re going to people often and asking for them to support many writers at a time. You have to be careful about not repeatedly going to the same people – you have to pair it well. It’s a craft, I have to say, and it takes up a large portion of our time.
L.H.:Yes. For so many reasons. To be perfectly frank, the whole proposition is that the person who provides the blurb gets to say what they want. Sometimes it comes back and it’s everything you could wish for and more. But sometimes it positions the book in a different way than you saw it, and then you have to decide how you’re going to use it.
J.B.:As long as your packaging is striking and there’s something original, then you can absolutely function without a blurb. I see blurbs as part of the conventional wisdom of what it means to publish well – but were Beatles albums marketed with a blurb from the Rolling Stones?