02 January 2021

A Blurb in the Hand


For several weeks now, writers have been blogging about their 2020 accomplishments and whatever writing goals they might've set for 2021. I had intended, for today's post here at SleuthSayers, to continue that discussion . . . but right in the middle of preparing that column I was asked by a fellow writer to supply a blurb for an upcoming project. I dutifully stopped and did that, and afterward it occurred to me that blurbism was a topic I'd never before approached here at SS. Besides, it sounded like a lot more fun than looking back through my writing records for this year. So . . .

Blurbs. Whatchoo talkinbout, Willis?

I've never given much thought to the definition--and the many misdefinitions--of a blurb. To me as a fiction writer, a literary blurb is NOT jacket copy, a teaser, a synopsis, or a review. It is a sentence or two praising a writer or his/her writing, which often appears on the cover of a book written by that author. Blurbs are always positive and hopefully brief, and are especially helpful if the name or reputation of the blurber is recognizable (in a good way) to potential readers. In other words, they're promotional.

Do blurbs really help an author or project? I'm not sure they always do, but they certainly can. Supportive comments and opinions are a good thing, and--who knows?--they might be enough to sway an undecided reader/buyer to take a chance on your writing. At the very least, a few blurbs on the back cover of your book are a better use of space than, say, a larger author photo. I've often seen them used on writers' websites as well.

According to Wikipedia, the history of the blurb began with Walt Whitman's poetry collection Leaves of Grass. Apparently Ralph Waldo Emerson sent Whitman a letter congratulating him on the publication of LoG's first edition, and included the phrase "I greet you at the beginning of a great career." Whitman later had those words printed on his second edition.

How to find one, in the wild (Blurbwatching 101)

So let's say you need, or your publisher tells you they need, a blurb to grace the cover of your upcoming book or for some other marketing endeavor. How do you--or they--get this done? In my experience, there are two ways. You either (1) choose an excerpt from something written about you or your project (in the newspaper, online, in a magazine, etc.) or (2) ask someone to read your manuscript or ARC and contribute a few words to the cause. For me, it's usually option 2. Like most things worth having, blurbs rarely show up on your doorstep; you have to put on your overcoat and boots and go hunting for them.

As for who to ask, I think people you know are the best targets, because you're asking a big favor and they're the least likely to say no. (If you have writer friends like that who also happen to owe you money, that's better still.) And although it sounds a bit snooty, if you have a friend or acquaintance who is widely known--at least in your genre--that's especially good.

Blurbs and sub-blurbs

For each of my seven collections of short mystery fiction, I found out from the publisher how many blurbs they thought were needed and I brazenly asked that number of people to do me the favor of contributing one. These testimonials were usually placed on the back cover of the book, and for the last several of those short-story collections an extra blurb--sometimes shortened a bit--was also featured at the top of the front cover. I continue to be grateful to each and every one of these truly generous writers, because pestering folks for a blurb is asking a favor that requires both time and effort. (You're also sort of asking them to say good things, which in my case might be even more of an effort.) In every instance, I recall being reluctant to make the request--all of us are busy, and blurb-begging is an annoyingly close cousin to BSP--but I bit the bullet and asked anyway. Usually in the form of an email, so if they decided not to, they wouldn't have to tell me to my face (or ear). Thankfully none of the writers I've approached so far have turned me down, and I will always be in their debt for their kindness.


Now put the shoe on the other foot. What if someone asks you for a blurb? Like most of my fellow writers, I have occasionally found myself in this position, and every time that's happened I have accepted the request and provided what I hope was a blurb that would help the author and his/her project. The unasked question that always pops up here is Must I read the whole thing in order to write a satisfactory blurb? The ideal answer would be Yes, and it's what I try hard to do . . . but let's be honest, that's not always possible. To read an entire book on request, out of the blue, takes a lot of time. I do make it a point to read a reasonable amount of the material, but--especially in the case of a story collection or anthology--I think it's also acceptable to read a certain number of pages or chapters or stories and write the blurb based on that. If the parts you choose to read are written well, chances are the rest will be good also.

Bottom line: To receive a blurb by someone you respect and admire is always an honor, and to supply a supportive blurb to someone else can make you feel great also. Possibly the best of all blurbs are those that come unbidden from people you don't know (from reviews, articles, anthology introductions, etc.). For those, too, I am forever grateful.

A case of blurbed vision

Again, how much value do they add? I'm not sure anyone in this universe totally believes every piece of glowing praise contained in blurbs--some of them are surely sincere, and some are not--but good words are always better than bad, and better than none. Even though we all recognize that a blurb might be no more than a kind gesture by a friend or colleague, it's still positive promotion. As for me, I have been fortunate in the blurbs (solicited and unsolicited) that my publisher has selected to print on the covers of my short-story collections. Whether all the words were deserved is indeed another matter--I hope they were, but I'm a little biased.

How much weight do you place on the blurbs you've read, about others and their writing? Does rapturous praise from a big-name writer influence your own thinking about either the author or the work? As a reader, have you ever made a purchase based solely on a blurb? As a writer, have you asked others for blurbs? How did you go about doing that? Have you often blurbed the work of others?

English author Neil Gaiman once said, "Every now and then, I stop doing blurbs . . . the hiatus lasts for a year or two, and then I feel guilty or someone asks me at the right time, and I relent."

Good for him.

And good for you, for hanging in there, throughout the minefield that was 2020.  

By the way, to those of you who have asked, my final count for 2020 was 43 stories published. The only good thing about the whole year. I wish all of you a happy, healthy, and prosperous 2021!


  1. I'm a sceptic, as it comes to blurbs, and it shows:
    ---> “How much weight do you place on the blurbs you've read, about others and their writing?” Answer: Very little. Though unsolicited blurbs may influence me, depending on the source.
    ---> “Does rapturous praise from a big-name writer influence your own thinking about either the author or the work?” Answer: Nope
    ---> “As a reader, have you ever made a purchase based solely on a blurb?” Answer: Not that I can recall.
    ---> “As a writer, have you asked others for blurbs?” Answer: Never.

    The topic interests me, though. I’m looking forward to what others have to say. Will they turn this sceptic in a firm believer?

    1. I have not met Anne, but my answers to the above questions would be the same as hers.

      Being mostly a short story author, I have twice been surprised to be asked by a novelist to supply a blurb for their novel. And, yes I did.

    2. Anne and RT -- Thanks for the responses, both of you! I too tend to be influenced a bit by some of those unsolicited blurbs, although I guess you have to be careful about those from Kirkus, since I think they now do some paid reviews. But glowing praise from big newspapers, etc., has to catch your eye.

      I know what you mean, about being skeptical. I think what it boils down to is that blurbs are expected but aren't always that effective.

      As you said, Anne, it is an interesting topic! Thanks!

    3. You're welcome, John. And thanks for bringing this topic up. I've just read all the comments and had fun reading them. They didn't alter my opinion, though.

      And, as Josh Pachter so graciously mentioned, I'm a boy. Anne is a common name for a boy in The Netherlands, where I live. (By the way, I live in a place called Doorn. The English word for "Doorn" is "Thorn", and my name in English would be "Anne from Thorn".)

    4. Anne, your opinion was very welcome, and I'm honored that you took the time to chime in here at SS. "Anne from Thorn" sounds a lot more interesting than "John from Brandon."

      Best to you and yours, this year. Please stay in touch!

  2. Same here, Anne. No weight. No influence. Do not ask other writers for blurbs. We put identifying information blurbs on covers, such as – a private eye novel or a crime fiction novel or a novel of WWII or a novel of the Gilded Age.

  3. Thanks for the thoughts, O'Neil. Whether blurbs from other authors are on the cover is a decision, I guess, made by the publisher. And I, for one, always appreciate seeing the additional info you mentioned (the kind of novel it is, etc.).

    I wonder if the decision of whether to put blurbs on covers might sometimes just be a solution to the question "What SHOULD I put on the back cover?" Excerpts from the book itself are one answer, I suppose. Once again, I think blurbs are a marketing tool, one that might or might not be effective.

  4. A blurb might induce a psychological effect between two books at an airport kiosk, but I imagine the influence is small. Usually I read jackets / back covers for clues to the content. To that degree, a blurb might teeter a buy decision.

    One of my anthology stories was singled out for positive comments in reviews. Does that count?

    I've never been asked to blurb, which I attribute to two causes. Prospective authors would think:
    (a) He's not well known.
    (b) Oh Lord, I don't dare risk one of his smart-mouth comments.

    John, before I forget, the title of your article cracked me up. And 43! Wow. Congratulstions!

  5. Leigh, I think the fact your antho story was singled out certainly does count. As mentioned, I think everyone values unsolicited praise in a review higher than a "She sure is a good writer" comment by a fellow author.

    This whole subject is a little touchy, and is one of the things I don't particularly like about the publishing business. Because it IS a business, and some of the marketing and promotional tasks involved are not much fun at all. I, and I think most writers, would rather just write than have to address all these byproducts of writing, and as a short-story writer I don't have to put up with as much of it as novelists do. But, alas, whether blurbs are effective or not, they are--at least to some degree--expected.

    Thank you as always, not just for your comment but the fact that you somehow manage to herd us SleuthSayers in the right direction. Take care, and have a great new year!!

  6. Boy, talk about great minds thinking alike...

    I was in the middle of writing about blurbs for my own post this coming Monday. I'll still post it, but now I see a different approach to take that might actually be better. It will answer a couple of your questions/observations, too, so I'll save my comments for then.

    Coming attractions, another thrilling relic of yester-year...

  7. Steve, looks like I leaped only a few days before you did, on the topic of blurbs. Looking forward to hearing your views on this craziness. Meanwhile, Steve Liskow is an outstanding author who writes only outstanding words . . .

    As for relics of yester-year, I'm often more comfortable with those than the present day.

    Take care, and I hope your year's already started well.

  8. The concept of blurb may go back to Whitman but the word was coined by Gelett Burgess (of "Purple Cow" fame).

    For each of my books I have business cards printed with the covers on one side and a blurb on the other.

    My all-time favorite blurb was the one Donald Westlake wrote for Jay Cronley's novel CHEAP SHOT. It ends "Cronley does better than make me suspend disbelief; he makes me throw my disbelief out the window and drop rocks on it." I love it because this book and Cronley's previous novel QUICK CHANGE were obviously inspired by Westlake's Dortmunder novels, and he was, in effect, giving them his blessing.

  9. Rob, I like the poem about the purple cow--and its followup too, remember that? Didn't know about Burgess's coining of the blurb. Yes, I think Whitman was just the first to use that idea.

    I also like Westlake's blurb, one that I guess reflects the mood of the book that's being honored! Which reminds me, I have a couple of Dortmunders here that I need to re-read. I have NOT read Cronley, and will try to change that.

    I have not gone the business-card route, but that sounds like a good idea. I'm not sure I've seen that before, with the cover on one side and a blurb on the other.

    Thanks as always!

  10. FYI, ladies and germs:

    I never saw an Anne van Doorn,
    I never hope to see one.
    But I will say (though you may scorn),
    He’s a he one, not a she one.

    1. You and Gelett Burgess, Josh! Well done.

    2. Oh, that's good!! Speaking of Burgess, anybody here read "The Master of Mysteries?"

    3. Hi Jeff. I don't know that one. As usual, you've taught me something!

  11. Perfect timing on this, John. It answered many questions...if those questions really can be answered. And just so you are aware, the ARC is on the way. I trust you to make it glowingly pithy. Thanks!

    1. Thanks, BSS--it probably raised more questions than it answered, cause I sho ain't no expert on blurbs. But it's an interesting topic.

      Looking forward to the ARC. I promise to be eloquent.

    2. FYI, BSS is Brian Silverman. That should be a less subtle heads up for the ARC (just kidding). But I am sending them out for reviews and blurbs for my novel in the next month, so the timing of your post was perfect even though you ain't no expert on the subject.

    3. I definitely ain't, Brian. I knew you were kidding about sending the ARC, but I'm pleasantly surprised to hear there IS one about to make the rounds. Best of luck with the novel!

  12. Sometimes it works to draw my attention, but I'm with Leigh, it happens mostly in the airport. Otherwise, I go by recommendations from friends of all kinds. And the occasional book review in a place I trust.

    1. Hi Eve--I'm with you, on recommendations from friends. That's how I've found most of the new authors I've read lately. As for drawing your attention, I think that's really all blurbees can hope for and are looking for. If it does that, the blurb's probably been successful.

  13. John, Cronley was a sports writer in Oklahoma. He wrote several novels about sports, the two pseudo-Dortmunder books and a book called Good Vibes which was made into the movie Let It Ride. If you can imagine a Dortmunder novel without crime, Good Vibes is it. Oh, and his Walking Papers has a stunning concept: Man's wife divorces him so he decides to secretly turn into her ideal man, complete with plastic surgery. By the way, in Westlake's Drowned Hopes, Dortmunder visits a miserable ghost town in Oklahoma. Its name is Cronley...

  14. Thanks, Rob, for the extra info. I spent years in Oklahoma and probably should have known about Cronley (I bet I've read some of his sports pieces).

    That's interesting, about Westlake and the ghost town. I must go back and re-read those Dortmunders.

  15. My answer is a hearty It depends. 1. Consider the source. 2. What does it say? I've been thrilled to have well known authors I respect willing to praise my novels and anthologies I've edit in perceptive comments. When I can do the same for others, I do, though I warn them my name doesn't carry much weight. But I don't say yes if I don't know the writer's work, am short on time, or suspect I won't be enthusiastic about the work. It's uncomfortable to say, Sorry, I can't do it, but I won't lie about what I think, and as you say, John, the object is promotion.

  16. Well said, Liz. I agree that it's sometimes a hard decision, whether it's who to approach to write a blurb or whether to agree if you're asked to write one. Again, the non-promotional aspects of writing are always a lot more fun, for me--and a lot easier also. It's a crazy business.

    Keep writing the good stories, and stay in touch. Hope you have a great year!

  17. I think yawl are answering as writers instead of the general populace of readers. Blurbs count. Blurbs from famous writers hold the most weight. John, you rock.

  18. Hi C.S. -- I agree that they do make a difference to some readers, and they are certainly expected, these days.

    I've also noticed that even the more "famous" writers, when asked for blurbs, are almost always kind and willing to help. Long ago that would've surprised me, but I've seen that kindness so many times, especially in the mystery-writing community, it no longer seems unusual.

    Thanks for your thoughts, and have a great 2021!

  19. John, such a great topic! Personally, I'm in the camp where blurbs DO sway me -- at least a little. If it's an author I'm trying for the first time, especially, a blurb can make the difference between whether I pick up the book or not. That goes double if the blurb comes from an author I really like and who writes more or less the same kind of thing as the book being blurbed. Also, congrats on your 43 stories (amazing!) and hope you have a great 2021!

  20. Adam, thanks for the thoughts. As mentioned in my response to C.S., I believe too that a blurb can make a difference, and you make a good point: it's especially influential if it's by an author you like or by an author of the same kind of fiction as that being blurbed.

    Thanks also for your kind congratulations. Fiction writing involves hills and valleys, and I've been fortunate that 2020 had some peaks for me. There are probably plenty of deep valleys and dry spells ahead, but the writing's still fun.


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