Anatomy of the Blurb
(David Cohen)

Posted on September 14, 2011 by in Being Sure

If you can’t judge a book by the cover, can you judge it by the blurb on the cover? Whether supplied by a fellow author or lifted from a review, the blurb plays a critical role in the marketing of any title. The following introduction to the art of blurb writing (and blurb reading) will, to quote author and celebrated blurbist Oliver Herford, fill a much-needed gap.

A blurb’s primary purpose is to tell us that the book is good and we should buy it. One way of saying a book is good is to describe it as ‘readable’, as in ‘intensely readable’, ‘hugely readable’, or perhaps even ‘compulsively readable’. Clearly, ‘readable’ means ‘good’, even though you might think that being readable is the very least a book can do. If a book fails in this capacity, then there’s not much it’s good for, except perhaps propping up a rickety shelf. But it would be counterproductive to describe a book as ‘compulsively prop-up-a-shelf-able’, no matter how excellently it performs this function.

Perhaps a step up from ‘readable’ is ‘gripping’. The best way to convey that a book is gripping is predict the reader’s response to the actual pages in the book. Take these blurbs on Joseph Finder’s thriller Vanished. Note that they have been penned by other thriller writers.

‘I dare you to read the first page. You won’t be able to stop’ – Tess Gerritsen

‘Open one of [Finder’s] books and you won’t be closing it until the last page is turned’ – James Rollins

It can be inferred that, while a readable book will stimulate you to turn the pages at a regular speed, a book like Vanished will compel you to turn the pages slightly faster. Blurbs on thrillers can be enhanced by inserting words like ‘chilling’ and ‘spine-tingling’, or asserting that the book involves a ‘web of intrigue’.

Still another way of praising a book is to employ the elegant phrase ‘life-affirming’. Philip Ardagh’s Guardian blurb describes young-adult novel Numbers by Rachel Ward (not the actor) as ‘Intelligent and life-affirming’. Another YA novel, Before I Die by Jenny Downham, is considered to be ‘Incredibly inspiring, uplifting and life-affirming’ (Exepose), ‘Incredibly life-affirming’ (lovereading4kids.co.uk) and ‘Ultimately… life-affirming and uplifting’ (JUNO). ‘Life-affirming’ can be interpreted in two ways: (1) having read this book, the blurbist has decided to go on living; or (2) the blurbist had already intended to go on living, but this book has reinforced that intention. Either way, it’s a useful phrase which can be applied to almost any book (think twice before using it on euthanasia manuals).

What about humorous books? How do we say a book is funny? There are two possible approaches. The first is to say: ‘I laughed out loud’. Sometimes this is written in upper-case letters, as in novelist Matt Dunn’s review of Robert P. Smith’s debut novel Up a Tree in the Park at Night with a Hedgehog: ‘I LAUGHED OUT LOUD, while cringing in guilty recognition.’ The other way is to describe the book as ‘wickedly funny’, as in ‘Augusten Burroughs’ new book is wickedly funny, painfully honest’ (you could achieve a similar effect with ‘painfully funny, wickedly honest’).

But what if you want to be a bit more imaginative with your blurb, and at the same time advertise your credentials as a serious reader? An effective strategy is to use what I call the ‘If’ technique. Here, the blurbist attempts to convey the flavour of the book by invoking the work of two or more other authors. Take this evaluation of David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars from the Independent on Sunday: ‘If Truman Capote, Arthur Miller, Harper Lee and John Grisham all washed up on a desert island together, they might well come up with something like this…’

Here’s another from Sydney Morning Herald writer Erik Jensen on Kenneth E. Hartman’s prison memoir, Mother California: ‘If Charles Bukowksi had committed a murder and done time, this is what he would have written.’

Martin Amis himself has used this formula. Here he is on Will Self’s short-story collection, The Quantity Theory of Insanity: ‘If a manic J. G. Ballard and a depressive David Lodge got together, they might produce something like The Quantity Theory of Insanity.’

The benefit of this technique is that it enables you to show off your knowledge of other authors. The downside is that if the potential book buyer (PBB) has not also read those authors, they will be left none the wiser, and their resulting level of interest in the book – what can termed their post-blurb enthusiasm – will fall slightly below or at best remain equal to their pre-blurb enthusiasm.

A technique often used by master blurbists like Stephen King and James Patterson is the sweeping statement. Here, the writer uses simple wording to make a huge claim. The claim may be based more on personal taste than genuine authority, but it’s formulated in a way that leaves no room for argument. Below are two from Patterson. Pay careful attention to his use of the word ‘best’.

‘Her best yet’ (Look Again by Lisa Scottoline)

‘Koryta is one of the best of the best, plain and simple.’ (The Silent Hour by Michael Koryta)

Stephen King, perhaps one of the most prolific blurb writers in the publishing industry, uses the technique to great effect in this pronouncement on Neil Gaiman’s Coraline and Other Stories: ‘[Gaiman] is, simply put, a treasure house of story, and we are lucky to have him in any medium.’

King and Patterson harness the latent power of seemingly innocent phrases like ‘plain and simple’ and ‘simply put’ in a manner unmatched by anyone, anywhere, at any time.

But what about when a book is really, really good and you want to bring out the big guns? It’s difficult to go past ‘A tour de force’, or, even better, ‘an absolute tour de force’. On the other hand, is there a more unequivocal statement than ‘a classic’, except maybe ‘an instant classic’? ‘Extraordinary’ is also hard to beat (note the economy and power of a one-word blurb). However, most experts agree that you simply can’t top ‘a triumph’, except, once again, when it’s written in upper-case letters. The Guardian’s well-known review of Paul Torday’s The Girl on the Landing combined several of the above techniques (‘EXTRAORDINARY… A TRIUMPH’), guaranteeing huge sales.

Thus far we’ve examined the blurb as a straightforward endorsement. But every now and then the situation may arise where, for whatever reason, we are called upon to provide a blurb for a book we don’t really like. How do we tackle this problem? A neat example is supplied in the case of Will I Think of You?, a book of verse and photography by noted poet Leonard Nimoy, published in the 1970s. To begin with, the ‘blurb’ on the back cover is not attributed to any person or publication. Then the ‘blurb’ itself asserts that Nimoy’s book is: ‘…written with mature conviction and illustrated with extraordinarily appropriate photographs taken by the author himself.’  Note that it avoids any indication of whether or not the book has merit, focusing instead on the author’s good intentions; after all, any book, no matter how terrible, could be written with mature conviction. But the real stroke of genius is the phrase ‘extraordinarily appropriate’ to describe the photographs – not just because it diverts our attention from the poetry, but because it is a masterful example of a technique I call the ‘extreme cop-out’, in which the blurbist appears to be making a strong assertion while in fact saying nothing.

The technique is also used by Publishers Weekly in its assessment of Robert J. Sawyer’s sci-fi novel Wake as ‘wildly thought-provoking’. It disguises the cop-out ‘thought-provoking’ (translation: I can’t think of anything good to say about this) with an explosive adjective (see also: ‘compulsively readable’). Both are superb pieces of non-committal and yet extraordinarily appropriate blurb writing.

Returning to our study of unambiguously favourable blurbs, let me conclude with an absolute tour de force. I speak of Tom Clancy’s four-word masterpiece on Clive Cussler’s The Wrecker. It simply says: ‘The guy I read’. By making himself the blurb’s centre of attention, Clancy has not only torn up the rule book, he has taken to it with a blowtorch and stomped on the charred remains. It’s a risky move, and only someone of Clancy’s stature can pull it off. Whether or not Cussler is any good is beside the point; what matters is that Clancy reads him. And it cannot be overemphasised that Cussler is not just a guy Clancy reads, but the guy – the implication being that Clancy doesn’t read anyone else, at least no other guys. But even more importantly, we know from the sort of books Tom Clancy writes that he is an extremely tough dude. If he reads Cussler, then obviously he’s telling us to read Cussler, and I, for one, am not about to disobey Tom Clancy.

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