Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Blurbed for your protection

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A few days ago, my wife was opening a new package of vitamins when she noticed that the familiar foil seal over the bottle’s mouth was missing. We’d bought the vitamins a while ago, and it was possible that we’d just opened them earlier without remembering it, but that didn’t seem likely—and the mouth of the bottle was perfectly clean, which implied that the seal had never been there in the first place. After a bit of discussion, we decided to throw the bottle away. The odds of there being anything wrong with it were vanishingly small, but there didn’t seem to be any point in taking the chance. That’s the function of a protective seal: when it’s there, you don’t think about it—unless you’re annoyed by how hard it is to pry open—but when it’s missing, it immediately sets off alarm bells. And while this may not seem to have much to do with writing or publishing, it actually gets at an important truth about how books are packaged and presented, and, in particular, about the misunderstood, often derided role of the humble blurb.

Recently, there’s been a lot of discussion about the problem of fake online reviews, with some authors paying “critics” outright to post flattering quotes on sites like Amazon. The blurbs that we see on most novels have often been lumped into the same category, based on the observation, which is certainly correct, that they wouldn’t be there at all if they weren’t complimentary. Yet the parallel isn’t quite exact. It’s true that most blurbs end up on the cover of a book through some kind of relationship between blurber and subject: in many cases, they’re authors whom the writer or editor knows personally, or clients of the same publishing house who can be approached through a friendly intermediary. More rarely, a wonderful blurb is obtained from a respected author through luck or tenacity alone. And in my own limited experience, such blurbs are at least sincere: writers know that they have little to gain by having their name attached to a laudatory quote on a bad book, and if they don’t care for it or aren’t interested, they’re more likely just not to respond.

That said, no one should mistake a blurb for a purely objective review—but that doesn’t mean readers should ignore them, either. A browser looking at a new release in a bookstore, especially from an unknown author, is generally operating with very limited information, which means that he or she needs to rely on a few simple heuristics. Does the book look like it’s worth reading? Is it a novel that the publisher believes in? The cover art, the jacket copy, and even the font are important clues, although they’re often most useful as negative indicators. When I see a badly designed book with an ugly typeface, it doesn’t tell me anything about the content, but it implies that if the publisher didn’t, or couldn’t, take such superficial elements seriously, the text itself isn’t likely to be any better. (Obviously, this isn’t always true. And we should be careful about drawing any conclusions from the opposite case, since Daniel Kahneman has shown that a nice font may make us less aware of an author’s sloppy writing or reasoning.)

The same principle applies to blurbs. This isn’t to say that awful books can’t receive glowing blurbs from other authors—it happens all the time. But the absence of at least one decent blurb should make us cautious, if nothing else. Blurbs may be largely meaningless, but they do take time and effort to obtain, and like cover art, design, and other cosmetic elements, they serve as a sort of rough index to the publisher’s commitment to the book itself. In some ways, they’re best understood as an element of cover design: a novel without a blurb looks a little naked, at least to my eyes, and what it says is ultimately less important than the fact that it’s there at all. There aren’t many authors, not even Nicole Krauss, whose testimonials, as far as fiction is concerned, will tempt me to buy a book, but their absence will often warn me away. That’s the nature of a blurb: it’s less a stamp of approval than a protective seal that tells us, at the very least, that there’s nothing outright toxic inside.

Written by nevalalee

November 14, 2012 at 9:44 am

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