Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Business of Blurbs

by Michelle Gagnon

I thought I'd discuss the dark, inner secrets of blurbs today. Blurbs are those quotes on the front and back cover by a well-known author who was kind enough to say some nice things about your book, thereby inducing people to buy it. At least in theory.

So how writers get those glowing blurbs? I find that cash works quite well, or blackmail works in a pinch (just kidding). Honestly, I have yet to be turned down for a blurb. As long as you can give someone a decent time frame in which to read the manuscript (ideally a month or two), and they're not too swamped, everyone I've approached has been exceedingly gracious.

But it was a bit of a learning process for me. For example: chances are, no one might mention the deadline for blurb submission until oh, say, three weeks before it's due. That's what happened to me with my first novel. I had prepared a list of people to ask, and we were proceeding nicely through the rounds of edits. Offhand, I asked my editor one day, "By the way, when should I send the manuscript to people to blurb?"

Dead silence.

Then, "You haven't done that yet?"

Thus ensued one of the most frantic days of my life. I emailed everyone I knew, had met, or had even heard of, who might consider blurbing the book. I overdid it, actually, because I assumed that easily three-quarters of the people would say no when they found out I needed it in a little under three weeks. And you know what? No one did. One blurb came in past the deadline, but I was thrilled to use it on all of my promotional materials. For me, this was the best introduction to how much of a community the crime fiction writing world really is.

The next time, I was ready. I send the manuscript out early, to the two people whose work I thought most closely matched the books tone and subject matter. Because that's another thing I learned about blurbs. If the bestselling author of medical thrillers blurbs your book, there's a chance her fans might buy it. Imagine their shock and dismay when they discover that not only is your book not a medical thriller, but is actually a paranormal mystery involving shapeshifters. Some might love it regardless, and there are varying opinions on whether or not the name recognition of the blurber is more important than the similarity to their work. In my opinion, the book should be something a fan of the other author will find familiar.

The question is, do blurbs actually do what they're supposed to do, inspiring book sales that might not happen otherwise? I suspect yes, since publishers have clearly done more market research on this than I have, and they're fairly insistent about having something to put on that cover. Does a blurb from a fellow author have more or less impact than an excerpt from a good review? Tough to say (and I'm always reminded of the friend who received a review calling his book, "An excellent example of everything that's wrong with writing today," which his publisher promptly shortened to, "Excellent.")

I'm curious to hear whether or not a blurb has ever inspired you to buy a book you might not have picked up otherwise.


  1. This is a very helpful article Michelle and it's a pleasure to digitally meet you!

    I've been writing for decades and since I quit working in the corporate world and switched to a home business, I now have time to finish my first true novel. I plan on completion before year's end--and have two others in progress. I will definitely work this angle and find some authors to write a blurb or two.

    I think it does help to a degree--at least in appearance--you seem more viable, which is probably more important for newer authors trying to get their book deal and attracting readers who hadn't previously heard of them.

    I bought Clive Barker's "The Damnation Game" because Stephen King gave him a stellar blurb, proclaiming him the future of horror. Of course getting a blurb from him would be difficult for most. Anyway, I have bookmarked this to remind me. Thank you:)

  2. I’ve always found that you’ll be surprised what you can get if you just ask for it in a pleasant and professional manner. It’s also important to note the #1 reason for an author to blurb another writer’s work: free PR. The tricky part is the political issues of a big name writer blurbing a book for an author at a competing house. And to answer your question, Michelle, yes, I’ve picked up and purchased a book by an author I’ve not read before because it was blurbed by a writer I enjoy. Also, I’ve never heard anyone blame the author who blurbed a book if they didn’t enjoy it. I don’t think there’s much of a down side to blurbing other writers. Just make sure you read and like the book, and mean what you say about it.

  3. I think once the manuscript is agented and sold, blurbs are a wonderful way for the Crime Fiction community to show its unity. And yes, I've found several new authors based on blurbs from others I liked. If I disagree with the blurb upon finishing the book, I just chalk it up to a difference of opinion and move on to the next.

  4. That's a good point, Joe, it's also a good promotional tool for the blurber. Never hurts to have your name on multiple books in a year.
    And Bobby, I'm so glad it was helpful, best of luck with your writing!
    Jake, you bring up an additional issue-I've heard of people requesting blurbs for books that have yet to sell, and I know many authors won't consider that. How does everyone else feel about it? I did it once, for a book written by someone in my writing group that I really thought was excellent (and which eventually sold to Berkley and comes out next year, Reece Hirsch, FREEFALL, look for it, it's great). But if I didn't know the author, I'd probably wait. I barely have time to read some of the stuff I have to read for contests etc as it is...

  5. And Bobby, Stephen King is notoriously difficult to get blurbs from, so when he does, it's a big deal. He single-handedly launched Meg Gardiner's career on this side of the Atlantic. As I heard it, Meg couldn't get a US publishing deal but secured a UK one, King picked up her book in an airport, then raved about it. And boom, now her books are everywhere. But blackmail doesn't work with him, believe me I've tried ;0)

  6. Good article. Based on what you said about the time schedule of getting blurbs, I suppose it wouldn't hurt to put a list together of who I'd like to be blurbed by so that when the day comes (soon...I feel it in my bones) I can get ahead of the game.

    Thanks for the advice Michelle.

  7. That's funny Michelle! Even if King says a book sucks, it still generates readers from people who hate him.

    Maybe I should go streaking during a televised presidential speech with my website title written in gargantuan blood red letters screaming my name really loud. I'd go to jail for a few days, but would generate some interest. Time to think outside the clothes . . . I mean box:)

  8. Bobby- it's an interesting idea! Wondering if you saw this:

  9. Hahaha...I have now. Hey, these days you've got to fight for every inch and make it happen. Being randomly discovered by the right person is becoming increasing unlikely.

    Here's to creative ideas:)

  10. Good discussion, Michelle! Blurbs are a necessary "get" as part of the publishing process for authors, but as a reader I don't pay too much attention to them. There's too much logrolling in the process. Plus, I read so many bad books that have glowing blurbs on the covers (and elsewhere), that I regard them like the snippets you see in movie ads: "A Wowzer ride from start to finish!"

  11. Of course there are also those sites that offer to create blurbs for you for a fee. If legitimacy isn't want you're really looking for that is.

    I have considered figuring a way to use the comments on my podcast novels as a blurb to an agent or a tool of some sort, but haven't been able to find a way to do it without seeming tacky.

    In the meantime I just sit here, still assaulting the walls of the Empire with my knitting needle sized spear.

  12. Basil-

    You just inspired me. My new company will exclusively provide blurbs from James Patterson and Stephen King. You'll have a choice of , "Riveting," "Gripping," and/or "A Page Turner."
    That should take care of my retirement.

  13. AH Blurbs - my publisher didn't even get any for my first book (and I never even knew I could try and get them!) Then I told them who to ask for the second book and as you said everyone graciously did so. The mystery community is great like that. I don't think blurbs sell a book unless it's like Stephen King - I think many readers now ignore them as they just assume its an 'inside deal' - so no one gets bad blurbs right? I do think they provide credibility though - so I'm sure they have an incremental effect.

  14. Clare- actually as a joke a friend of mine once sent an initial blurb to a mutual friend that read, "A disappointment on every page."
    Of course, he sent a much nicer one later that day. But still-funny!

  15. Of course for the sake of not infringing on the rights of said celebrities you'd have to change the names slightly to avoid getting sued.

    Something like:
    Steven Kingg
    James Pattisson
    Mikel Crichten

    (using a dead celebrity gives you even better're so good even the spirits support you.)

  16. I've actually always toyed with the idea of changing my pen name to "Michelle Connolly." Mistaken purchases alone, I might make the bestsellers list...

  17. Great post Michelle. So, would it be easier to blackmail you or bribe you? I'm open to suggestion. ;)

  18. RJ: Obviously I'd prefer bribery, but Lord knows either would work.

  19. Blurbs do help sell books. Not overwhelmingly, but they work. I've watched people pick up a book, glance at the synopsis and say, "Well, if XYZ says it's good (as blurbed somewhere on the book), I'll give it a try."

    Those are the ones I've heard of. I suspect that conversation goes on internally a lot more than I'll ever hear, and sometimes it may even be subconscious.

    But a good point has been made -- the tougher the blurb is to get, the more weight it gives. If an author blurbs everyone, after a while it becomes a bit of a joke.

  20. Fran,
    I'm not so sure I agree entirely with the "it becomes a joke" thing. I have seen Jeffery Deaver's blurbs on a TON of books, and I'd kill for one from him because I love his stuff. But I don't know many people who would look at a book with his seal of approval and go, "that guy just gives this stuff away."

    Somebody told me that Tony Hillerman was so gracious with his blurbs that he was--at some point--called a 'blurb slut'. If he were alive today and my ms had sold, I'd consider giving up body parts to get a blurb from him.

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  22. Thank you Michelle for the article about blurbs.
    I always read them. I think they are an important part of marketing. When you are not real familiar with the author, and you're holding two books in your hands a good blurb can tip you one direction or the other.

    I don't know that I would ever purchase a book without blurbs. . .

  23. Karl- thanks for joining us! Good to hear that blurbs do mean something...

  24. Michelle,

    You were really generous to provide that blurb, and it impressed the agent that I finally landed that I already had a blurb from another thriller author. And another big thank-you for the kind words about FREEFALL here!

    Even though I'm still a newbie author, I second Michelle's comments about the generosity of the mystery/crime writer community. Now that I have a publication date, I've asked two other established writers to provide blurbs and they both responded positively without hesitation.

    I'm not sure if those blurbs are going to sell books, but in a crowded marketplace, I'm sure grateful to have them.