Blurbs: What Are They Good For?

BlurbsIf you need a few lines of effusive praise for your soon-to-be-released novel, don’t go ringing Margaret Atwood’s doorbell (in my head, blurb-hunting works exactly like trick-or-treating). The great Canadian woman of letters recently made the news because of her poetic refusal to the host of blurb requests she receives. Not exactly earth-shattering news in the world of books and publishing, I’ll admit (except, perhaps, to all those NaNoWriMo folks pecking away at a dystopian masterpiece, hoping that Mrs. Atwood’s name and a few kind words might grace their novel’s back cover), but reading about her decision made me think hard about the last time a blurb played any kind of deciding role in my purchase of a book.

*Rises from chair, fixes cup of coffee, stares meaningfully into the middle distance for a few hours, returns to keyboard*

I’ve been at it for a while now and haven’t come up with much of anything. I guess it’s possible that, somewhere along the line, I was on the fence about a book, and a blurb from an author I revere comparing the book in question to a work I absolutely love carried me from the display shelf to the checkout counter. If so, it happened long enough ago that I can’t now remember it.

If my experience is anything like most readers’ (though there’s nothing to suggest that it is, necessarily), then what difference to blurbs make in the first place? Does getting a big name to crank out (and for some authors, “cranking out” may be literal; I’m convinced Stephen King has a machine that helps him write a blurb per minute) a few lines of kind comparisons and recycled praise-phrases really put books in readers’ laps?

I have my doubts. In the hierarchy of Things Likely to Make Me Buy a Book, blurbs fall pretty far down the list, and even then, it would take something special:

  1. New release from an author I already know and love.

  2. A recommendation from a friend.

  3. A review or recommendation from a website or critic/blogger who shares my tastes (Even a tweet can do the trick).

  4. Wins a major prize or award.

  5. A compelling review from some place or person other than mentioned in #3.

  6. A blurb from a favorite author that tells me something meaningful about the book (If I come across the words “breathtaking” or “haunting”, then I assume King loaned out his auto-blurber machine and someone recalibrated the settings). If the blurb mentions me by name, that might help.

That the list. That’s it. I would reserve a spot for a particularly persuasive handseller at my local indie, but I’ve never had one approach me (to be fair, I put off some pretty strong Do Not Speak To Me vibes in shopping situations). Looking at the list, the top five probably make up 90% of reasons that might conceivably make me buy a book. If you include people with similar tastes on GoodReads in #2, that probably expands to 98%.

But as I said before, my experiences do not speak for anyone but me, and I’m interested to know how you other readers feel about this.

Is it worth it for editors, agents, and friends of friends of friends to keep seeking that magical blurb from that most heralded author? Does it sell books? Do they pique your interest at least? Do you even notice them? Or are blurbs just a brass ring, the prize in another game at the carnival of vanity that the publishing world sometimes appears to be from my view way out here in the sticks? And (as our fearless Editor Rebecca asked in a back-channel discussion about blurbs [yes, this is how we spend our time; yes, we’re comfortable with that]) what happens to the cover blurb in the age of growing ebook presence? Do they vanish? Evolve? Become Famous Author Starred Reviews? Get replaced by Tweets and Facebook Links?

I’d bet there’ll be too much diversity of responses on this for us to come up with a valid, reliable set of poll questions, so let’s hear it in the comments, dear readers: What difference do blurbs make?

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