Blurbondency: how do you react to bamboozling book blurbs?

Blurbondency The feeling of let down and confusion that follows reading a book because it has a blurb from one of your favourite authors, only to find the book disappointing and unreadable. Self doubt and a re-examination of bookshelves is also to be expected.

Blurbs are powerful things. They act as the same kind of seal of approval you’re looking for when you’re eyeing up a potential date. I’ve picked up and taken home plenty of books thanks to a few words of praise from one of my favourite authors – but you can’t always count on a blurb when you’re choosing what to snuggle up with at night.

Recently I read a book I just couldn’t get into. I could see it wasn’t awful, I could see it had some merit, but there were parts of it that really stuck in my craw. I sat contemplating the cover, and noticed it had blurbs from no fewer than three of my favourite authors. A strange mixture of feelings quickly arose. Confusion – were they talking about the same book? Self doubt – can’t I even tell a good book when I look at it? Shaken faith – are my favourite writers not the all-knowing beings I hoped they were?

Ultimately, I know that when judging books – as with all other art forms – there’s a great deal of subjectivity involved. You say tomato, I say pulpy, soppy trash. But that won’t stop me from suffering a good dose of blurbondency when the book and the blurb just don’t seem to fit.

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128 responses to “Blurbondency: how do you react to bamboozling book blurbs?

  1. Yeah, I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t even look at the blurbs anymore. In fact, I think I would actually lean more toward a book without a blurb. I like simplicity. Give me a intriguing overview, and a good opening line and I’ll snap it up every time. Blurbs? Not so much.
    Also, I love “Blurbondency.” 😀

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    • Thanks! I think I may be moving ever closer to your preference for simplicity – although I can’t think of many books on my shelves at the moment that don’t have an endorsement of some kind. Must check when I get home 🙂

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  2. Presumably, your literary deities are above endorsing things they haven’t read for $$$! I’m always a bit let down when I find out someone I respect likes a sitcom I think is awful or something.

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  3. It is disappointing as you hope your fave authors would like what you like as you like them, perplexing! You end up wondering if they have actually read and enjoyed or if it’s part of a deal with publishers / agents / other authors ‘you scratch my back etc’. Maybe stick with Amazon reviews?!!

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    • I do the same. Hardly ever read the first lines and only glance at the back, but always pick a random sentence or two from the middle to read in the ‘tester’ moment before choosing – glad I’m not alone.

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  4. I’ve found two different kinds of problems with blurbs. The first is the over-hyping by the publisher or by respected authors, as you describe so well. The other is misleading information about plot and/or characters. Something in the story is presented as significant when it is actually peripheral, or a character is described as being very much a certain way when that trait turns out to be marginal. With these kinds of blurbs, I find myself distracted throughout the whole book by wondering when I am going to finally encounter the aspect that prompted the description—only to find that it doesn’t really exist.

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    • I completely agree. I’ve also had that feeling of anticipation for an event that isn’t actually central to the story too often, it can really spoil – maybe not the book – but your first experience of reading it can’t it?

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  5. I never look at the blurbs. But I like to check out when the book was published and any condensed paragraph telling what it’s about, then head straight to the first chapter. I’ve learned to give a new author a good three chapters of my time. If I can’t get into the book by then the book is dropped into my donate bucket. No matter how bad I just can’t bring myself to throw a book in the garbage.

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  6. I LOVE the word “blurbondency”! I have the same thing with reviews too. Sometimes I’ll read a book based on a review where they use words like ‘elegiac’ and ‘lyrical’ and ‘unforgettable’ and it’s all you can do to stop yourself from having a six hour nap while trudging your way through.

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  7. Pingback: Blurbondency: how do you react to bamboozling book blurbs? (via Lynsey May writes down the night) | Condofire

    • I was trying to think about this earlier, and I honestly don’t know. I know I don’t generally read them pre-sale, but I’m sure I notice them in a subconscious way. I must have a look at my bookshelves and try and figure out how many un-blurbed books reside there.

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  8. I don’t read the blurbs, either. Mostly because I am often surprised by whose blurb goes on a given book. I think that we tend to be attracted to the things we are not — for example, people with curly hair want theirs to be straight — so authors tend to like other authors who write differently than they do. This means that, if I like direct prose, but the author who writes direct prose likes to read a more florid style, I am unlikely to enjoy the same books they do, even though I enjoy their books. Does that make any sense? Anyway, that’s my take on it. *smile*

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  9. Gah, no blurbs for me. When a book cover is drenched in them I’m only ever turned off. Too much hype. Haven’t you noticed that the books that survive history tend to only have one or two?

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    • It’s crazy how important a title is. And terrifying to think you need one or two words to encapsulate a whole story – as well as persuade someone to read it! Or the first page at least 🙂

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    • Hi Tim, I’m afraid I don’t really. I’m to scared of hurting people’s feelings to be a reviewer – I couldn’t even name the (famous) book I was talking about in this blog! However, I do know a couple of people who do. I could maybe pass some details on to them if you’d like? my email address is in the about me section.

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  10. I find myself putting down more and more books these days before the finish. I don’t think I have enough time to read something if it’s dragging for 100+ pages. Sometimes those books have blurbs or even forewords by someone I like. The flipside is being surprised by how great a book is that seemed to have slop potential.

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  11. My biggest compaint about blurbs is when they are actually refering to some other book that the author wrote. I don’t care that Stephen King thinks this author’s other book was amazing… I want to know what he thinks about this book!

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  12. Authors are constantly being asked to add their ‘seal of approval’ to books. They are often paid to do so. Now, certainly not all authors would be willing to put their name on something just for the sake of publicity, but it may be a good idea to take all ‘blurbs’ with a grain of salt.

    Plus, how well do we really know our favorite author’s tastes anyway? They may like and endorse books that are completely different from what they write, or what you would like to read. It is all subjective.

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  13. I never judge a book by its blurb. I think out of plain respect, a fellow writer will never negatively criticize another’s work. Add to that, a writer that may be friends with another (which is likely why they’re giving a blurb in the first place, if not being paid) and blurbs are just rife with opportunities to miscontrue. It’s just not an effective method for weeding out good books from bad. One of my biggest pet peeves is when a book only includes blurbs and no summaries, those books never do well for me.

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    • I suppose you do have to consider personal relationships too. I can’t imagine how hard it would have to be to turn round to your writer friend and say ‘sorry, I didn’t like your book enough to write a blurb for you’.

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  14. coming off a redeye i was groggy and glanced at the book The Shack, sounded super intriguing…then after a few chapters i realized it should have been in the Christian Religion section. nothing against it, just false advertising.

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  15. On the other side of it, I’ve read some really good books that I was dissuaded from because of the dreaded Stephenie Meyer’s name and blurb on the cover. I tend to ignore those things.

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  16. I love the descriptive power of ‘blurbondency’. It captures the feelings of betrayal and disappointment perfectly. It wasn’t until reading your post that I realized I had stopped trusting book blurbs at some point and now rely on posted reader reviews.

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    • I find the same thing with movies. Sometimes it’s great to just chuck on a movie you’ve borrowed from a friend or watch one that randomly appears on television. One that you have never heard of or have no idea what it is about. Coming in with no expectations leaves you open to experiencing the movie for what it truly is.

      I watched ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’ that way and was blown away by it.

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  17. This is probably the case more often than not. I read somewhere that some authors practically beg other authors to write a blurb for them. I feel the same aobut movies, too – sometimes I’m a bit embarrassed to feel completely opposite what the critic is saying. Almost makes you feel deficient, but, hey, there’s lots to agree on and lots to disagree on. My book club sometimes are way apart on the books we’ve read.

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  18. You know, I’ve noticed that and it pisses me off. I think they’re getting paid. Certainly all credibility is out the window because I’ve seen glowing reviews from wonderful authors whose work I admire on books that are so poorly written I’ve wondered the same things — are we talking about the same book? Can I not tell what’s good any more?

    I think people are afraid to say anything bad or turn down a request, and they may also be thinking “if I say something nice, when I need a review someone else will say something good about my book”. Ridiculous. I guess you can only get a critique from a critic, any more.

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    • It does get tricky, I’d probably feel too guilty to have to turn down a blurb request for something I didn’t like if the person was a friend – would have to come up with some kind of crazy excuse probably!

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  19. Just to flip the whole thing on its head – as a book writer myself, I’ve been caught sooooo many times with publisher-imposed blurbs on the back of my volumes – often emanating from marketing departments and not really having much to do with what I was actually writing about.

    Of late, I’ve ended up writing my own blurbs, faux-advert style, and pushing them through with the manuscript – a complete package. Usually they’re used.

    Then, of course, there are the titles…another venue for battle between author, publishers and marketers. But don’t get me started on that!

    Matthew Wright

    http://www.matthewwright.net

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    • Wow, from marketing departments? I had no idea. That must be frustrating, unless they happen to have actually read the book and be passionate about it, of course. Glad you came up with a solution!

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  20. Fellow writer…Just ran across your blog. About a month ago I wrote a poem about this very subject. Great minds and all that. Enjoyed your take.

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  21. I take blurbs with a grain of salt these days. I’ve had experiences where writers I’ve loved have blurbed books I’ve hated and vice-versa. What I’ve long wanted to do keep a tally of how many blurbs compared books to “The Catcher in the Rye” and/or “On the Road.” When I worked at Borders years ago it seemed like every other book was “‘The Catcher in the Rye’ of its generation!”

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    • Hehe. Thanks for pointing that out. Next time I have to try and pitch something to a reader I’ll tell them it’s a teenage apocalyptic travel book that’s the Cather in the Rye on the Road for this generation.

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  22. Your word is fantabulous! It says it all! I think you are better off going to the library or getting a Nook & getting e books from the library and the books cost you nothing, so you can take books out willy nilly and if you don’t like them you just return them, so you can decide for yourself how you like them, by reading, no blurbs involved! That’s how I do it now, I can’t trust any one else’s opinion but my own…

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    • Why thanks! And cheers for the advice, I read stories on my phone, but I do quite like the idea of a dedicated e-reader – even though I love physical books – so many to choose from.

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  23. I like to read the blurbs after I’ve finished reading the book, so that I can realize retroactively that it was a riveting work of genius after all. Thanks for the interesting post. My bookshelves are full of unreadable books that I bought based solely on glowing blurbs.

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  24. Many times authors don’t read the manuscript, they write the blurb based on their relationship with the author, agent, publisher, etc.

    On the other hand, I do know of at least one case where an author was asked to write a blurb and did. But it was so general that the author who requested the blurb wondered whether it was worth putting on her book. In the end, she did. It turns out that getting a well-known author’s name on your book is better than no name at all! (Facebook and other social media sites use the same principle – leverage relationships to get us to do what they want us to do.)

    Even with that knowledge, I, as a book publicist, am still swayed by whoever’s name is on the back – it certainly adds credibility. It’s like cozying up to someone we like — see, so and so likes what I like! But I read the blurb carefully to see if I can detect anything between the lines.

    Nice post. Thanks! And thanks for the new word – captures it perfectly.
    Marcia
    http://marciamayne.com/blog
    http://insidejourneys.com

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    • Thanks for your insight Marci! I guess it works in exactly the same, very successful, way that Facebook utilizes with it’s Like option – and it can be a hard recommendation to ignore, even when you suspect it isn’t a true one.

      I work in marketing, so I can be more cynical than most sometimes – but I love to think that the world of books is somehow different. all fluffy bunnies and what have you.

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  25. Oh gawd….same thing with movies. You see a blurb and everyone builds it up and think it’ll be great when really it’s a hot mess. Or everyone says it’s horrible and then I think “it wasn’t so bad”. Burbondency. haha love it.

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  26. I’ve been reading Susan Shapiro’s “Only as Good as Your Word: Writing Lessons from my Favorite Literary Gurus” and she had a funny story about blurbs. She teaches classes on how to successfully write and publish books, and if any of her students have more successful book sales than she has, they have to write a blurb for her, and vice versa. Maybe it is all a conspiracy. Love the post!

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  27. Mine seems to run in the opposite direction. When I read a small blurb on the copy of ‘Mockingjay’ by Suzanne Collins, I noted that of all people, Stephenie Meyer had given it a rave review.

    I remembered loving the book for some reason or the other.

    Congrats on being freshly pressed though!
    Lectin
    noonecanhelpme.wordpress.com

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  28. My trick now, is to scan the blurb, ignore it, and open up the book. I read a few pages at the start, middle and toward the end of the book. If nothing in there captivates me, I’m out! Also, if I have the misfortune of buying a book that sucks, I return it to the bookstore and tell them I would like a refund. When they ask why, I tell them it sucks. I remember the expression on the clerk’s face when I returned The Book of Awesome and told her there was nothing awesome about it 🙂

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  29. Interesting that only one or two other writers weighed in, and so much conspiracy theory abounds.

    My new book is out in April and here’s what my recent blurb-seeking experience was like:

    1) deciding, with agent and editor, whose blurbs might best fit the tone and content of my book (a business book that is also a memoir of my working retail); 2) deciding who might actually DO it and not blow us off because they are impossibly Too Big; 3) asking more than a dozen people, from superstars (who accepted my FB friending — hah) who ignored my requests to two Big Names who said “sounds like a terrific book but I don’t have time”; 4) begging, for weeks, two assistants to to Big Names who, finally, blew me off; 5) cold-calling a Big Name Author who sits in the next booth at our local diner, has met me, writes for the same newspapers as I — and ignored me.

    I have never heard of anyone being paid to write a blurb. It was MUCH harder than writing the bloody book trying to get them. I got two through two people I know professionally; one through my publisher and one huge one through a cold call/luck. It was a deeply unpleasant experience to know I have a terrific book that DOES need a PR boost from writers you have heard of and admire and could not leap that hurdle.

    Whatever readers think of them, unless you can call in a ton of very high-level favors, blurbs are hell to obtain — as my agent and editor kept telling me. Good thing they don’t matter to readers after all!

    My book is “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail”, out April 14, 20111.
    http://caitlinkelly.com/

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    • That does sound like a real battle – I’m glad you got what you needed in the end though. It would be really interesting to find out how much sway blurbs have over readers these days – judging by the comments, we really do seem to be quite a distrustful bunch when it comes to endorsements. Thanks for telling your side of the story!

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  30. I always take blurbs with a grain of salt. I’ve read blurbs that gave erroneous info about the book. It was obvious the person never read it. And I do know that writers do favors for each other all the time. We got a blurb from Betty Freidan for our book. It was a real coup, and it turned out to be the last blurb she gave before she died.

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  31. I try not to judge the book only according to the blurb. Though at times, I’m like you, and if one of my favorite authors has commented on it, and liked the book, I’ll probably buy it. One of my favorite things to try when I’m not sure if I’ll like the book is to read the back and first page in the store itself. I’m a fast reader, so it doesn’t take me much time, but by doing these two things, I know whether I’ll like the book or not.
    If I’m still wrong, then I just accept it. Hey, I can’t be right about every book, after all!
    Ashley, aka TheEverydayMuser
    http://www.theeverydaymuser.wordpress.com

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    • For a second there I thought you said the first and last page, not first and back and I was wondering how you could give away the ending to yourself – then I realised that what you actually said made a lot more sense!

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  32. The fact that you used the word ‘blurbondency’ is amazing in itself. Kudos on that! I rarely pay any attention whatsoever to blurbs and especially not as a means to help me decide what book to choose. I’m more a cover girl (‘Ooh! Look at the pretty colors!’)… Seriously, friend suggestions or best sellers are my compasses.

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    • I’m right there with you. Great packaging or a gorgeous picture and I’ll find it hard to put a book down, even when I realise the book is something I would never normally read. Thanks!

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  33. Love this. I’ve stopped reading blurbs…which is weird, since I’m an author. I’ve found reading reviews–the good and the bad–gives me a better idea of whether or not I’ll like a book. Then I’ll start reading the first few pages. Makes me feel like a freakin’ agent. If I aint hooked by page three, I probably won’t buy it.

    I’m glad I checked out freshly pressed. This was a great post.

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    • Cheers Bianca! hehe, time is precious – especially when it comes to choosing your reading materials I guess! Thanks for checking it out, I’m curious about whether you felt/were told you needed blurbs for your own stuff?

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