The secret life of blurbs

Blurbs, the quotes from famous people that appear on books, are curious things. They’ve been around forever, and show no sign of going away. It takes work for an author to get them. When you see a high profile name on a book it means the author, or their editor or agent, is well connected. It’s not a democratic nor meritocratic process.

The work involved goes something like this:

  1. Publishers and authors want to sell books
  2. Endorsements from famous people, in theory, help sell books
  3. To get a blurb, authors ask everyone famous they know, or friends of friends of famous people
  4. Some of those people agree to consider it – many decline or don’t respond
  5. Some of the people who agree actually look at the book
  6. Of those people, some offer a blurb, many decline here too
  7. Of those that offer a blurb, some are good enough to use

It’s a long, nag-filled process. Reading a book takes time, as does writing a short quotable summation of it.

Some famous people never give blurbs (I know because I’ve asked them, and they told me). Other famous people love to blurb as many things as they can (It’d be interesting for someone with google-fu to see which famous people give the most blurbs).  There is definite evidence some people give blurbs without even skimming the book (quid-pro-quo blurbing is common), whereas others insist on reading the entire thing before considering anything. 

My first 3 books have many great blurbs from famous people, and I’m grateful for them. But for such a small piece of copy, people have very strong opinions about what they do or do not imply.

The singular blurb for my new book, Mindfire: Big Ideas for Curious Minds is unique. It’s unusual because unlike every other blurb I’ve seen, I, the author, wrote it myself. “You are smart enough to buy books for better reasons than a famous person you don’t know saying you should.” It’s my book, why not be honest?

I hope you find it amusing, or at least clever. Here’s why I did it:

  1. Most blurbs sound the same. I figured a more interesting and honest blurb may earn more attention than a famous person you don’t really know saying “I love this. It was better than Cats” or “Amazing read” or another thing much like what others have said about other books.
  2. As a self-published book, I’d rather invest time in making the book awesome. If I could skip the laborious and unavoidable steps listed above for hunting blurbs, I could focus more energy on making the book itself worthy of attention. Was it a mistake? I’m not sure.
  3. Given a chance, people can evaluate things themselves.  I decided to give 1/3rd of the book away, for free, as a Preview (PDF). I think most people know how to skim a book and decide if it’s interesting or not, all on their own.

Did I make a mistake? Do blurbs make a big difference in your book purchasing decisions? If not, what does?

If you want to know more about my self-publishing experience, read this.

14 Responses to “The secret life of blurbs”

  1. Scott Berkun

    It is interesting to notice how few books on Amazon.com’s top 100 have prominent blurbs on the front cover. The trend, from this sample, is they’re more of a back cover thing these days.

    Reply
  2. Thomas Duff

    Personally, I think it was fine. Given your style and the type of book it is, I thought it was perfect. If anyone has read your other books or hung around your blog, they’d understand it. Granted, you’re trying to reach a new audience, but it’s something that makes a person start thinking from the cover rather than 14 pages in.

    You’re right in that some word bites are major fluff. There’s one book I refused to review because the writer’s personality would interfere with how I’d judge the info. In the front, there are all these glowing praises of her book, yet they were given quite a bit before the book was even done. Needless to say, I view most of THOSE people as hypocritical now. Not good… and this is coming from someone who has had a fair number of his review clips used on covers and inside… :)

    You did a great job on this book… It was one of the best reads I had this year in terms of making me think about things in different ways.

    Reply
  3. Kathy Sierra

    I don’t think you made a mistake — I love your blurb. I DO think blurbs can be extremely useful with new/unknown authors, or those with a topic that is not positioned clearly from the title. With my first book, I was in desperate need of credibility from the *serious* programming/software dev community because the book looked much less serious than it actually was. The blurbs from some key developers ( or perhaps simply the endorsements) meant a great deal. And I DO sometimes make choices based on blurbs, if it is from another author whose work I know and appreciate. It is the equivalent of a trusted colleague recommending a book.

    But after my first book, I doubt it mattered much. We even set out to find an absurd, out-of-context person to give a blurb as in our second book, when the original bachelor from “Who wants to marry
    a millionaire” gave us a “This book is so good I would marry it on TV”.

    You are already a multi-best-seller with a big following. Hard to imagine there is anyone whose blurb could make a difference for you.

    Reply
  4. Jason Crawford

    Ha, this is great.

    I’d say the one time I find blurbs really helpful is if I’m not familiar with the author but I do know and like person who the blurb, and the blurb says something meaningful. Then it’s a useful endorsement.

    Reply
  5. Jared

    Kudos. A summary or synopsis on the back cover of a book is SO much more helpful than blurbs, which are practically worthless.

    Reply
  6. Hernan

    I was maybe interested in this upcoming book. After reading this I will definitely buy it. I hope other people will appreciate it too.

    Reply
  7. Jack Dempsey

    I loved it. It fit you and Mindfire very well, it was amusing, and true. Couldn’t ask for a better blurb and I think it showed some guts. A+ IMHO

    Reply
  8. Rob

    I think your own personal blurb is awesome. I think subconsciously I sometimes give too much weight to a blurb, and assume that “this book must be good if so and so recommends it.”

    Reply
  9. Sean Crawford

    I suppose related to quid-quo-pro is herd instinct. My respect for sf writer Keith Laumer went up a notch after someone (a book review columnist?) noted that Laumer declined to give a good blurb when everyone else was doing so. I believe Laumer was right and the others were wrong.

    Reply
  10. Robert

    Let’s not forget about the famous people who have someone on their staff read the book and then ghostwrite the blurb for them. That definitely happens.

    Reply

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