Monday, 3 August 2015

On book blurbs

Can I take a publisher to court under the Trade Descriptions Act if a book’s blurb – ‘heartwarming’, ‘unputdownable’, ‘will make you laugh out loud’ – turns out to be simply not true?

Blurbs are fiendishly tricky to write. There are certain classics: the blurb for Nicola Barker’s first short-story collection included, as I recall, ‘Her characters are short but sturdy’.) Generally I favour short rather than long – any slab of prose in small print on the back of a book puts me off immediately. Certain phrases should of course be outlawed. ‘Tour de force’, obviously, though it’s used less now than it used to be. ‘Writing at the height of his/her powers’, others. But then, aiming for short and concise, I sometimes cross a point beyond which I’m not saying anything at all.

Puff quotes from other authors now seem required. What’s to be done about these? I once saw a letter, sent out by an editor to an author on his list, not just asking for a puff quote for a book but giving three possible sentences from which the author might choose. (What would you do? Say no, at risk of annoying your editor, or go along with this?) Any quote from someone who needs to be glossed as ‘author of [book title]’ leaves me cold. But equally, any quote from an author who I seem have seen on a whole lot of other book covers.

The back of a book cover is almost as important as the front (though it’s never the thing that people want when they ask for a ‘cover image’: they just mean the front). It offers a certain space, and one of the points of blurbs is to get the text right in proportion to that space.

I once had a one-day-a-week job that involved rewriting blurbs. The UK publisher, ducking out, left the blurbs to his usually academic authors, who filled out the space with tedious essays. The publisher who distributed the books in the US shortened and sexed up the academic blurbs for his own catalogue, usually without having the books themselves to check against. The UK publisher decided he wanted a blend of both – that is, both academic and sexed up – and paid me to stir them together and add seasoning to taste.

Is anyone up for sponsoring an annual prize for worst blurb of the year? As with the Bad Sex Prize, the shortlisted candidates would be printed in national newspapers for general hilarity. Books can, surely, be oversold. No one, I think, has yet tried in book blurbs the method of the 1960s estate agent Roy Brooks, who sold houses very successfully by being ruthlessly honest in his descriptions: ‘The decor of the nine rooms, some of which hangs inelegantly from the walls, is revolting. Not entirely devoid of plumbing, there is a pathetic kitchen and one cold tap. No bathroom, of course, but Chelsea has excellent public baths’; ‘untouched by the 20th century as far as conveniences for even the basic human decencies are concerned … still habitable judging by the bed of rags, fag ends and empty bottles in one corner’; ‘Comprises 10 rather unpleasant rooms with slimy back yard.’

Anyway, today I’ve been attempting to write a blurb. I’ve got as far as this: ‘Happiness, love, some decent food – not much to ask for, surely?’


Bob D. said...

Does a foreword count as a blurb? I've always liked the opening of Herbert Read's offering for Camus's The Rebel: 'With the publication of this book a cloud that has oppressed the European mind for more than a century begins to lift.' I must have another crack at the book itself sometime.

Anonymous said...

Think any book with blurbs using the words 'loss', 'lyrical' or 'profound meditation' have to be avoided like the plague in my opinion (not that you're asking).

David Collard said...

A much-missed second-hand bookshop opposite Kensington's Olympia used to have a shelf of books which had nothing in common apart from a commendatory blurb by Anthony Burgess, the proprietor's idea being that one could become very well-read by following his recommendations. Damn right. 'Piquant and riveting' on the cover of Gilbert Adair's 'Myths and Memories' snagged my interest. Likewise the Burgess encomium for 'The Holy Innocents' by the same author. In summary - that it was a far better book than Cocteau's Les Enfants Terribles, 'considered a masterpiece'.

But (and apropos) I've always been worried by those hysterical endorsements outside West End theatres, and especially 'Kill to get a ticket'. Would that stand up in court?

David Collard said...

PS the one that makes me shudder: 'A return to form'

Poetry Pleases! said...

Dear Charles

Surely the point of a blurb is to make people want to purchase the book. The fact that they often feel thoroughly cheated afterwards is tough luck and caveat emptor. I've noticed that poetry volumes are usually recommended by other poets from the same publisher.

Best wishes from Simon R. Gladdish

David said...

I noticed with some amusement that Nell Zink and Jonathan Franzen traded blurbs for their most recent books. I'm sure I'm not the only person who is only aware of Nell Zink as 'that up and coming American author who has been championed by Jonathan Franzen'.