Why blurbs remain important in the digital age

Authors, publishers, readers and agents argue over the importance of praise from a fellow writer in selling books

Bestselling author Jonathan Franzen decided to take a stand this week, declaring: "I am out of the blurb business."

The acclaimed writer of The Corrections and Freedom has been spending so much time reading just to provide a positive quote for a new work that he has neglected his own. He told Time magazine: "I realised this had to stop."

He is not the first author to become overwhelmed with requests to help push a new book with a quote for the dust jacket. Three years ago Stephen Fry said he was "getting a bit fed up" at the requests, and planned to scale back his book blurbing activity.

While he wanted to support emerging authors, with his quotes becoming ubiquitous, Fry wondered "isn't there a law of diminishing returns at work here?"

Authors, publishers, readers and agents argue over the importance of praise from a fellow writer in selling books – or indeed, a newspaper review. Yet, while blurbs may have declining influence on physical books, they remain important in the digital age.

There is little hard data, although anecdotally publishers admit readers claim not to be swayed by a quote.

Scott Pack, publisher at The Friday Project, an imprint of HarperCollins, said: "It's debatable how important the blurbs are for established authors, although if a buyer is considering buying a book it might reinforce their decision." It is part of a wider marketing drive to create a shorthand for readers, which also includes packaging books to make them similar to others.

Blurbs become more important for first time authors. "If you're pushing a literary debut you really want some heavyweight authors behind it," Mr Pack said, adding that sometimes it did not matter what they said.

The process that one US journalist described as "blurb harvesting" starts with the publisher suggesting the new author gets in touch with any potentially useful contacts.

The publisher will then send a draft manuscript in its final stages to appropriate authors, as well as others in the company's stable. "You call in favours from mates," Mr Pack said. "Ideally you want someone who is a household name, but that's hard. There are people who just won't do it. Others are too busy to read loads of scripts." No money changes hands.

Others just allow fellow authors to use their names. One publisher was trying to sell a debut novel and asked Beryl Bainbridge for a quote. "Just say whatever you want," she replied.

Gavin James Bower, an editorial director at Quartet Books and author of Made in Britain, had a similar experience when he approached an established author to provide a quote for his first book. He was told: "I haven't got time, and you shouldn't take the industry so seriously. Just make it up."

Mr Bower continued: "Did it add value? Were any more copies sold? I don't think so, but there are lot of established trends in the industry that no one will challenge."

The declining muscle of the chain bookstores, as some have gone out of business and others cut down on special offers and display tables, limits the opportunities for readers to see such glowing quotes.

The blurb itself, however, remains important and authors will not see the requests slow. With the rise of Amazon and ebooks, it is not on the cover image, but the "book description" section when a browser clicks a title on the online retailer.

Humourist Gelett Burgess coined the term blurb, when he tweaked the jacket for his book Are You a Bromide? to include praise from Miss Belinda Blurb.

George Orwell called blurbs "disgusting tripe" in 1936 while Camille Paglia called for an end to it, saying the practice was plagued by "shameless cronyism and grotesque hyperbole". Friends do review each other's work, but publishers said they are unlikely to plug something they do not rate.

One US author, AJ Jacobs admitted in the New York Times that he had become such a regular blurber, his blurbed books "fill a bookcase in my apartment". Mr Bower said: "A lot of it is ego stroking and vanity, and approval among peers," he said. "In the majority of cases blurbs don't make any difference. But when they do, they really do."

Winning words: examples of the blurb

When browsing the shelves, an endorsement from an author you admire can help make that purchase a bit easier. But dig deeper, and glowing recommendations become harder to trust.

The latest paperback edition of Lee Child's Killing Floor, the popular thriller writer's debut novel, comes complete with some glowing praise from Stephen King, right. ""All are ripping yarns," the cover says, "but since this is the first, it seems the logical place to start." The back-slapping fest between Child and King is well-documented, and Child once described King as "America's greatest living novelist".

A Trick I Learned From Dead Men, by former actress Kitty Aldridge, was praised by Liz Jensen. "Kitty Aldridge has pulled off an astonishing feat of imaginative empathy: humourous, poignant, wise and utterly convincing. Lee Hart's struggle to hold his life together – voiced with the clarity and frankness of a reluctant stoic – could pierce the hardest heart." Both writers share the agent Clare Alexander.

"Salley Vickers sees with a clear eye and writes with a light hand and she knows how the world works. She's a presence worth cherishing," says Phillip Pullman, right, of Vickers's The Cleaner of Chartres. Just two years ago, Vickers described Pullman as a "supreme storyteller" in a review of his The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ.

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