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.

Arts and Entertainment
Jude Law in Black Sea

film

In Black Seahe is as audiences have never seen him before

Arts and Entertainment
Johnny Depp no longer cares if people criticise his movie flops

film

Arts and Entertainment
Full circle: Wu-Tang’s Method Man Getty

Music review

Arts and Entertainment
When he was king: Muhammad Ali training in 'I Am Ali'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Scare tactics: Michael Palin and Jodie Comer in ‘Remember Me’

TVReview: Remember Me, BBC1
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
TV
News
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
art
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
books
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

    Christmas Appeal

    Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
    Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

    Is it always right to try to prolong life?

    Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

    What does it take for women to get to the top?

    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
    Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

    Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

    Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
    French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

    French chefs campaign against bullying

    A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

    Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
    Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

    Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

    Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
    Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

    Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

    Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
    Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

    Paul Scholes column

    I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
    Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game