What you need to know
First, the crazy word, "blurb"
What the heck is the derivation of that crazy word? Is it adapted into English from a different language? Is it a slang term? Is it a combination of words?
The answer to that is "none of the above."
Do you know how Theodore Geisel, a.k.a. Dr. Suess, made up words for fun?
He wasn't the first to do that.
The word "blurb" is a word fabricated by a humorist/comedian more than a century ago. It was created tongue-in-cheek by a guy named Gelett Burgess to promote his own work, a joke book called Are You a Bromide? at the annual American Bookseller's Association dinner in 1907.
Gelett Burgess created a mock cover for his book featuring a bold print heading at the top: "Yes, this is a blurb"! The artwork featured a picture of a shouting woman, commenting,
"All the other publishers commit them. Why shouldn't we?"
(Notice the word choice. "Commit them." As if manufacturing blurbs is a crime!)
A few of the blurb phrases that Burgess uses to describe his own book are
"It has gush and go to it"
"When you've READ this masterpiece, you'll know what a BOOK is."
"This book has 42-carat THRILLS in it."
"It fairly burbles."
"This book is the Proud Purple Penultimate!!"
You get the idea. Burgess created the word "blurb," a term that was intended to mean hyperbolic praise in order to sell your own book. He called a blurb, "a flamboyant advertisement;" "an inspired testimonial," or "a sound like a publisher."
The first "blurb" before there was a name for it
Before there was a term for the words used to promote books, one of the great figures of American literature pioneered the art of self-promotion.
Walt Whitman is often credited with being the first "blurb-er." When Ralph Waldo Emerson sent Whitman a personal note praising Leaves of Grass, Whitman - one of the earliest book marketers - excerpted a single line from Emerson's missive:
"I greet you at the beginning of a great career."
Emerson used that line and embossed it in gold on the spine of the second printing of Leaves of Grass. Emerson was renowned. Whitman was not. Whitman understood that he could take full advantage of Emerson's reputation by using his words, verbatim. In fact, Whitman gave Emerson's letter to Charles Dana, a top aide to Horace Greely of The New York Tribune, who published the letter in full in October of 1855. (And Whitman did it without even asking Emerson if it would be okay!)
George Orwell as the great detractor of the blurb
From the mid-1800s when Whitman delved into book promotion to the day in 1907 when Burgess debuted the term "blurb," laudatory snippets were an accepted element of book marketing. Book covers flaunted them. Blurbs accessorized the front pages of books, verbal corsages meant to show off impressive literary cleavage.
Times have not changed all that much. Authors have always struggled to sell their works and have always looked for innovative strategies to promote their wares.
Not everyone thought book blurbs were beneficial, however.
George Orwell, novelist and gifted essayist, wrote a piece titled, "In Defence of the Novel" and made some interesting statements.
"if you write novels you automatically command a less intelligent public than you would command if you had chosen some other form,"
"The trouble is that the novel is being shouted out of existence. Question any thinking person as to why he ‘never reads novels’, and you will usually find that, at bottom, it is because of the disgusting tripe that is written by the blurb-reviewers."
Ouch. Orwell goes on to give a contemporary example of a book blurb, à la 1932.
"If you can read this book and not shriek with delight, your soul is dead."
His theory is that when every novel that is published comes out with a blurb that makes it sound like a masterpiece, you know that they are lying. His exact words go like this:
"When all novels are thrust upon you as words of genius, it is quite natural to assume that all of them are tripe."
(Consider the defamatory nature of the word "tripe." The first or second stomach of a cow eaten as food. Rubbish.) Yikes!
Why are blurbs so prominent in publishing?
Just because Orwell believed that blurbs are the bane of literature doesn't mean everyone believed that, too. Obviously not. How many books have you picked up that DON'T have blurbs on them?
Blurbing is now seen as an essential part of publishing and marketing. Prominent authors are often asked to blurb for others on the theory that their endorsement will sell books. Authors sometimes blurb "down," promoting a student or mentee in order to boost their career. Agents and editors ask, (beg, barter, and negotiate), for blurbs from leaders in the industry or from any celebrity, author, or influencer who may bolster sales.
The most common practice is "lateral blurbing," a process that "represents a tangled mass of friendships, rivalries, favors traded and debts repaid, not always in good faith" as described by the writer, Rachel Donadio.
Asking for blurbs can be difficult, and it often becomes an "I'll-write-one-for-you-if-you-write-one-for-me" scenario for unknown writers. Many established authors view writing blurbs as an obligation, something they must do in order to get blurbs for their own work. Acquiring blurbs is a complicated, difficult, and time-consuming practice. Viet Thanh Nguyen, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Sympathizer in 2016, decried the whole blurbing process:
“They create so much work, emotional labor and guilt, whether one is writing one or one is asking for one."
Blurb writing is big business
Wouldn't it be fantastic if unknown writers had contacts with big literary names who would write blurbs for them? (Fantastic, but totally unrealistic.)
That's why writing blurbs can be lucrative. If you don't have an agent or a publisher or don't know a lot of prominent people who can promote your career, you can pay someone to write blurbs. Starting at $10 on FIVVER, you can get a blurb written by people of diverse backgrounds and experiences. If you're a writer and are struggling with writing your own bio or book description, you can hire it done, too!
A great creative writing exercise
If you want to hone your creative edge, try crafting some solid book blurbs, straddling the line between outlandish hyperbole and routine, boring promotion.
I pulled three books at random off my shelf holding "C" and "D" titles. The blurbs make each book sound wonderful, but when you read them all together, they all sound the same.
"Crooked Little Heart is a wonderful novel- the kind of book you want to wrap your arms around and hold close to your heart." Mark Childress for Anne Lamott's Crooked Little Heart
"The Cartographers" is an exquisitely written brilliantly plotted, absolutely fantastic novel. A story like this reminds us of why we all fell in love with reading to begin with..." Brad Thor for The Cartographers
"This charming, inventive, and utterly irresitble novel is the story we all need right now." - Susan Wiggs for The Dictionary of Lost Words
Here's what you really need to know about book blurbs.
No research exists that proves they're effective. No company or person has studied analytic data connecting the sale of books to the blurbs on the front. Carl Kulo, the U.S. Director of Research for Nielson Bookscan admits that the correlation between blurbs and book-buying is not something that's easily trackable.
Do self-published books need blurbs, too? All the sites encourage writing compelling descriptions, and Amazon books achieve popular status only after lots of people leave reviews.
Can you sell a book WITHOUT blurbs? (Has anyone ever tried?) But even if you are brave enough to attempt it, it's hard to buck centuries of publishing preferences and promote a bare, naked, blurbless book.
Have I ever bought a book because of the blurbs? Absolutely.
Would I buy a book without them? Maybe, but I've yet to walk into a bookstore and find a book without them!