Blurb’s the Word

In July of 1855, American essayist, poet, and all-around deep thinker Ralph Waldo Emerson picked up a book that some young upstart found the courage to send him unsolicited. The book, a somewhat pretentious collection of poetry self-published by an unidentified author, was called Leaves of Grass. Miraculously, the presumably quite busy Emerson opened the book.

He loved it. He searched the publication information and discovered the name of the copyright holder. Then he sat down to write to Walt Whitman. The letter is encouraging and poetic and Whitman had to be pretty psyched to receive it because up until then the reviews of his book hadn’t been especially kind.

Emerson’s response to Leaves of Grass. I’m a little surprised Whitman could even read it. By Ralph Waldo Emerson, from the Library of Congress, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Next Whitman did what any author would probably do. He sent the letter to a contact at the New York Tribune. When he later printed a second edition of Leaves of Grass, he included the letter as an appendix. Just to make sure no one could miss it, Whitman also placed the tiny excerpt, “‘I greet you at the beginning of a great career’—R. W. Emerson” right on the spine.

This was probably the first example of the now ubiquitous book blurb. Just about every book you pick up off the shelf at your friendly neighborhood bookstore has at least one on the cover. There’s often even a page or two of them in the front of the books of established or well-connected authors.

They also grace the top of every description on Amazon, where you’ll find them listed along with the label: “#1 Amazon Bestseller in Lesbian Clown Self-help Literature.”

And that’s how you know the author is much better at playing the Amazon marketing game than I am. I’m hopeless. Also probably not writing in the correct category to achieve such a claim to fame.

Now that’s a book blurb. Damn it.

But I do have a blurb on my cover and atop my book description. A few years ago I attended a writers conference in Arkansas and was lucky enough to get to talk with keynote speak and New York Times bestselling history writer Jeff Guinn. If you haven’t read his books, you should check them out. They’re well-researched, accessible, and fascinating—everything a great history book should be.

It was with trepidation that this upstart approached Mr. Guinn to ask for his opinion on her book. Fortunately, like Emerson, he was incredibly gracious and despite a busy schedule (filming for an upcoming documentary on Jonestown for Sundance TV), he agreed to take a look. About a week after I sent him the manuscript, the Jeff Guinn sent me this:

“Quality fiction and real history make a great match, and Sarah Angleton’s Gentleman of Misfortune offers the best of both. This is an engaging story with surprises on every page.”

—Jeff Guinn, New York Times bestselling author of The Last Gunfight and Manson

And that’s when I fainted.

freakgifOkay, I didn’t really faint, but my response was definitely a little undignified. Next I did what any author probably would. I sent the blurb off to my cover artist. And if I’d had any connections to major news outlets, I’d have probably sent it to them, too.

I know not everyone loves blurbs. Some in the publishing industry complain they’ve become so common they’re basically meaningless. Some readers ignore them. I don’t think a blurb alone would ever make me decide to read a book, but personally I like them. Knowing that someone whose work I have enjoyed or respected thought enough of a book to allow their name to be associated with it is something I find compelling.

I’m so grateful to Mr. Guinn and to the handful of other authors who offered lovely words about Gentleman of Misfortune. Each of them also has produced great works that I hope readers of my book will look up if they’re unfamiliar with them. I’m grateful to be even a small part of a generous industry full of Emersons willing to help out their emerging fellows.

So, what about you? Do book blurbs make any difference to you?

22 thoughts on “Blurb’s the Word

  1. Actually, I do read book blurbs and enjoy hearing what other authors have to say…but I’ve always been kind of a nerd. 🙂 However, I also usually take them with a grain of salt. (That’s not to say I wasn’t thoroughly impressed that a NYT bestselling author endorsed your book, which I noticed when I read the blurb!) 🙂 I’ve grown cautious about book blurbs because too many times a blurb sets up an expectation that simply isn’t fulfilled. My worst blurb experience was the promise that a particular book was the next To Kill a Mockingbird (my favorite as an English teacher). I bought the book simply based on that promise. Needless to say, it was quite a disappointment. And the truth is, the book was probably quite good…but I was so focused on waiting for the TKAM experience that I’m sure I missed it!

  2. I look at them, but they don’t make or break whether I read a book. A few weeks ago (I think) I posted a meme on my FB author page that made me laugh. It contained all the blurb cliches any author could ever need. Here’s a link to the “bingo card” in case anyone wants to take a look. 🙂
    (To see image, scroll down-Edited by Sarah)

  3. That’s amazing!! I would never have been that brave. I’d probably have been more the sneak-the-book-into-his-satchel type and then hoped it didn’t end up in recycling. As far as blurbs, I usually skip over any from sources I know are paid for reviews, but if I see another author’s opinion, I gobble it up.

    1. It definitely makes my list of bravest things I’ve done. The lesson? Ask. You don’t have a blurb before you ask, and if the answer is no or no response, you’re no worse off. The answer can’t be yes if you don’t ask

  4. Gosh – you’re so much braver than me. I would be too scared to attend the Arkansas writer’s thing, let alone show the MS to a famous personage. Well done! I don’t take much notice of blurbs but I do read reviews!

  5. I think blurbs add a lot – I almost always read them. Especially if I’m buying a book brand new, it helps to hear it from others. Congratulations, I can’t imagine how excited you must have been to receive such praise! I have your book cued up on my Kindle, have a few others to get through first but I’m VERY excited!

  6. For me, blurbs from my favorite authors mean a lot. If I am picking a book even with the tiniest doubt, it makes me want to read it for sure and see for myself what those authors mentioned 🙂

    1. I definitely give them more weight if they come from an author I’ve enjoyed. Once I actually put a book back on the shelf, too, because an author whose work I don’t care for blurbed it. That probably wasn’t fair, but there are so many books and I only have so much time

  7. Samuel Hall

    Sarah, I’m so glad you got a blurb from such a high-profile author! You are an excellent writer, so keep it up. Like you say, nothing gained if you don’t ask, but if you do–and they come thru–look at what you got!
    Good for you. Now we can all say, we knew you back when.

    1. I don’t know if that makes you a snob, but if it does then I’m one, too. I admit, I once even put a book down because there was a blurb on it from an author whose work I hadn’t enjoyed. Probably not fair, but there are just so many books. I can’t read them all no matter how much I may want to. Thanks for stopping by!

I love comments! Please keep them PG, though. I blush easily.

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