Book blurbs: no one knows whether hyperbolic tone is deserved or not


Book blurbs serve a purely promotional purpose. Photo: AFP

"Extraordinary," "breathtaking," "the new Stephen King"... Book covers often contain short, glowing quotes from literary critics and/or writers. These so-called blurbs are a common promotional tool, but they're increasingly being criticised within the profession.

The issues surrounding blurbs were brought to light in August by the Society of British Authors (SoA), following the publication of Jordan Peterson's latest book, Beyond Order: 12 More Rules For Life.

The issue was that all the eminently positive statements by literary journalists quoted on the back cover proved to be misleading. They had, in fact, been distorted from their original meaning to praise the personal development book by this Canadian psychologist, known for his anti-feminist and anti-transgender ideas.

Devoid of context

Jordan Peterson's British publishing house, Bonnier Books, is alleged to have edited reviews published in the Times, Sunday Times or New Statesman in such a way that they were complimentary and devoid of context.

Nicola Solomon, chief executive of the SoA, takes issue with this dishonest practice. Readers and authors "deserve honest, fair marketing from publishers. We can’t get that by undermining and misrepresenting one writer to boost the sales of another. It puts off reviewers from reviewing and readers from buying," she told The Bookseller.

Faced with the scale of the controversy, The Guardian reports that Bonnier Books has pledged to draw up a best practice guide on blurbs for its teams.

This case highlights the ethical issues behind the use of blurbs. Consumers tend to rely on the front and back covers of a book to make purchase decisions. While the front cover is first and foremost an eye-catcher, the back cover completes the sales pitch by providing potential readers with factual information about the book in their hands.

However, it also contains purely promotional elements, such as banners referring to literary awards and blurbs - a subtlety that buyers aren't always aware of.

A long-criticised practice

That's why many voices have been raised in the past against these short, flattering statements.

English writer George Orwell abhorred them and felt that they weakened the prestige of the novel, as he wrote in his essay In Defence Of The Novel" (1936).

A few years earlier, the American publisher Ellis Meyer protested in Publishers Weekly that "only a fraction of the thousands of books issued each year are worth while - yet each is blurbed and ballyhooed as an authentic masterpiece."

Therein lies the problem with blurbs. No one knows whether their hyperbolic tone is deserved or not. Readers, now all too accustomed to seeing them on the back of every new release, are likely to distrust them and not want to read an umpteenth work presented as "brilliant, "a masterpiece," or "a must-read."

Book world professionals, too, are increasingly critical of this practice, which has been going on for more than a century.

Publishers, agents and authors often hate scouring their address books for literary figures willing to write a blurb for their next book.

"Writing the book itself was a feat. But somehow having to email authors and influencers I look up to and ask them to spend (unpaid) time and energy reading said book and then writing kind words about it made me feel like high school girl all over again," wrote the author and journalist, L'Oreal Thompson Payton, in her LT in the City Weekly newsletter. All of which is worth bearing in mind the next time you read a rave review on the back of a book. - AFP

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Book blurbs , hyperbole , book industry , criticism


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