Sunday, 15 June 2014

Blurbs

A quick post, as near a rant as Stuck-in-a-Book is ever likely to get.  Blurbs!  I work in publishing, and I'm now used to writing content which needs to fulfil a purpose and tone, so I get it, I see why blurbs have to exist (although I try not to read them, as they give away far too much).  Today I found the worst blurb ever.

It's on the NYRB Classics edition of Adolfo Bioy Casares' Asleep in the Sun (more on that soon).  Well, it gives it enormous swathes of plot - including a major reveal which happens on p.161 of 173pp.  And, worse, it gets the plot wrong.  I don't want to spoil the book for you (unlike the writers of that blurb...) but basically it says that a big transformative event happens, and it doesn't.  A vaguely similar, but significantly different, event happens instead.

Having finished the book, I can see why someone might have skimmed it to write the copy...

What are your thoughts on blurbs?  Do you find them useful?  I always avoid introductions before reading a book, because they invariably give away far too much, but it looks like I'll have to add blurbs to that list - I usually decide whether or not I want to read a book (if it's entirely unknown to me) by flicking a few pages in and sampling the text, instead of the blurb.

And can you think of any terrible culprits of dreadful blurb-ing? (And, oh, how I have come to hate the word 'blurb' while writing this post...)

40 comments:

  1. Funny you should mention it, Simon! I've been so frustrated by blurbs lately that this excellent post compels me to de-lurk. Blurbs for murder mysteries often give away the nature of the twist - I complained to Audible about an audiobook blurb that gave away the fact that the victim had been mistaken for someone else, and have just read another book where the blurb hints (accurately) that the second murder is a copycat killing. Yes you can guess these things, but they aren't revealed till late in the books, and the reader wants the pleasure of working it out for themselves!

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    1. Whether it's a blurb or review or whatever, I find the hint of a "wonderful twist at the end; I didn't see THAT coming" sends me screaming. Even when the details of the twist are left out, knowledge of its mere existence just blows it all sideways.

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    2. Welcome Ellie, thank you for de-lurking! Definitely a good idea to complain to Audible about that sort of thing - because at least they can edit their page. And Susan, yes, any sort of hint means you read differently, which is annoying! If only we could know what sort of books we want to read (if we've not had them recommended in some way) without having to read any info.

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  2. I dislike the practice of printing the first chapter of the next book in the series, or the new book by a particular author when you have just finished reading it. I find it acutely irritating particularly if you cannot get hold of it for several months!

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    1. I didn't know that happened for grown-up books! I only remember it from Sweet Valley High and books of that ilk.

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  3. I hate them with a vengeance! I think you already know this :-) Very often they suggest a style that the book might have that (as far as this reader is concerned) it doesn't possess at all!

    What on earth are they for?? Since you "get it" can you enlighten me?

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    1. Well, I assume they're to sell books!

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    2. Well they don't work for me if that is their aim! Thank you for your reply.

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    3. Or most of us, it seems! So maybe that's not what they're for...

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  4. Far worse than blurbs are Forewards or Introductions written by scholars or somesuch which completely deconstruct the plot, background, themes, psychology and characters. They ought to be at the END of the book if included at all.

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    1. I'm with you there, Susan T. C. Those scholarly things, besides being of the "Let me explain this Victorian novel to you" variety, blithely assume you're reading the book only for a school course, and not as a real live reader for enjoyment. So of course, they discuss all the reveals and spoilers quite openly. Nitwits.

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    2. Oh yes, I NEVER read those until the end - they might as well stick them at the end (or make them have nothing to do with the plot.)

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    3. I've seen some of those that say right at the beginning that readers new to the end may wish to treat the introduction as an afterword. That's what I usually do, unless I find myself confused by the book and decide the introductory material might help. Sometimes it does, especially if there's historical context I'm not aware of.

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  5. Yes, I always read introductions after I've finished - not only does that prevent spoilers, but you can only understand what the scholar is getting at once you've completed it (or at least are well underway).
    Sally Tarbox

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    1. They're so much more rewarding afterwards, I agree.

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  6. Prize for me still goes to VMC's 1994 paperback of Elizabeth von Arnim's Christopher and Columbus for referring to the story taking place "as the Second World War looms." The fact that the book was published in 1919 should have given someone a moment's pause when they were proofing that blurb.

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    1. Ha! That IS hilarious. Excellent work - particularly on E von A's part, with her impressive prophetic powers.

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  7. No don't like blurbs. Like forwards but at end / of book so read those last unless it is non fiction. Last chapters of next book I don't read. And the word "blurb" is too much like "blog" another word I hate yet I write one. Not big on trendy nonsensical words at all. Good post.

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    1. It is a vile word, isn't it? I looked up the origin at oxforddictionaries.com, and it says 'early 20th century: coined by Gelett Burgess (died 1951), American humorist.'

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    2. Speakng of Gelett Burgess, my children loved his poems about "The Goops"

      Table Manners 1

      The Goops they lick their fingers,
      And the Goops they lick their knives;
      They spill their broth
      on the tablecloth—
      Oh, they lead disgusting lives!

      The Goops they talk while eating,
      And loud and fast they chew;
      And that is why I 'm glad that I
      Am not a Goop — are you?

      Table Manners 2

      The Goops are gluttonous and rude,
      They gug and gumble with their food;
      They throw their crumbs upon the floor,
      And at dessert they tease for more;

      They will not eat their soup and bread,
      But like to gobble sweets instead,
      And this is why I oft decline,
      When I am asked to stay and dine.


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  8. I don't read introductions but I do read blurbs, but only recently I read a proof copy of a book to be published in August that gave me the wrong impression of the book. And yet the book I'm currently writing about has some helpful blurbs from other authors whose opinions I think I can trust - in other words not all blurbs can be tarred with the same brush!

    And isn't the word 'blurb' so ugly?

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    1. So ugly!
      But that does bring another element into play - the 'puff quotes' (which I assume aren't the same as blurbs? Or are they both called that?) I find them limitedly useful, because they all say essentially the same thing... but spotting a respected author helps.

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  9. I don't like them, but do glance at them sometimes if I have no idea what a book is about - just to get the major drift/style. Forewords etc I do like, but after reading the book - why publishers insist on putting them at the beginning I don't know ...

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    1. It is curious, when they so clearly are afterwords... I use a flick-through to get the drift/style, and hope I don't spot any spoilers!

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  10. They *can* be useful if you're confused, but often they give you preconceptions which aren't accurate or affect your reading of the book. Worse still, however, are covers which give away crucial plot devices - I'm thinking in particular of two covers I've seen, one of Animal Farm with a quote that gave away everything, and one of The Murders in the Rue Morgue which did likewise. Publishers should really be a little more careful......

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    1. YES! I saw an Agatha once which gave away the method on the cover.

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    2. Some cover illustrations are a menace in that regard - my mum has a Dorothy L Sayers with a front cover which precisely illustrates the ingenious method by which the murder was committed.

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  11. I never read blurbs. I see them as advertisement only. Have you ever read a blurb that found the book less than wonderful? I'd rather read reviews by people who've read the book and are giving their honest thoughts on it.

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    1. A very good point! My favourite blurb is actually from a DVD - it's a Bollywood one, and the DVD-maker obviously couldn't read English well, as they've copied a terrible review into the blurb!

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  12. I agree, Thomas, that blubs often spoil a book, and although it is nice to have a summary of what the book is about, it should be accurate. A blurb that really annoyed me is on Ann Bridge's book 'Illyrian Spring' by Daunt Books, which says it's 'scandalous for its time'. There is absolutely nothing scandalous in the book, or that I think would have shocked people in 1935 when it was first published. However, it did spoil the book for me - I read the book dreading the 'scandalous' event, which never happened. I would have thought Daunt's customers would not need scandal to entice them to buy the book!

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    1. What a shame, as that edition was otherwise so beautiful!

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  13. There was an amusing article on blurbs recently.... ah yes, here it is http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/18/opinion/sunday/all-blurbed-out.html

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  14. I usually do read the cover copy, which I guess puts me in the minority here. (I ignore endorsement-type blurbs, though. They're cherry-picked and sometimes out of context.) I really like having some idea of what I'm getting into when I start a book. It sets my mood in the right place. I also generally don't care much about spoilers, but I hate it when blurbs discuss events late in the book. I always assume that they focus on the premise (which they should!), so I don't feel like I've really gotten started until the events in the blurb start happening. That's an annoying feeling when you're more than halfway into a book!

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  15. I don't know how official this is, but in the book business here in the States, a blurb is a piece written, usually by another author, to endorse a book and usually appears on he back of the dust jacket or in advertising. When someone wants to know what in general a book is about, they would read the "flaps" of the dust jacket. That is the copy that is written by mostly young assistants at publishing houses and often include spoilers. So annoying. I find the most irritating phrase in he world of flap copy or blurbs to be"...in the tradition of..". Usually the writer referred to has written only one or two books, so how can they have a tradition?

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  16. Blurbs are just so often either outright inaccurate (more about marketing than the actual book inside), or reveal way more than they should. I made up a rule about this once (so so long ago I just suddenly remembered it exists, good grief) - if the plot point or character reveal or I don't know what happens after the first 10% of the book, it can't go in the blurb. So novellas can only get vague summaries, epic novels can maybe get a couple dramatic fights in, and regular books get a solid premise, but for goodness sake actual spoilers will be omitted. It's not a perfect rule, but it manages to get rid of a heck of a lot of terrible spoilers...

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  17. I do read blurbs, or at least I used to do so, when I lived in Britain and went to bookshops. I find them generally useful. But some of the examples you and others have given are horrific! I've had a few bad experiences myself, but not that many really.

    I used to have to write blurbs - the worst part was writing the version for the catalogue, when we didn't yet have a copy of the manuscript and sometimes just a few sentences of a proposal the author had written five years previously... I shudder just thinking of it.

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  18. Ah, blurbs! What an ungainly little word. I do read a blurb--or several, actually, as the books I read don't usually come with an official blurb from the publisher. I've actually found it's about 10x more exciting, however, to dive into a book when I have absolutely no idea what it's about, as when it's an old, little-known book. The lack of any blurb-like information makes it seem like the book was written just for me, or even that the story is being created with each page I turn. Realistically, I know that most people would never read a book without knowing anything about it. So when there's no blurb to be found, I write one and put it out there. I've joined the blurb club... :-/

    As for inaccurate blurbs, yes! I encountered one recently (A Shadow of Lady, by Jane Aiken Hodge) and was appalled by its inaccuracies. I actually kept flipping between the pages and that dust jacket blurb, trying to understand how the book I was reading was the book described on the jacket...and yet not. An inaccurate blurb is an infinitely worse crime than no blurb at all.

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    1. Jane Aiken Hodge has been known to do screeching U-turns in her plots - even (if I remember rightly) killing off sympathetic but inconvenient characters pages from the conclusion to allow a traditional happy ending. Maybe the blurb writer only read the first part and assumed they knew where the story would end up?

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  19. I like to read them after I finish a book, to see if the writer of the blurb read past the first chapter. Sometimes, the blurb reads like they did not.

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  20. Interesting, I'm always reading them and I think I've never found an extremely bad blurb (or just didn't realize? who knows... ), I find them actually pretty helpful in these busy weeks: I just go to the library, read some of them, choose something and go... Or in the Little free library we have nearby, that's even faster (do you know those small boxes where you can just leave a book and take one? It looks like this ). When I'm in a hurry I just stop by, check if there is something that looks interesting, take a book and continue... I really don't like if there is a book without any additional information. Well, to read a little bit of it is also good because you can see the style in which the book is written but I do that after checking the blurb. I just hope I will never find one with the major reveal, that's just crazy!

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