For those of you who don’t know, a book blurb is what you see on the cover of a book (or sometimes on the back or inside), where a publication or an author’s comments about the book’s contents are summed up in one or two tight sentences. The goal’s to entice a reader to pick up the book. It sells the book based on a publication or author’s reputation — and for the sake of simplicity, I plan on talking about the author book blurb here and not a publication’s blurb.
As the YA market continues to grow, so has the book blurb. At least, these are my observations in the past few years as a librarian. It seems any new author needs a good blurb by a well-respected author in the field; it’s a seal of approval. It’s a well-known phenomenon that people trust the opinions of their friends and people they respect over research, so it makes sense that blurbs exist and that they’re used as a marketing tool. It’s word-of-mouth. It’s trust.
But my question is and remains, who is the blurb for?
If you break down the idea of a blurb, it’s got a few functions: part of it is the writing/publishing field as a whole. It’s one of those things authors do for one another. Those who are established work to help new people establish themselves; it’s almost a system of networking and mentoring. It’s a formality of work, but it’s one (I hope) most authors who choose to do it find pleasure and enjoyment in. They get to discover new voices, just like readers do. For a lot of mid-list authors, I suspect blurbing actually helps them, too. Their names get more exposure the more they blurb. It takes a lot of time away from their own writing, but from the marketing/exposure aspect, it’s probably worthwhile, especially if the book they blurb ends up doing really well. See the name enough attached to good books, and there’s a good reputation to be had.
Outside the writing world, the blurb serves as a selling point to gatekeepers. First, the biggest gatekeeper of all: booksellers. I mean beyond the indies, too. We’re talking your box store (singular). There’s only so much room on the physical shelf, and that means decision making. Imagine staring at your catalogs and hearing reps trying to sell you on a particular book to add to your store to sell, knowing your goal line is the bottom line and that’s it. You’ve already purchased your front list titles and your best-selling authors, and now you’re choosing one book among three. You’ve never heard of any of these authors and you’ve checked your database and see you’ve never held those authors titles in your store before, so you have no prior sales figures to reference. Reading the descriptions of the books only tells you so much, as do the reviews from your typical sources. But, one of the three books has a blurb from, say, Suzanne Collins. She calls the book suspenseful, praising it as one of her favorites of the year. The other two books don’t have a blurb or they come from authors you’ve never heard of. Take a guess which book has a higher chance of being selected?
Selection for librarians isn’t all that different from how book sellers do it, except, of course, their end goal is much different. They’re not looking at selling a book and making a buck; they’re looking at how they can sell a book to a reader based on content, appeal, and a host of factors, including filling holes in a collection so that it’s balanced and meets a community’s needs and wants. There’s also a budget to watch, and sometimes that means making similarly tough decisions as a book seller (though the issue of balance within a library’s collection reigns supreme over a store’s). I realize I talk from a bit of a place of privilege since I feel like I have a good command of what’s out there in the young adult market, and for the titles I’m not aware of — usually those outside of my favorite genres — I pick up enough in the review journals to feel I’m meeting the needs of my library. For me, the blurb never even plays into a purchase decision, and I tend to believe this is the case for most librarians. Those who don’t go to trade shows or see advance reader copies of books often have no idea there are even blurbs involved. Review journals don’t show enough cover images to even make this a factor.
But blurbs come into play in the library in a different way: they’re shelf talkers. Face a book out on a display and there’s a Cassandra Clare blurb on the cover, chances are it’ll catch the attention of one of her fans. Or maybe one of her fans will remember Clare mentioning reading and loving the book. That one sentence cover blurb? The book’s gone from the display into their hands and out the door. For the library, it’s almost easy reader’s advisory. It’s a tool.
In the book seller’s case, that’s meeting a bottom line.
One of the things book blurbs helps with, at least from the librarian’s perspective, is something I touched on a second ago, and that’s reader’s advisory. We cannot possibly read everything or know everything, and sometimes, these book blurbs can be helpful. James Dashner blurbs a book? Well, his fans will probably enjoy it. Cassandra Clare blurbs a book? Likely going to work well for fans of paranormal or supernatural books. And the new John Green book? That is a book with CROSSOVER APPEAL. I mean, Jodi Picoult blurbed it, and while she certainly has her teen readers (usually already Green fans, in my experience), she’s huge among a certain demographic of adult female readers. If Picoult calls Green’s book “electric,” well. Seems like it’s one her readers should pick up, too.
If you thought I wouldn’t say it, well, here it is. This is a marketing game, and publishers are playing it really well. The right blurb sells a book, whether for reading pleasure or for cash. The right blurb can launch a career and a reputation. The right blurb can get an unexpected book into the hands of the right people. Marketing is influential.
Here’s the thing: do readers care?
Gatekeepers — and in here I lump book bloggers, authors, librarians, teachers, book sellers, and anyone beyond a casual reader — are privileged in their knowledge of a market. Part of it is because we need to be to do our jobs well, but the bigger part of it is because we care about it a lot. Emphasis is important. We choose to be knowledgeable. We care a lot about the field, and we care a lot about who is talking up what books.
Taking gatekeepers out of the equation, do blurbs mean much? Are readers really influenced by them? I mentioned above that hypothetically, seeing a blurb by Cassie Clare could snatch the interest of a reader. But I put that in the context of the reader being familiar with Clare and her reputation and perhaps having read Clare talk about the book via her social media presence (marketing and promotion, mostly because Clare wants to talk about good books with other people who want to know about good books, not because she’s in it for any financial gain). A casual reader, though, who isn’t engaging with Clare on any basis or maybe who hasn’t read any of her books — would that person even notice the blurb? Does it mean anything to them or is it simply more noise on a cover? We’ve all read those blurbs on movie trailers or restaurant reviews and product reviews and mostly ignored them because, well, they don’t mean anything if we have no connection to the source.
I took my questions to the source: my teens. Granted, my teens are a small group of dedicated readers in one semi-rural community. But I asked them what they thought of book blurbs and what value they place in them.
The truth? They didn’t pay attention. They told me I thought too much about them because I was a librarian. They just liked to read a good book, period.
Did the book blurbs matter to them? They didn’t notice them unless it was an author they really knew and loved.
I mulled these two simple questions and sets of answers for a long time. My teens didn’t notice book blurbs because they said they preferred to notice the cover image and titles. A good cover or interesting title catches them. Once they’re hooked at that point, they don’t care about the other jacket text.
And then I asked what authors they paid attention to. I waited, but they could really only give me one response:
Ellen Hopkins. Which isn’t to say they don’t trust other authors, of course, but it was the only one that rolled off their tongues. And I don’t know if it’s because they had any sort of interaction with Hopkins outside the library (she’s hugely active on social media) or because they like Ellen’s books a lot and want to read more books like them. The assumption then becomes are they reading books because she blurbed them or because they want to read more books like hers? If it’s because they want more books like hers, well, maybe they’re heading down the path we want them to.
Here’s the humor in it all, though: they couldn’t recall any books she had blurbed.
During a later book club discussion, when I showed them Reed’s book, it wasn’t the blurb they noticed at all. It was the girl on the cover. When I book talked it and said it would appeal to them if they liked Hopkin’s edgy, raw writing style, they were sold. It wasn’t the blurb that sold it. It was the content within the book.
Kelly Jensen is a former librarian turned editor for Book Riot. She's the author of IT HAPPENS: A Guide to Contemporary Realistic Fiction for the YA Reader and the forthcoming Feminism For The Real World (Algonquin Young Readers, Spring 2017).