For a casual reader, a book blurb can be a handy thing. Those succinct words of praise from an author you recognize can save hours of indecision in the bookstore aisle. But, according to a new piece from the online literary magazine The Millions, writing blurbs is a huge pain in the ass, both for the publishers forced to curate them and the authors tasked with writing them. To make matters worse, the sheer number of blurbs being written in recent years has grown astronomically to the point where the authors generous enough to write them don’t have much time to write anything else.
“A nuclear arms race in blurbing is building,” writes article author Marie Myung-Ok Lee. “Besides the plain blurb, there is now the ‘pre-blurb’ that goes onto the advance readers copy and is used as a kind of literary chum to attract more blurbs. There’s even a pre-pre-blurb for a manuscript to wear when it goes out to market.”
The cumulative effect of having all these various blurbs is that no single one is that meaningful anymore. Authors, publishers, and savvy readers know that a book blurb is just a marketing tool designed to entice you to make a purchase. But if you see the same author’s name plastered on the back of a dozen or so books, you’re less likely to give a shit what they said about them. The whole enterprise is cheapened if every new novel is being showered with praise.
But the real problem with the “blurbing industrial complex,” as Myung-Ok Lee calls it, is that it prevents authors from spending time doing what they should be doing: Writing books. Authors like Gary Shteyngart and Viet Thanh Nguyen—who are both known for writing more than their fair share of book blurbs—admit that blurbing has cut into the time they would normally spend on their own craft. “I get very little of my own reading done, which is to say books that I think will help me with my own writing. This is distressing to me,” Nguyen tells The Millions.
Given the untenable nature of this system, and the fact that most authors these days give recommendations via Twitter, we can imagine a time in the near future when books are put on the shelf sans blurb. At which point we may be forced to simply trust our gut before making a purchase, or, heaven forbid, ask another person for a recommendation.
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