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To Blurb or Not to Blurb

03/01/2011

It gives me great pleasure to see the paperback edition of HIGH CRIMES back on shelves today, 13 years after its original publication. Like most paperback versions of books originally published in hardcover, it carries a few excerpts from good reviews — “Fast and furious,” according to The New York Times, right there on the front cover.

Pick up the hardcover of VANISHED, though, and you’ll see not a review, but a very nice quotation from Lee Child. I won’t reproduce it all here, but he says, among other things, that he thinks Nick Heller and Jack Reacher would “go for a beer together and set the world to rights.” This is what we in the business call a “blurb.” The word was originally coined to mock excessive praise on book jackets, but I don’t think of it as a derogatory term; it just means “A short description of a book, film, musical work, or other product written and used for promotional purposes.” Publishers like to use blurbs to promote hardcovers, particularly for new authors, as they give readers some advance confidence about the quality of a book before the reviews come in.

Lee’s blurb for VANISHED was unusual in the business (though not unusual for Lee), because it gave potential readers specific information about the book and its main character, Nick Heller. It’s clear from the quotation that Lee actually read VANISHED, as I know he reads all the books he recommends.

I too read every book I blurb, which is why I don’t give many recommendations. Some authors I know (naming no names) don’t feel the need, as long as the book comes to them from a trusted source. The columnist Calvin Trillin once wrote that anyone giving a blurb should have to disclose his or her relationship to the author under the quotation —“Brother-in-law,” “Share the same agent,” “Met him in a bar.” Several years ago, I ran into an author who told me he’d just read THE DA VINCI CODE, and it was great. It would have been rude to point out that this author had blurbed the book when it had come out the year before.

Do I blame the authors who blurb without reading? No. On a book-a-year schedule, it’s hard enough to reread your own drafts, much less the books people send you for endorsements. It gets to be a vicious circle, too: the more successful the author, the more requests for blurbs, the less time to read the books. It’s hard to say no, especially if it’s a friend asking. It’s tempting to say yes, because really, what harm does it do?

I learned this lesson the hard way. Once upon a time – I won’t say when – I gave a book a quotation without having read it. As it turned out, the book wasn’t very good, and what surprised me was how many people let me know. They felt betrayed. They had trusted my recommendation, and I let them down. I was embarrassed and sorry. If I’d read the book first, I’d have saved everyone some time.

As it happens, this week also marks the publication of a book I did blurb: BRINGING ADAM HOME, by the crime writer Les Standiford with Detective Sergeant Joe Matthews. It’s the harrowing true story of the hunt for Adam Walsh’s murderer, and my recommendation is right on the back cover. Like Lee’s quotation for VANISHED, it’s a little too long to reprint in full here, but among other things, I called the book “heartbreaking and hypnotically suspenseful.”

And now you know I really meant it.