I never saw a purple cow
I never hope to see one . . .
(Stay tuned for what this has to do with blurbs)
A blurb is a short description of a book, movie, or other product, written for promotional purposes. The blurb is usually presented as if it were written by a colleague of the author, or another professional in the same field, lauding the book without expecting any compensation.
In reality, the book’s author or an employee in the marketing department of the publisher may actually write the blurb. In the marketing department case, the blurb-writer has often failed to read the whole book– and sometimes the author doesn’t even get to approve it. If the writer is especially lazy, the blurb may be a synopsis of the plot.
Remember that a blurb, like everything about the outside of the book, is a selling mechanism, another in a series of advertisements designed to make the book appealing to buyers.
The cover is intended to draw the reader in, piquing interest. Most readers then flip the book over to read what’s written on the back cover, or the inside flaps. At this point, the reader may decide to buy the book– or put it down. The blurb can make the difference in that decision.
If you are asked to write a blurb, ask yourself:
— Do you sincerely like the book? Writing a blurb just to impress the author so that person may return the favor is risky; consider your conscience.
— Do you respect the writer and the work enough to have your name associated with it?
— Do you want this person to owe you the favor of writing a blurb for your book? Would you want this person’s name on your book?
If you choose to write the blurb, consider these suggestions:
— Study the content, word count, premise of the book, the flavor of the writing. Take notes on what gets your attention. If you start losing interest, ask yourself why.
— Read the whole book rather than risk it taking a turn you don’t anticipate and therefore didn’t mention. Study each of the following elements:
Audience: consider who will read the book, and the kind of language that will catch the attention of those readers. If the book is for the general public, your language may be informal; use specific terms for professionals, and simpler words for children and young adults.
Theme: what is the book’s central idea?
Characters: briefly describe the central figures, such as “sassy beauty Delilah O’Neill,” and the setting in which they live.
Plot or narrative: write a sentence or two that summarizes and explains the book, touching on content, ideas and organization. Be clear about the kind of book you are reviewing. Romance readers will not thank you for enticing them into reading scholarly nonfiction. And please don’t tell the entire plot of the book, or give away the surprise ending.
To write a blurb for your own book:
Don’t pretend to be some scholar in your field; deception will out. You need not sign the blurb; simply use it on the back cover of the book.
Consider how to draw the reader in, to set the scene. Do you need to make the location and time period clear? Introduce the main character?
Think about your audience: who is your book written for? Is it appropriate to place a character in context? You might write: Jane Farmington is a rancher in Nebraska who grew up in a family where education was not respected. Now she is an English professor working for a university in a nearby town, watching the third and fourth generation on the farm grow more isolated.
Think of writing the blurb as having four steps:
- Introduce the main character or characters.
- Provide just enough of the story to show how the primary conflict unfolds.
- In hinting at the conflict, show what the consequences of the book’s action are likely to be. The reader needs to know that the main character has something to lose.
- Personalize: show readers why they need to read this book. Subtly make comparisons between comparable books, and show what makes your book unique.
Further research: If this information isn’t enough to inspire you to commit blurbs, check online. Dozens of people have posted their opinions, though some are of limited value.
If possible, ask reviewers who are professionals in your field, and who have the respect of the reading public, to comment on your book. A reviewer with a conscience will refuse to blurb the book rather than write a lukewarm response, but not all reviewers are so honest.
Before you ask, consider whether you wish to be obligated to this person.
Do not promise to use the blurb! You might be amazed at the subtle ways a blurb from someone who dislikes the book can denigrate it.
Explore respected reviewing journals, like Kirkus, to see if you can get reviews. Look for possible outlets in magazines like Poets & Writers.
Where did the term blurb originate?
According to my American Heritage dictionary, the term was coined by Gelet Burgess, an American humorist who lived from 1866 until 1951.
In 1907, Gelet Burgess coined the term “blurb”– meaning “a flamboyant advertisement, an inspired testimonial”– in attributing the cover copy of his book, Are You a Bromide? to a Miss Belinda Blurb.
Gelet’s book is still available, but he was best known for his verse, including “The Purple Cow,” published on May Day, May 1, 1895. My mother recited the verse to me when I was four years old, but I knew nothing about its history until recently. No doubt this started me on the path to poetry, but thank goodness I eventually learned NOT to rhyme.
I never saw a purple cow;
I never hope to see one.
But I can tell you, anyhow,
I’d rather see than be one.
The full title– Burgess loved long titles– was “The Purple Cow: Reflections on a Mythic Beast Who’s Quite Remarkable, at Least.” The illustrated verse, which appeared in the first issue of The Lark, remained the ultimate in nonsense verse, but Burgess spent his life trying to write funnier poems.
By 1897 he had become so sick of the poem that he wrote, “Confession: and a Portrait Too, upon a Background that I Rue,” also published in The Lark (Number 24, April 1, 1897).
Ah, yes, I wrote the “Purple Cow”—
I’m sorry, now, I wrote it;
But I can tell you Anyhow
I’ll kill you if you Quote it.
One more comment about blurbs:
Blur – bon – ic plague. n (blurb + bubonic plague): A disease of literature characterized by the appearance of suppurating blurbs on the skin of a book, feverish half-quotes, and regurgitation, leading to rapid film adaptation and hallucinations of grandeur, thought to be transmitted from author to author via their shared agents. “Tom Wolfe’s THE BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES contracted blurbonic plague, and, in its final tragic stages, the book suffered even more than did its author.”
— Brian McCormick, writer; from IN A WORD, a Harper’s Magazine dictionary of words that don’t exist but ought to, edited by Jack Hitt, Laurel, 1992.
Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota
© 2019, Linda M. Hasselstrom
Blurbs written by Linda M. Hasselstrom used in this blog come from the back covers of the following books, in order:
Walking the Twilight: Women Writers of the Southwest
Edited by Kathryn Wilder
(1994, Northland Publishing)
Poker Alice Tubbs: The Straight Story. A Lady Gambler in the Wild West
By Liz Morton Duckworth
(2018, Filter Press)
A Slow Trot Home
By Lisa G. Sharp
Daughters of the Grasslands: A Memoir
By Mary Woster Haug
(2014, Bottom Dog Press)
By Patricia Frolander
(2009, Finishing Line Press)
Conservation for a New Generation: Redefining Natural Resources Management
Edited by Richard L. Knight and Courtney White
(2008, Island Press)
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