What Is a Blurb? And Why You Should Care.

I never saw a purple cow
I never hope to see one . . .

(Stay tuned for what this has to do with blurbs)

Blurb Walking the Twilight

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.

blurb-poker-alice-tubbs-1.jpg

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?

Blurb a Slow Trot Home

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.

Blurb Daughters of the Grasslands

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:

  1. Introduce the main character or characters.
  1. Provide just enough of the story to show how the primary conflict unfolds.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.

Blurb Grassland Genealogy

Soliciting blurbs.

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.

Blurb Conservation for a New Generation

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:
Book Walking the Twilight - Editor Kathryn Wilder

Walking the Twilight: Women Writers of the Southwest
Edited by Kathryn Wilder
(1994, Northland Publishing)

Book Poker Alice Tubbs - Liz Duckworth

Poker Alice Tubbs: The Straight Story. A Lady Gambler in the Wild West
By Liz Morton Duckworth
(2018, Filter Press)

Book A Slow Trot Home - Lisa Sharp

A Slow Trot Home
By Lisa G. Sharp
(2014, Wheatmark)

Book Daughters of the Grasslands - Mary Haug

Daughters of the Grasslands: A Memoir
By Mary Woster Haug
(2014, Bottom Dog Press)

Book Grassland Genealogy - Pat Frolander

Grassland Genealogy
By Patricia Frolander
(2009, Finishing Line Press)

Book Conservation for a New Generation - editors Knight and White

Conservation for a New Generation: Redefining Natural Resources Management
Edited by Richard L. Knight and Courtney White
(2008, Island Press)

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What Are You Willing to Do?

Book promotion -- Facebook

Every now and then, despite my advanced years and practice in ignoring “promotion” and its requirements and details, I happen to notice some new trend in self-advertising, and spend several seconds-or-minutes-that-feel-like-hours with my mouth hanging open that someone could and would do “that” to try to get people to read their books.

Then I hit myself on the head with one of the 17 books I’ve written while mostly ignoring that advice, and get on with whatever I’m doing that I enjoy more than promotion– like mopping the kitchen floor. Cleaning the toilet with a new homemade mixture someone recommended. Making ham fried rice for lunch to use up those leftovers.

If you enjoy doing readings of your work, and hearing applause, answering questions like, “Where do you get your ideas?” do the kind of promotion that leads you into those situations. Such promotion takes huge amounts of energy and patience. Many writers may not realize how completely we arrange our writing world, our home, so that it suits us– until we get out in a world of poor lighting, noise, and intrusive questions. If you hate those things, perhaps there’s another way to find readers.

Readers are what we want. And not all promotion leads to readers. Some leads only to more promotion.

I will not soon forget one of my best-paying jobs when I was escorted to a large auditorium to give my reading and found only two people there: one student, and one elderly woman who had apparently wandered away from a facility for the mentally unstable. I sat on the edge of the stage and talked with the two audience members, giving them as good a talk as I have ever done. But I might have been at home doing my work, which is writing.

And I don’t suppose the fine man who invited me to that school– and arranged for me to be paid well for coming– ever got over the embarrassment of having no one, not even those of his own classes or his teaching colleagues, show up. ​

Book promotion -- speaking to groups

I love to do readings. I speak well, and learned from some fine speech coaches how to project and how to draw an audience into my world for an hour. I know many colleges and universities could afford the price I ask for a talk or reading and I would enjoy doing it.

But in order to accept such an invitation, I may have to drive for hours, ride unreliable public transportation, sleep in a noisy motel and eat bad food. I have to consider all those negatives while considering the positive gain of the money and the recognition.

Book promotion -- book storesToo often, even from prestigious and well-endowed institutions, the invitation is, “Please come and read your work to our freshman students. We’ll allow you to sell your books for compensation.” I have largely given up explaining why such an invitation is an insult, and the institution isn’t listening anyway, because they can get 5 young authors anxious to promote themselves for the price of my honorarium. Once some of those authors bring bedbugs home from a cheap motel, they will be less enthusiastic.

But the world has created Facebook and a number of other media with which I am not familiar– Twitter? LinkedIn? Skype? I recently saw a headline informing me of “60+ social media sites you need to know about in 2019.”  Even checking out all 60 of those sites would take me less time than preparing for a 15-minute talk.

In addition, with help from an excellent assistant, I have a website, a Facebook page, a YouTube channel, and this blog. I can sit in the comfort of my study writing what I want to write and through those venues can reach hundreds more people than I would reach after a nine-hour drive somewhere.

So do the research on what “promotion” venues exist, and consider which ones might suit your temperament. Think of the people you want to read your books. These would be intelligent and thoughtful readers who might write you short notes of appreciation, or even question some of your premises and with whom you could have an enjoyable exchange of ideas.

Who are those people? Where are they? How can you reach them? Then craft the kind of promotion that will allow you to find them and enjoy their company– while continuing to write.

To quote a friend, “Write the F#$%ING thing!” is the best advice I can give you about self-promotion.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2019, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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This blog started as correspondence with a writer friend, who is quoted in the last line. Read her book and very fine blog “Between Urban and Wild.”

See my website events page “Where in the World Is Linda M. Hasselstrom?” and scroll down through many years of my own writing promotion, including art exhibits, awards, billboards, classes, entertainment events, interviews, talks, workshops, and my own writing retreats.

Of course nothing beats a testimonial by a famous person!

Book promotion - testimonials by famous people

 

 

Promoting Your Writing

AlbertChinaSeriesOne of my heroines in the writing business is Susan Wittig Albert, who besides being the author of the popular China Bayles herbal mysteries and founder of Story Circle Network, a nonprofit organization for writing women, has written books for young adults, books for women on life-writing, and all kinds of work-for-hire books when she was learning her craft. Her Together, Alone: A Memoir of Marriage and Place focuses on how she made the shift from University professor into a new marriage and writing career. Along the way she provides all kinds of writing advice.

“Marketing,” she says, “is a necessary fact of the writing life.” Many of the writers who question me don’t ask about writing details: they want to know how to market. Almost all of them say, as I do, that they understand the difficulties of writing, but they loathe marketing and don’t know how to do it. Susan Albert agrees.

“Jane Austen never went on a book tour, or put together a brochure advertising her work, or handed out bookmarks.” Modern writers must do these things, and because of the Internet, the emphasis on promotion has grown. Writers are encouraged by publishers to set up web sites, blog, and be on Facebook. She adds, “Writers also do bookstore signings, give library talks, go to conferences, and generally make an effort to flaunt themselves, sometimes with the financial backing of their publishing house, usually not.”

“Usually not.” That’s an important omission. Even writers fortunate enough to publish with big companies often get no promotion budget these days; they are expected to do all this time-consuming self-promotion without pay. And all these activities take time away from the writing that got them published in the first place.

SocialMediaLogosI approach self-promotion with the same attitude I have toward drinking alcohol: moderation. Neither drinking nor self-promotion is really necessary to preserve your life and sanity. Both can provide feelings of euphoria. Over-indulgence in either leads to headaches, and makes you wonder just what you said that left you with a feeling of loathing.

My method is to try to make self-promotion enjoyable but I do have a particular advantage. I couldn’t promote as well as I do without the thoughtful help of an assistant who maintains my website, Facebook page and WordPress blog. She also edits my writing, and decides what gets posted where and when. Because she has alerted me to the way these social media work, I sometimes get ideas that help with the promotion, but mostly I am able to do what I believe I do best. I write.

If you are a writer who needs to promote, look for someone to help. This might be a friend, employee or both (if you’re as lucky as I am), whose skills make promotion enjoyable and understandable. Perhaps you can barter with this person: your skills for his or hers. But don’t be chintzy; remember that unless someone is reading what you are writing, you can’t pay for the electricity to run your computer, so be prepared to understand what promotion is worth to you and compensate accordingly.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

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For more information:

These two entertaining blogs found at www.whimseydark.com/blog/ address the difference between pushing yourself on readers and pulling them into your writing.  The reader comments below each blog also have some good ideas.
Please Shut Up: Why Self-Promotion As an Author Doesn’t Work
Wait, Keep Talking: Author Self-Promotion That Actually Works

Website for Susan Wittig Albert:
http://www.susanalbert.com/

Website for Susan Wittig Albert’s China Bayles mysteries:
http://www.abouthyme.com/
There are many more titles than the 12 shown at the beginning of this blog, and I own every one of them.

Website for Story Circle Network:
http://www.storycircle.org/
I am a member of this organization and am featured in the Professional Directory here:
Story Circle Network Professional Directory

© 2016, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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