Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Truth in Blurbing ;-)

How do you decide whether to read a particular novel or not? Lots of us, myself included, have a group of fellow crime fiction fans whose judgement we trust. That’s often a very helpful source of information. I know that I rely heavily on it. But no-one can read everything, so sometimes, we have to rely on other sources such as professional reviews, publishers’ blurbs and so on. Sometimes that information is quite useful, but sometimes….. well, let’s just say it can be a case of caveat emptor. Blurbs and professional reviews don’t always tell everything the reader needs to know. So I thought it might be helpful to offer a handy guide to help you interpret “blurb-speak.” Here are just a few phrases you’re likely to see in blurbs, and what they often really mean.

“Edge-of-your-seat suspense!”

Now, for some books, this phrase accurately describes a story where the events pull the reader in and the plot has very satisfying and well-timed twists and turns. For example, Jo Nesbø’s The Snowman and The Redbreast are books that are truly suspenseful. We don’t know what’s going to happen and each event moves the reader along through the story. There are other examples, too.

Too often, though, “Edge-of-your-seat suspense” really means “A series of car chases, gun battles and showdowns having little to do with an actual plot.” So when you read that phrase, be sure you’re getting what you think you’re paying to get. Otherwise, you could be so breathless by the end of the story that you aren’t aware there was no actual story.

“From the best-selling author of ____”

Writers such as Michael Connelly and Alexander McCall Smith have become world-famous and very successful. Their work is consistently of high quality, and readers know that the next instalment is probably going to be well-written. These are the sorts of authors whose work one pre-orders almost by reflex. I’m glad they’re out there, and I have my own list of authors whose work I’m willing to order almost before I know what the next novel is about.

Too often, though, “best-selling” means “commercially successful,” which is not the same as “well-written.” When you see a blurb phrase like this one, it could very well mean that the publisher’s banking (quite literally) on the fact that you recognise the author’s name and will buy for that reason. So before you slide your credit card or “click here,” be sure the author you’ve chosen is a best-seller for the best reason – because her or his work is well-written. Otherwise, you could end up with a book with no redeeming virtues except perhaps for the cover artwork – if that part of the book is even good.

“The next [name of wildly successful author]”

There are certainly some similarities among authors. Authors themselves will tell you they’ve been inspired by one or another author. For instance, Henning Mankell’s work has been inspired by the work of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. If you read Mankell’s Kurt Wallander series and Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s Marin Beck series, you can see some resemblances. I’ve been inspired quite a lot by Agatha Christie’s work. So if you are kind enough to read my work, you’ll see (well, at least I hope so!) that her work has influenced me.

But that’s the thing. My work is not the same as Christie’s. Oh, trust me on that one! We are different writers. All too often, “The next……” really means something like, “These two authors are from the same country,” or “These two authors both write thrillers,” or “____ is a very successful author and we want ____’s books to sell, too.” In reality, the two authors may not be very similar at all.

Even if two authors do write on similar themes, or write within the same sub-genre, or have another commonality, the truth is, each author has a distinct voice. That’s a good thing, too, because variety is part of what makes reading so enjoyable. So if you want to read that wildly successful author’s work, please do. But if you expect that less-well known author’s work to be exactly the same, you’ll be disappointed. It’s much better to let that new-to-you author surprise you with her or his own talent.

“……serial killer….”

I will be the first to admit that there have been some truly fine, compelling novels that involve serial killers. Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon, which introduces us to the now-famous brilliant-but-twisted psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter is one example. I’ve also enjoyed Simon Beckett’s Whispers of the Dead, which also features a serial killer. There are others, too, and I’m sure you could think of them.

The problem (and this is my opinion only, so feel free not to agree with me if you don’t) is that too often, “serial killer” has come to be shorthand for “brutal, gratuitous and unspeakable violence that’s depicted in every awful detail.” Violence is a part of just about every murder mystery. After all, murder is a violent and awful thing to happen. But you may want to be very careful if you get tempted by a novel with “serial killer” in the blurb; you could end up washing the proverbial gore off before you even realise that that was the only thing holding the novel together.


There’s a certain amount of background and detail that make a story “come alive.” A novel without enough detail and backstory can end up flat, with “cardboard characters” and a thin plot. So it often adds to a novel when there’s interesting information. For instance, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s novels of Iceland include really interesting details about that country’s culture, lifestyle, history, mythology and more. Kathleen O’Neal Gear and W. Michael Gear have included lots of fascinating background information about the history of ancient Native Americans in their novels. I’m sure you could think of other novels, too, that are long because of that fascinating information. In those cases, the length doesn’t prove wearisome because the story stays taut and the background is both important and interesting.

All too often, though, “Sweeping” means, simply, “long.” Sometimes “very, very… long.” The problem with this is not just that there’s too much detail. It’s that by the time you get to the end of the story, you’re so exhausted that you don’t even remember what the story was about, if there even was a plot. So be careful to choose longer books because they need that extra length to tell a good story. Unless you’ve found yourself in need of extra doorstops, that is ;-).

So there you have it. Just a few things to look out for as you read those blurbs and professional reviews. Don’t say you haven’t been warned ;-).

Do you have any phrases you’d like to share, for the good of us all?


  1. Very funny, and well-observed post, Margot! We have all chuckled over those "next Stieg Larsson" stickers on books covering a range of topics/genres, not least by authors who were writing long before Larsson. Some of the "if you liked x you will love this" or "for fans of...." are downright misleading.

    One aspect of this topic not covered in the post is when authors "blurb" another author's book- sometimes they do this so often that they can't have read all the books. Another irritant is when blurbs give away about half of the plot, ruining any sense of surprise. As a frequent reviewer, I know it is perfectly possible to write a precis of a book without giving away anything significant.

  2. Maxine - Thank you :-). I always chuckle, myself, at those supposed comparisons among authors. You're quite right that some of them go beyond funny and do get to misleading. It's a shame, too, because sometimes those comparisons turn away readers who might thoroughly enjoy the book.

    And thank you (!) for your additions. You are so right that authors blurbing other authors' books can be extremely annoying. It gets to the point where an author's endorsement ends up meaning nothing at all. Not only does that not do much for the book being blurbed, but also it does little for reputation of the author doing the blurbing. And I agree completely about giving away too much in a blurb. It is a real irritant, and I've gotten to the point where there are some blurbs and reviews I deliberately don't read because I don't want to know all the twists, turns and answers before I read the book. Your fine review site is a terrific example that one can review a book without spoiling it.

  3. LOL!

    Wish I could add more examples, but not today (loooong workday including four-hour seminar on teaching writing).

  4. One I don't like is 'The Number One Bestseller' or 'The Number One BestSelling Author' - meaningless! They can't all be the Number One and yet I see these phrases on so many books.

  5. Dorte - Glad you enjoyed :-). I know all about long workdays and classes. I appreciate it that you took a few moments to stop by before recharging your batteries, so to speak :-).

  6. Margaret - Oh, I agree with you! That phrase puts me off, too. You're quite right that it's meaningless, and even if an author happens to have written a book that's at the top of one or another list, it's meaningless on another level. "Best-selling" does not equal "well-written." That "No. 1" thing just makes it worse.

  7. Margot-Your post made me laugh on a day when I am feeling quite poorly, so thanks for that. Even if a blurb does not stop you reading a book if it does not reflect the content it may put the reader off that particular author again.
    I have got involved in a couple of little spats pointing out inaccurate blurbs. Later concluded amicably I am pleased to say. But I am also annoyed by the blurbing front flap that recounts almost the complete plot.
    I feel a post coming on about the cover of a book that Maxine very kindly sent me yesterday. ;o)

  8. Norman - I am so glad you enjoyed this post; goodness knows that many of yours have rescued my days :-).

    You are quite right that blurbs can put readers off a particular author and that really is sad. It's much better when the blurb is, as you say, accurate, and doesn't give away the whole plot. I am really glad you and Maxine brought up that point because that "spoiler" kind of blurb really annoys me, too.

    ...looking forward to your post about that book cover :-).

  9. When publishers demand cover blurbs, you're often stuck with what you get. The word I don't believe anymore is "thriller" -- at least not in the sense of my definition of thriller. It used to mean 'working to stop a crisis of global proportions' and now it's barely a suspense plot.

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  10. Margot: Excellent post. I try to avoid blurbs for all the reasons given by yourself and commentators. I find it too hard to know when a blurb will be useful in deciding whether to buy a book. Blurbs are like headlines. They mislead as often as they highlight the content.

  11. Terry - You're quite right about what gets into blurbs. Very often, publishers create those blurbs and the author doesn't have much control over them. It's interesting, too, that you would mention the overuse of the word "thriller." I think it's become so diluted, you might say, because publishers want a word that will "jolt" the reader into getting a book.

  12. Bill - Why, thank you! I've become quite wary of blurbs, myself, actually. They can be very misleading, and they certainly don't tell the author everything s/he needs to know to make a choice. I really like your comparison to news headlines, too. They can be just as misleading as publishers' blurbs - a most apt analogy!

  13. Oh I wish there was a TRUTH IN BLURBING treaty that publishers/marketers/authors and anyone else involved in the book busines had to sign. Like the others here I've given up reading them as much as I possibly can - at least until after I've read a book. I couldn't help copying this gem for you - not a blurb on the book (Lars Kepler's THE HYPNOTIST) but from its local publisher's eNewsletter

    "A pseudonym for a successful husband and wife writing team, Lars Kepler's book became an instant bestseller in Sweden where it was hailed as the natural successor to The Millenium Trilogy. And we all know that Swedes know as much about the crime novel as the French know about wines!"

  14. Bernadette - Oh, that blurb is absolutely hilarious! I'm so glad that you've shared it. This is priceless, and exactly the kind of thing I'm talking about there. That's just marvellous.

    And I really wish there were some sort of treaty or pact or contract about blurbing. It would be terrific if people could actually learn something useful from blurbs. Until, then...well, there are blurbs like the one you've shared.

  15. I have read The Hypnotist and "natural successor to the Millennium Trilogy" it is not. Unsuprisingly.

  16. Maxine - I'm not surprised at all that it's not.

  17. Very informative post. Some blurbs do have double meaning. One thing I've noticed is that sometimes the blurbs have a few misleading sentences. They were give a wrong occupation to a character or a wrong connect between two characters. Blurbs are helpful, but a reader shouldn't depend on them solely for selecting a book. Word of mouth and friends suggestions mean a lot too.

    Thoughts in Progress

  18. Mason - I'm glad you brought up that point about inaccuracies. You're absolutely right that some blurbs simply state the facts wrong, and that can, indeed, be misleading. And there are a lot of double meanings in blurbs. That's one main reason that I'm with you in relying on what trusted fellow readers say. Blogs like yours are much more reliable sources of information on novels than blurbs usually are.

  19. We all know best-selling authors who have turned over most of their writing to assistants and yet the blurbs will happily announce the newest best-seller from ________. Actually that author is resting on his laurels and raking in the profits from someone else's work.

    Just this morning I discovered that two writers have been contracted to continue Robert B. Parker's Spenser and Jesse Stone series. I can just imagine the blurbs now!

  20. Barbara - Oh, yes, there are certainly cases of well-known best-selling authors whose names go on books, and where the blurbs tout that name when the reality is that someone else has done the writing.

    And thanks for bringing up that continuation of the Spenser and Jesse Stone series. I have to say that I'm a purist, so I am not sanguine about those books, but I'm quite sure you're right and the Parker name will be the one splashed all over the blurbs.

  21. I ignore blurbs completely; what are they but public relations promos? Then again, I have quite a cynical way of thinking. I always judge a book, not by what's on its cover, but by what's on that inside flap. If the story sounds interesting, I'm half way to picking it up. Honestly, it depends on my mood.

  22. Elspeth - I think a lot of readers have a similar cynicism about promos (and you're right; that's what a book blurb is). One can get some idea of what a book is like sometimes, but really, the best information comes from within the book itself. I start with the inside flaps of a book, too, especially if I don't know much about the book, and go from there...

  23. I don't take much stock in the blurbs. I usually go on the suggestions of other author or read a chapter or two before buying. I do love cover though.

  24. Clarissa - I'm not much of a one for depending on blurbs, either. They often don't tell one what one needs to know...