The endorsements found on book covers, also known as “blurbs,” are both a book’s most superficial words as well as its most immediately powerful ones. Even before the first line of the book establishes a tone, blurbs have set expectations for the reader.
Are blurbs a necessary service to readers and authors or an unnecessary distraction? Do they enhance the value of books or detract from it? Do they taint our evaluation of books or temper it?
We know that it is unfair to judge a book by its cover, but how many believe the same of blurbs? As a complement to the cover image, book blurbs function as sales pitches. If the goal of publishing is to maximize sales, then books without blurbs are at a competitive disadvantage in the marketplace.
Presses that spurn cover imagery and blurbs set themselves apart from those that embrace them. For example, the mustard yellow covers with black and yellow print from The Bobbs-Merrill Company’s series, “The Library of Liberal Arts,” were the gold standard of twentieth-century noncommercial publishing.
Aside from the title and author of the book, the price, and the name of the publisher and the series, the front cover of these books only contained a small, simple bird-like icon. The back covers had no text or images. The absence of blurbs on their covers put all of the works in this series on an equal footing. It invited the reader to discover their value by reading them, not by promoting, advertising, or summarizing their contents.
I enjoy a well-designed book cover and I read book blurbs. However, I don’t need either if they are intended to oversell a weak book. Moreover, I appreciate and respect the work of presses that carry on the tradition of plain covers with minimal imagery like Univocal of Minneapolis, Minnesota and Semiotext(e) of South Pasadena, California. Like The Bobbs-Merrill Company of old, they continue the tradition of publishing rich content in simple packaging.
Presses today that avoid cover images and blurbs effectively put all of their books on an equal footing. The Univocal’s and Semiotext(e)’s of the world are essentially saying “Let our titles rise or fall on the basis of what is between their covers, rather than what is on them.” There are few better ways to rail against slick corporate publishing than to reject fancy covers and overblown blurbs.
But the radical act of rejecting blurbs and cover images is few and far between in the publishing world. Blurbs are a standard feature of most books published today.
No writer or critic of note dedicates their career solely to writing blurbs. And while book critics are well aware that their comments could end up on a book jacket and many write their commentary to include lines that may serve this purpose, the sole end of critical commentary is seldom just the extraction of a blurb. In this way, blurbs are almost singularly unique among the writing vocations.
While poets write poems, essayists write essays, and novelists pen novels, there is no singular vocation dedicated to the blurb.
Blurbs are a parasitic genre of writing. They are parasitic because the power of a blurb is only increased by the name recognition and prestige of the blurb writer in another genre of writing.
“If you only read one novel this year, it needs to be Jane Gold’s masterpiece Singular Life.”
High praise like this is amplified when a literary luminary like Salman Rushdie or Alice Walker is affiliated with the blurb. The same line by a lesser-known writer or left unattributed has much less power. Blurbs require we know the identity of the source in order to give the statement meaning.
The entire history of this now commonplace practice began in controversy when Walt Whitman decided to share with others a private note from Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Upon the first publication of Leaves of Grass in 1855, Whitman sent unsolicited a copy to Emerson, who replied with a note of encouragement. Whitman in turn not only shared...