The Economy of Puffery

“This essay is a dazzling, compelling, wonderful masterpiece” –- a friend of a friend.

In the many weeks that my group has been working on the book project, the topic of blurbs has arisen frequently. In the context of this paper, “blurbs” refers to celebrity and author endorsements that grace the backs of books and their online descriptions. Who does your author know? Who are the known experts or big names associated with the genre? How will you use the blurbs to position the title in an oversaturated market? These are all editors and marketers must ask themselves. Author Bill Morris considers them “suspect” and “vaguely sleazy” (2011) and in 1936, George Orwell called them “disgusting tripe” (Clark, 2012). Despite authors’ protests and the lack of data supporting blurbs’ contribution to sales, they continue to be an industry standard. It is worth considering whether the industry should abandon the practice altogether. In this paper, I explore the changing economy of “puffery” and argue that blurbs provide more value in positioning than they do in persuading readers to buy.
Canada’s BookNet has thoroughly investigated Canadian book buyer’s habits, and yet a factor that has never been measured is the blurb’s impact. According to their study in 2016 conducted on how Canadians buy books, 19.2% of fiction buyers and 22.2% of non-fiction become aware of books from browsing in stores 11.3% of fiction buyers and 16.9% of non-fiction buyers learn of titles from recommendations (Booknet, 2016). Blurbs are absent in the study’s list of what recommendations and reviews readers consult. In their “Primary Reason for Purchase Study” the company determined that 10.3% buy based on description, 5.5% are influenced by the cover, and 7.4% buy because of recommendations (2016). One might infer that blurbs fall under recommendation, but its classification is unclear. BookNet’s exclusion of these endorsements in their research on Canadian book buying casts further suspicion on blurbs’ impact.
American publishers are not researching the hyperbolic endorsements either. Carl Kugo, U.S director of research for Nielsen Bookscan explains that, “It’s nothing we can track” (quoted by Dwyer, 2015). Neilsen Bookscan is similar company to BookNet. Collaborating with publishers, Nielsen conducts surveys of over 6,000 book buyers across the states. He doesn’t ask about the impact of blurbs, nor do publishers ask him to. According to The National Public Radio, there is one group that has done notable research on the topic:
At Codex Group, an independent audience research firm, …has worked with every major publisher and many major retailers to test the sales success of a book’s cover before it hits store shelves. Using samples of several thousand participants each, Codex tests three or four possible variations of a book’s cover – usually including one that’s entirely bare of blurbs. Then, they test how participants pick (quoted by Dwyer, 2015).
CEO of Codex Group, Peter Hildick-Smithm, says that he has discovered two factors that are crucial to a blurb’s success: whether reader cares about the blurber and whether the blurb brings something of value to the book (Dywer, 2015). Hilder-Smith’s numbers indicate that even when the blurber is a reader’s favourite writer, recommendations have little effect on readers’ buying habits. Codex Group’s findings showed that only 2.5% of participants discovered the last book they bought through the recommendation of a favourite author; 1% of them decided to buy the book because of that recommendation (Dwyer, 2015).
The question of the blurber’s influence is complicated by the generosity of some writers. Colum McCann, who won the National Book Award in 2009, claimed to have received sixteen requests a week, which “works out to 832 blurb requests per year” (Morris, 2011). He generously blurbed three different books as being so good readers “will claw [themselves] with pleasure” (Morris, 2011). Gary Shteyngart has blurbed so many books that there is a tumblr dedicated to his prolific endorsements. In his official retirement letter from blurbing, Shteyngart suggested that the industry may even be better off without his mass recommendations (2014). Another mass blurber is Malcolm Gladwell, whose blurbs have donned the covers of many titles include Freakonomics. Even though many writers find the blurb process daunting, some swearing it off completely, McCann, Shteyngart, and Gladwell felt obliged to use their cultural capital to enable other writers, especially those who are lesser known. It is possible, however, that the abundance of their praise has diluted their authority. When interviewed about the many blurbs he has given, Gladwell admitted, “The more blurbs you give, the lower the value of the blurb. It’s the tragedy of the commons” (quoted by Holson, 2015).
Those within the industry perceive blurbs not as an indicator of quality but instead of the writer’s network. Typically, blurbs are written by friends of the author or by authors who share an agent, and thus the recommendations are regarded with suspicion by those in publishing. Author Nathan Filer says based on his experience, he assumes the blurber owed the writer a favor (2014) and author Kate Christensen jokingly says she assumes the writer is their friend or “slept with them or is blackmailing them or has a gun to their head” (quoted by Gallaway, 2011). In discussing the process of publishing The Metropolis Case, writer Matthew Gallaway raises the point that while blurbs’ influence on readers remains dubious, they are “important, less from a consumer-perspective than in terms of building “buzz” within a publisher, specifically helping to get the marketing and sales “on board”” (2011). Michael Pietsch, CEO of Hachette Book Group confirms this theory, stating that literary agents are now an integral part of acquisition. One of the methods agents utilize to capture the publisher’s attention including the endorsements they well-known authors in their letter (Dwyer, 2015). He reasons that the method is affective as people have limited time to read manuscripts and the blurbs help distinguish the title from “all the other thousands of books on submission at that time” (Dwyer 2015).
It is crucial to note that not all blurbs are equal. A blurb for a well-known writer could be reason the publisher acquires the title. It may even generate interest from booksellers and lead to them ordering a larger number of books. A good blurb can also be the perfect soundbite that is used the launch the marketing campaign. In Leanne’s management class we were divided in groups to create marketing plans for books that had already been published. Our book was Anne T. Donahue’s Nobody Cares. The most distinct feature of the title was its sales handle, which was a blurb from Flare that read “The internet’s best friend” (Amazon). This is a prime example of marketers and publicists using a strong blurb to position the title. Other times, marketing campaigns for debut novel can run with a big celebrity name. When my group initially proposed Zadie Smith as a blurber, publicists advised that Zadie Smith’s name would have to be on the cover, with her name written larger than the author’s, potentially even larger than the title.
The issue is that a good blurb is the exception. Paired with a well-written title and a strong marketing plan, it is conceivable that the blurb could make a difference. But these endorsements are the exception amongst an endless sea of mediocre blurbs that, as literary agent Eric Simonoff points out, serve as “merely window dressing” (quoted by Rachel Donadio, 2008). When judging a book in stores, blurbs are often a miniscule factor to readers, as they have been statistically proven to give more credence to the recommendation of a friend than a writer. Even if most blurbs are not contributing measurable value, they cannot hurt, right? Except that they can. If disliked by the reader, the blurber’s endorsement could dissuade the reader. Too many blurbs on the jacket or amazon description looks suspicious, and yet, because they are expected, no blurbs would raise attention as well. With the increasing number of titles being published yearly, the scavenge for blurbs has intensified. Authors and celebrities trying to help friends gain recognition have now taken to twitter, instagram, and facebook to endorse new titles. With author recommendation only accounting for 2.5% of sales, it is difficult to determine the impact of even these endorsements. The inescapable prevalence of blurbs means that there is no indication of publishers abandoning the tradition any time soon, but perhaps there is still potential for innovation and regulation to improve upon the infinite cycle of friends blurbing friends. At the very least, since blurbs are to remain an industry staple, BookNet and Nielsen would benefit from adding author recommendations as criteria in their next surveys so that the publishing industry can utilize concrete data rather than common practise to determine their true value.

Bibliography

Biographers International. (2016, January 11th). “Authors Share Insights on the ‘Dubious’ Art of the Blurb.” http://biographersinternational.org/authors-share-insights-on-the-dubious-art-of-the-blurb/

BookNet. (2016, September). “How Canadians Buy Books 2015.” https://www.booknetcanada.ca/how-canadians-buy-books

Clark, Nick. (2012, December 21). “Why blurbs remain important in the digital age.” Independent. https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/why-blurbs-remain-important-in-the-digital-age-8429562.html

Donadio, Rachel. (2008, August 15). “He Blurbed, She Blurbed.” The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/17/books/review/Donadio-t.html?mtrref=www.google.ca

Dwyer, Colin. (2015, September 27). “Forget The Book, Have You Read This Irresistible Story About Blurbs?” National Public Radio. https://www.npr.org/2015/09/27/429723002/forget-the-book-have-you-read-this-irresistible-story-on-blurbs

Filer, Nathan. (2014, July 31). “Why you should ignore superlatives on book jackets.” The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/jul/31/book-covers-ignore-superlatives

Gallaway, Matthew. (2011, April 4). “Six Writers Tell All About Covers and Blurbs.” The Awl. https://www.theawl.com/2011/04/six-writers-tell-all-about-covers-and-blurbs/

Holson, Laura M.. (2015, December 16). “Malcolm Gladwell Hands Out Blurbs Like Santa Does Presents.” The New York Times.

Morris, Bill. (2011, February 15). “To Blurb or Not to Blurb.” The Millions. https://themillions.com/2011/02/to-blurb-or-not-to-blurb.html

“Nobody Cares: Essays.” (2018, September). Amazon. https://www.amazon.com/Nobody-Cares-Anne-T-Donahue/dp/1770414231/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1542087888&sr=8-1&keywords=nobody+cares+anne+t+donahue

Shteyngart, Gary. (2014, April 14). “An Open Letter From Gary Shteyngart.” The New York Times. https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/an-open-letter-from-gary-shteyngart

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