How Much Do Book Blurbs Matter?

Do the book blurbs that one author gives to another author affect your decision to read the book?

The publishing industry certainly believes that blurbs matter a great deal. There is a lot of effort put into sending a manuscript out to authors for blurbs — more effort, I sometimes think, than the editing that goes into books. So do those endorsements matter?

Long ago, I used to think they mattered a lot. Then I changed my mind, thinking that blurbs don’t signal much about the quality of the book, but at least they signal something about the quality of the author’s friends or acquaintances who were willing to blurb the book.

Lately, I’ve come to believe that they really don’t matter at all, since most readers see blurbs as having about the same level of integrity as a used-car salesman’s personal promise that the car you’re about to buy is A-OK. But that might be an insult to used-car salesmen.

Consider the letter I got in the mail today along with the manuscript for a business book by two authors I don’t know. The letter was written by the book’s editor, another person I don’t know. Here’s the key paragraph:

If you find [redacted] and [redacted]’s ideas as compelling and inspiring as we do, a quote from you that we could print on the jacket would make a world of difference. I would be happy to help craft a quote if you prefer. My contact info is below.

So knowing that some blurbs are written by the book’s editor, let me ask you the question again: how much do book blurbs matter to you? FWIW, Levitt happened to blog earlier today about a book he loved: how much does that kind of endorsement matter?


Kenzie

The information about the book on the back is extremely important when I'm at a bookstore with nothing in mind, just trying to find what I want to read. It tells a little about the style and idea of the book. The endorsements, I skip. Completely.

The inscrutable chicken

Are you trying to establish whether it is worth
having the blurb on there? If so, shouldn't you be approaching this from an economic perspective?

The cost is minimal (mailing out a copy of the book for which the marginal cost is low, and possibly 10 minutes of an editor's time to write it up). There is the reading author's time required to go through the book but he/she would probably not be very good if they didn't like reading as well.

The presence of the blurb may induce a sale in some consumers, indifference to others, but does not appear to actively disuade any. In aggregate, the benefit will therefore be positive.

Positive benefit and minimal cost means it makes financial sense for blurbs to be sought.

On a similar note, I personally dislike sub-titles on books (we get Daily Show repeats in the UK where the obligatory book plug from the guest). I feel they detract from the elegance of a well-crafted title - "Freakonomics" is preferable to me than "Freakonomics. A rogue economist explores the hidden side of everything". However, it doesn't irk me enough to not buy it if it interests me so the benefit is positive but the cost is next to nothing.

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Steve Stanley

Answer is it depends on who the reviewer is. If it's someone I read frequently and enjoy (Malcolm Gladwell's blurb about Freakonomics, for example, was an influence in my buying the book), I may place some weight on it. If it's Stephen King touting someone's fictional prowess, I'll probably discount it (he hasn't written anything worth reading since The Stand, IMHO). I'd compare it to recommending someone for a job - an internal recommendation from a trusted employee goes a lot farther than a blurb from an employment agency.
In the example of a used car, it's the difference between having a friend at the dealership and in relying solely on the salesman.

discordian

Blurbs mean nothing to me whatsoever. I don't even read them.
After reading what was solicited of you they mean even less.

Charles

I'll give blurbs as much credibility as an average critic. If I like a critic I'll follow him, but I acknowledge that there are endless amounts of people out there and atleast 3-4 will write something good. Levitt's opinion means a lot to me, but I'm much more inclined to read an economics paper he suggest rather than a book he likes. I wouldn't fall for the halo, even though it is likely to be a good book.

I must admit, I did just buy Colbert's book after reading the blurb he wrote himself about it.

Braden

I was also going to say that I've bought books on Malcolm Gladwell's recommendation. (I don't remember its having affected my decision on Freakonomics, though.)

Brian

I always just assume that the blurbs are from authors at the same publisher. I don't pay attention to them.

Dan

Excerpts from positive reviews make a big difference when I'm picking out books at the library, but I'm if anything more skeptical when the only endorsements are from other authors. It's like when a movie trailer quotes positive reviews from some nobody on AM radio.

Zach

I saw a blurb from you guys on one I read recently. I can't remember if it was Landsburg or Cowen.

I got those books without seeing the blurb but seeing it may have made me more receptive to the positions the authors espoused.

So was the blurb accurate or manufactured?

D.H. Sandler

I don't believe I've ever looked at the blubs on a book before I bought the book. Sometimes, after I purchased a book, I've noticed that an author I know has read the book too, which is minorly interesting. However, Levitt's high recommendation for the book today caused me to add it directly to my Christmas list.

Devan

I pay some attention to author blurbs on books by first-time (or unknown) authors.

jens fiederer

I don't use blurbs in my buying decisions. I DO remember reading a few after I bought the book - my favorite blurbs were on a book by Karl May, who managed to get blurbs from Albert Einstein and Albert Schweitzer.

Which is not to say that bloggers' opinions don't matter. I purchased the book I am currently reading, Shantaram, based on a recommendation from a blogger (blurbs unseen, most of my book purchases are made online!).

Barb

I always read the blurbs (or at least the first few when there's many) and always take it with a grain of salt. However, I am going to recommend the book Sin in the Second City to my book club! Got my interest!

Mike

They make no difference to me, especially because of the "you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours" nature of blurbs. It would be interesting to see someone do a study of how much cross-blurb writing there is going on (ie Levitt writes a blurb for Dubner's new book, and 6 months later Dubner writes one for Levitt's). My guess is this happens alot, especially with bigger releases.

Book reviews I take into account. Blurbs are completely discounted.

Vincent van Wylick

It has some marginal value to me. If a book is unfamiliar to me and an author I know blurbs it, it may affect my decision. On the other hand, if it's a book I wanted anyway, I don't care either way.

Charles

The only time I remember being influenced by a blurb was when I bought Susanah Clark's Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrel. The book had an interesting cover, but was wrapped in plastic, so I could not read the dust jacket description. The back had a blurb by Neil Gaiman, who endorsed it in glowing terms. I ended up buying the book (though I may have tracked down a copy not in plastic to read the inside description - don't remember).

bme

I generally ignore blurbs, but occasionally one catches my eye. A blurb by my all-time favorite SF writer, Anne McCaffrey, is worth loads. I've only seen her endorse a handful of books, and each of those has been 100% worth reading—I've discovered a few really great SF authors that way. I think it helps that her blurbs, as edited, say things like, "I have all of [author X's] books on my comfort reading shelf!" instead of "The pacing and plot were great—[author X] creates a deep and multi-faceted world worthy of interest." The first one is believable; the second, not so much. If editors do insist on blurbs, they need to be (or at least sound) *real.*

MTL

I view blurbs with a healthy skepticism. I usually pick my fiction apart from blurbs, but on non-fiction, if a blurb is from an author I know, it may influence my decision.

A forward or an unsolicited endorsement or review like Levitt's count a lot more when it is an author I know and like, but, especially in fiction, if I don't know any of the authors quoted on the back (or their publications) then I almost certainly will not read it. There are too many books and too little time for me to sift through them all. I take support from unknown authors as an indication that that's the best they could get, so it's not likely worth my time.

The same applies to movies. If the best blurb the movie could get is from Frank Wilson of KQRT Radio, I'm not biting. If Roger Ebert liked it (often hard to tell for real from the out-of-context quotes), it might get a second glance, but that certainly doesn't seal the deal.

I'm also wary of Amazon.com reviews because I suspect there are sometimes plants by the author or publisher. I make sure to read both positive and negative reviews, not just the ones Amazon lists at the top.

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Steve

I can't think of a time when reading the blurbs on the back of a book got me interested in reading it. The summaries may prove to be interesting, thus inspiring me, but more so, I go for recommendations based on friends and such.

I have, to note, taken recommendations from this web site, such as Darren Rovell's "First in Thirst" and Malcolm Gladwell's "Blink", and bought the books. Those books were very interesting and I thank you guys for the recommendations.

Indigo S.

I never even notice blurbs until after I've read the book. (One of my favourite "noticed after"'s is Laurence Peter's blurb on _Buck Up, Suck Up and Come Back When You Foul Up_. It goes something like, "I don't know [the authors] from Adam. They sucked up. It works. I wrote this blurb.")

I do, however, look up interesting-sounding books recommended by authors I like in their blogs. I've found myself ranging over all kinds of subjects I never thought I would be interested in -- somehow my earlier "all science fiction, all the time" reading habits have led to a great deal of non-fiction sociology, evolutionary biology, philosophy, religion, attachment parenting, homeschooling, economics, marketing and medical journalism.

FYI, I've just put _Sin and the Second City_ on my list...