Who writes cover blurbs?
January 24, 2007 10:35 AM   Subscribe

Who writes the back-cover blurbs (teasers) for books?

Not the review snippets. I'm talking about the paragraph or so that says something like, "Doug Smug is a private eye with a problem. Or rather, several problems. He's got a dead man in his office, a killer on his trail, an ex-wife in Tahiti, and a scorching case of herpes. And now the Men in Black are coming to visit. Can Smug dodge these unwanted visitors, and manage to restore the Crown Jewels? Only one thing can help him; Tasha, a sexy vampire!"

And then you read the book and it turns out Doug dies in the second chapter, and the rest of the book is about Tasha joining the Men In Black to help foil a Tribble-smuggling ring. I swear, most of these 'blurbs' I've read are either misleading or wildly innaccurate, or at least have a couple of factual errors (like maybe Tasha isn't a -vampire-, she's just a Goth chick).

So clearly they're not being written by the author, or by anyone who's really read the book thoroughly (like an editor). I thought maybe they're 'spiced up' to make the book seem more interesting, but usually they actually make the book seem worse than it is.

Considering that the cover information of a book has a huge influence on whether the casual buyer will spend his money on it, it seems like whoever's writing these things should be GOOD at it, and should be able to make a quick, punchy, accurate and appealing blurb, not these pathetic stabs.

So who's to blame? Why do blurbs suck? And how can I get this job? (I'd be better at it than these people!)
posted by Rubber Soul to Writing & Language (31 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Most often it's someone in the marketing department at the publishing house; marketing people rarely read entire books. Sometimes it's the editor. Occasionally, the author looks it over and gets to approve it, but this is rare.
posted by agent99 at 10:40 AM on January 24, 2007

Me! I once had a job, among other things, writing back cover copy for books. My official title was "marketing assistant," and I was completely unqualified to do such a thing. I was right out of college, I was writing blurbs for academic books in disciplines which I had never studied, and I often had no more than the introduction to go by. I'm sure my blurbs were often highly misleading. I apologize.

I'd like to think that things work differently at bigger, more professional publishers, but I doubt it. Probably, the person writing the blurbs is a marketing peon. You might be able to get a job as a marketing peon in publishing, but I don't think you'd enjoy it.
posted by craichead at 10:42 AM on January 24, 2007 [1 favorite]

blurbs are the gotcha for readers who don't read the reviews in the papers. They are usually written by the editor and publicist for the book and will give a three-four sentence intro to the flavor of the book without giving so much away that the reader would not have a reason to delve deeper.

They are usually arranged side-by-side with pull quotes (blahs) by authors. These are usually people working in the same genre and often in the same publishing company. They say "He/She is the master!" "Mystery has a new name, and it's X!"
posted by parmanparman at 10:43 AM on January 24, 2007

Pretty sure "copywriters" do this in house. I would guess the pay for this usually sucks. There are also packaging/marketing firms and the like that specialize in polishing the cover copy--I am assuming that these firms have more of a dedication to cohesive visions and really tempting copy, but it seems like blurbs by famous people and the cover go a long way, too.
posted by shownomercy at 10:44 AM on January 24, 2007

Mine (fiction, small but not microscopic press) was written by the marketing department (whose name was Molly) but I was given it to approve and tweak before publication.
posted by escabeche at 10:45 AM on January 24, 2007

Rubber Soul's book sounds fantastic.
posted by owenkun at 10:48 AM on January 24, 2007 [2 favorites]

These are usually people working in the same genre and often in the same publishing company.
If not, they're random friends of the author or someone who owes the author a favor. I would say that 80% of the time, the famous person has not read the book. I would recommend disregarding these things. There is nothing more useless than a famous-person blurb on the back of a book.
posted by craichead at 10:49 AM on January 24, 2007

If not, they're random friends of the author or someone who owes the author a favor.

Don't forget professors at the creative writing program attended by the author!
posted by escabeche at 10:56 AM on January 24, 2007

A close friend is a writer, and he wrote his own blurb when his publishing house had no clue what to do with it.

Amazon link complete with blurb.
posted by ScarletSpectrum at 11:06 AM on January 24, 2007

Though I don't rely on the complimentary quotes from a book cover to recommend a good book, I will usually ignore a book that looks decent but has only half-hearted praise on its cover. I figure, if this is the best they could get anybody to say about it, it must suck. Same strategy for dvd movies.
posted by vytae at 11:08 AM on January 24, 2007

Me too!
posted by thinkpiece at 11:09 AM on January 24, 2007

A refugee from book publishing weighing in here. Sometimes it's the marketing assistant, sometimes a copywriter, sometimes the editor, sometimes the editorial assistant, and (rarely) sometimes it's the copyeditor.
posted by scratch at 11:15 AM on January 24, 2007

Oh, and those back-cover blurbs from other writers? Those often result from authors having the same agent.
posted by scratch at 11:16 AM on January 24, 2007

One possible explanation for the mistakes (besides the fact that they may not have read the book), that copy is written months before the book is actually printed, so its possible that changes were made to the book before it was made available to the public.
posted by drezdn at 11:23 AM on January 24, 2007

I hope you can forgive me for talking about my book for a second time in one day, but my experience is directly relevant to the question.

I was published last year by Random House and I wrote the blurb for my book (fiction), it was then tweaked by my editor and finally approved by me. I know this is not always the way it works though.

I think the answer for this one is that it depends on the publishing house, the editor, the marketing department and the author.
posted by johnny novak at 12:06 PM on January 24, 2007

I spent a long time trying to craft a punchy and appealing hook for my novel to include in query letters to agents. After the novel was eventually sold, the publisher sent me an author questionnaire asking for, among other things, a plot summary, so I just pasted in the hook I'd already written. Lo and behold, what ended up on the jacket and in the publicity materials is 90% the same as what I originally wrote.

I don't know how much to generalize from this experience, but maybe if there's a suitable description already provided by the author (or an agent, in a cover letter when pitching the book to editors), they're likely to use it rather than put in the effort of writing a new one.

My problem with jacket copy is not so much its quality as its tendency to contain major spoilers.
posted by staggernation at 12:08 PM on January 24, 2007 [1 favorite]

Another reason why blurbs can suck: it's generally impossible for everyone involved in the production, marketing and sales of a book to read it the whole way through. In order to get all the pertinent info down in one place, publishers put together title information sheets very early in a book's production life—crib notes explaining what the book's about, what genre it's in, comparable books, etc. as well as technical info like how long it's probably going to be, format/size, likely print run, etc.

A lot of marketing copy is often based on the summary in the TI sheets, and since they're often a) put together at the beginning of the project and b) somewhat hastily put together by someone other than the editor, it's not surprising that the blurbs don't always explain the book perfectly.

Oftentimes it doesn't matter, and sometimes it's beneficial to not have the blurb telegraph the story too closely; for example, would you want the back cover of Rubber Soul's book to completely ruin all the plot twists? Of course not.

As to the quality of the writing, remember that this is marketing copy we're talking about. And before you interpret that as elitism, it's worth mentioning that when magazines send out those renewal letters telling you why you should hand over your cash for another 2 years of Sexy Vampire Monthly, often they try to keep the editorial staff away from writing the letters because the circulation/marketing people know far better what works and what doesn't. After all, it's not art, it's advertising. In other words, you might find the marketing copy clumsy or you might not, but there's a decent chance someone somewhere has decided it'll sell more copies that way—and depending on the book, they're probably right.
posted by chrominance at 12:11 PM on January 24, 2007

Who SHOULD write it: the author, with some editing from marketing.

Who DOES write it (at least where I work): the marketing person, who has never read the book, never seen the proposal, and can't pronounce some of the big words in the title.

(I am not in fiction or popular non-fiction).
posted by misanthropicsarah at 12:20 PM on January 24, 2007

Who SHOULD write it: the author, with some editing from marketing.

Actually, even though I just described how I'm an author who wrote my own, I'm not sure I agree that it's always best for the author to write it. Authors, I can say from both firsthand and secondhand experience, tend not to have a great deal of perspective on their own work. The things an author loves and wants to emphasize about his own book are not necessarily the same aspects that readers will respond to, or that will prompt someone to buy it.

Personally, I find trying to synopsize my writing to be an arduous chore, and would have been delighted to have someone else do it for me (if they'd read the book and were competent, of course).
posted by staggernation at 12:41 PM on January 24, 2007

Where I work, the blurbs are generally written by marketing and then passed to the editor who worked on the book for changes. The marketing folks do not have the time to read each book all the way through, and the material is usually a combination of skimming and the information included in the proposal.

The author sees the blurb when we're reviewing the design proofs for the cover and will occasionally request changes.
posted by camcgee at 12:43 PM on January 24, 2007

It's funny, I've worked at three major publishers and I've never seen anyone other than the editor (or their assistant or intern) do it. Never seen marketing do it, I've never seen an author do it, though some try, and I do know some actually do (usually if it's something gimmicky--see the flap copy for Adverbs by Daniel Handler). But staggernation is right that the editor may borrow from earlier existing texts, whether it's the author's, or their own from an aquisition memo, or whatever. The editor makes the call, but it doesn't always come from the same "place."

I agree that authors shouldn't always do it. It's not expected of them to know what's appropriate to put on a book--just in it. It may seem like the same thing, but it's not. The flap copy is part of the publishing process, and so it's the publisher's job. Authors can't choose the cover image either, or even really have a say (unless they're very important). Same even goes for the title (though it'd be rare to change a title without an author's OK...)

One of the reasons it may seem off sometimes is that sometimes the cover copy is due before the book is edited or sometimes even before the first draft comes in (this would only be true of very busy, very important authors who can get a book deal without having to write the book first). So they know what it's going to be about, but details may change in the editing process.

And they're not called blurbs. It's flap copy for a jacketed book, cover copy for a book without a jacket. A blurb is when another author (or expert or celebrity) says something nice about the book and they print it on the cover or jacket.

As far as I know, there's no such thing as a job just writing cover copy for books. Would that it were so. It's one of about a gajillion different things any one editorial person has to do in the life cycle of any one book.
posted by lampoil at 1:31 PM on January 24, 2007

Oh, and a teaser is actual text from a book. Either a section from the book on the cover or in the front matter, OR a section from the NEXT book in the back matter.
posted by lampoil at 1:40 PM on January 24, 2007

As far as I know, there's no such thing as a job just writing cover copy for books.

I did this for a year. No, I did not read every book.
posted by mattbucher at 2:26 PM on January 24, 2007

I do!

My official title is 'Managing Editor,' though I'm sure I do plenty that falls out of my 'official' purview (I work for a smaller house).

Actually, writing flap/cover copy is one of my most favorite perks. I like to write the most ridiculously emdash-and-ellipses-addled copy possible just for kicks [And Lucille -- windswept and ragged from her time on the desert island -- returns to her ivy-covered home to discover all her secrets exposed ... Will Hawthorne be able to see past her wretched skeleton's bones to the woman he once adored -- and after meeting Rex, does she even care?] Once that's out of my system, I find it much easier to write a digestable, teasing plot summary that (I hope) conveys the tone of the book.
posted by inging at 2:59 PM on January 24, 2007

What lampoli said was my experience too. I worked as an editorial assistant at Penguin Books and either my boss or I wrote the flap copy.
posted by MsMolly at 3:03 PM on January 24, 2007

For my books, the editor came up with the cover copy.
posted by mothershock at 3:48 PM on January 24, 2007

Lampoil is right that it is called jacket copy or flap copy. The words of praise from other authors are referred to as blurbs. In my experience, you hear a lot of noise about how these authors don't read the book, etc., and it's usually horseshit. The editor or author may be able to get in touch with a potential "blurber" based on an agent connection or some other acquaintance link, but I've never met an author who blurbs just because they know someone. If anything, they tend to be more reluctant to do an advance read, because they don't want to be in the awkward position of hating something their friend wrote.

As for the jacket copy -- in some houses the editors write it, in some houses marketing writes it, in some there is a copy department who writes it (or hires freelancers to write it). The point is not to describe the book in exact detail, but to provide enough salient details to give a sense of the plot and why it's interesting. Some copywriters are better at this than others. Some houses take more care with accuracy than others. At almost all houses, the author reviews the text before it goes out, so they are just as responsible for a glaring inaccuracy in the copy as anyone else. Drezdn is also right that copy is written and finalized months before the books come out, so sometimes changes can slip through the cracks. Authors should not should not should NOT write jacket copy. Marketing language & the fine line of what to include and what to leave out is not exactly the purview of most authors.
posted by tigerbelly at 4:21 PM on January 24, 2007 [1 favorite]

I wrote mine - poets often do, I think because they're so often published by small press, without a marketing department.
posted by joannemerriam at 6:20 PM on January 25, 2007

The "official" name for this paragraph is the Back Ad. I used to write them, and also the Flap Copy and the Blurb (the tag line on the front cover).

The big publishers have in-house writers. Sometimes they use outside free-lancers. The top executives often interfere and make (usually dumb) changes. Authors and agents usually have some input. If the publisher has given a star editor a "name" (the cover will say "A Robert Smith Book"), then the star will usually write this material, or have final say on it.
posted by KRS at 12:17 PM on January 26, 2007

A thousand monkeys, a thousand typewriters...
posted by oxford blue at 7:24 PM on January 26, 2007

KRS, are you outside the US? Because nothing in your comment jives with my experience at all. I'd never heard the term "back ad," and there's not much on the internet, but it seems that refers to the ads for other books that appear in the back matter of mass market paperbacks. That's not what we call them where I work, but we do have a similar term. Editors write those too, if there's anything to write, usually. Or marketing. Also, we call the tag line a tag line and like I said before, a blurb is a quote from someone other than a reviewer (though I suppose they can be used as tag lines). And if an editor's big enough to have their name on the book, that means they have their own imprint. So instead of "Blah blah books" on the spine, it says "So and so books."

That's my experience anyway.
posted by lampoil at 8:34 PM on January 26, 2007

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