The hard-boiled blurb

(Are the blurb posts too much? People seem to like them, and I post whatever strikes me as interesting at the time, but sometimes I feel like I get into one-note ruts.)

An interesting discussion came up the other day, in which one author said that they ask readers to buy the book at the end of the blurb, and that it should be polite but clever. I was struck by how ridiculously wrong that is, and said so (without the “ridiculously” part); between my rationale then, and looking over someone else’s blurb recently at their request, I had a thought gel that was worth sharing.

Starting off with the ask-for-the-sale author, who I’ll call “Kelly” and refer to as female (I actually don’t know their gender) for simplicity: Kelly insisted that because we are selling and marketing a product, we definitely should ask for the sale, and compared this to the various buttons like one-click download, etc. It was almost universally agreed by other authors that asking for the sale anywhere on the book’s Amazon page (or similar shopping venue) is a bad idea, especially in a blurb.

Here’s my take on it: The blurb is not about the hard sell, but the soft sell. When you’re out shopping, do you really want to be harassed by the guy at the nail products kiosk, or be asked if you’re happy with your cell phone plan? If you’re looking to buy a TV, do you want a salesman who’s pushy, or just acts as a source of information so you can ask intelligent questions and get intelligent answers, and make up your own mind on your own terms? This is yet another reason I find forcing review quotes into blurbs to be so awful—or worse, the author boast, the “This book is about”, or name dropping, which have other problems all their own.

Kelly said you should be polite but clever about it, but I submitted—and it remains unchallenged—that there is no way to do that that doesn’t look like it’s asking. And if it looks like that, you’ve dipped into the hard sell. But even worse, and this is the killer, it looks desperate. The stink of desperation repels women, and it repels buyers too.

That leads me to what I realized when helping out another author the other day. The blurb was loaded down with just about every kind of bad talk-to-the-reader habit there is (except the rhetorical question, funnily enough). I thought that last paragraph was painful, but he then said that there was more he didn’t quote: the blurb also included review quotes, because a blog post somewhere had suggested that was a great way to get noticed.

Let’s pretend there’s no irony in my posting a blog post explaining why that’s crap.

“Get noticed!” is the cry of the Internet snake oil salesman. (Well, not the ones selling bogus supplements. They have a different call.) There is legitimate good advice out there for getting anything noticed, from books to sites to yourself, mixed in with a sea of very very bad advice. The harder someone shouts “Get noticed!” the more likely they’re full of crap. Someone has probably coined a name for the law that governs this relationship, but darn if I know what it is.

But this is specifically why the idea of putting in reviews to get a blurb noticed is crap: Above and beyond all the other problems with it, doing this to get the blurb noticed is like asking chicken soup to play the piano and expecting it to comply. Getting attention isn’t what the blurb is for, because it’s something the blurb can’t do. All the blurb can do is keep attention, or lose it.

Think about your shopping experience, either on Amazon or in a bookstore. You’re browsing along in your favorite section or in some area with recommendations, and you see a cover, or maybe a title on a spine. You click through or pick it up, and look at it more closely. Is the cover still interesting? Cool. Now look at the blurb.

The blurb is the third thing the reader notices—fourth if your name factors in. (It’s so seldom seen alongside the cover without a click-through that such situations aren’t worth mentioning.) When they’re looking at it, it’s because they already expressed an interest based on your title or cover. Therefore, claiming that review quotes in the blurb itself can get you attention is idiotic. It can do other things, but it can’t get the book noticed because it’s already been noticed.

Again I carve out an exception for print books, where reviews can sit on the back cover separate from the blurb and be their own unit. Acknowledged and moving on.

Let’s get back to the shopping experience. When I’m window shopping, browsing, I want to want things. I want to find something I like enough to spend money on. There’s a great deal of satisfaction in merely purchasing something you know you want, especially if you follow through and enjoy it as a rule. So by the time I’m looking at the blurb, I’ve liked the cover enough to click through. I want to be impressed. The blurb can do one of three things now, on a sliding scale: It can clinch the sale, it can do nothing, or it can turn me away.

This is why I say the blurb is all about the soft sell: Think about judo, a sport where the goal is to use an opponent’s momentum against them by redirecting force. (Disclosure: I do not know judo.) A strong, effective blurb knows it already has the reader’s attention, and its goal is to use that to the author’s advantage. A strong blurb should leverage the reader’s existing interest and use that to draw them in. A blurb should be so compelling that the reader sells the book to themselves.

Any time you talk to the reader is misdirected force. Any whiff of “Hi, I’m the author” is misdirected force. A whiff of “You really need to buy this book, because someone is telling you so” is misdirected force. When you say something so cheesy or cliché that they roll their eyes, you’ve missed completely; a moderate cliché isn’t a complete miss, but it wastes force.

But wait, one might say: Doesn’t the Amazon page usually have reviews that might say those things? Doesn’t the back of a book? Yes, but those aren’t the blurb. The blurb is informational. It is a description—not a synopsis, and most definitely not a pitch. They came to the blurb for one reason only: to find out what the book is about. If you use words that are strong and can describe the setup in terms that drive tension and interest instead of driving them away, you can pull the reader in. Every word that makes them lean in is one that tips the balance in your favor, and every word that makes them feel like you’re yanking their arm is one that can make them resist.

Remember, the customer wants to want your book. The cover already grabbed them. Something, at least, other than the blurb grabbed them. They are a voluntary participant in this dance, and your job is not to lurch around pulling them awkwardly here and there. If you’re a lousy dance partner, they’ll take off. If you’re merely adequate, you might still make the sale; lots and lots of books (including almost all of trad-pub) have sold well with crappy blurbs, gaining strength through reviews and word of mouth, but that’s no reason not to do better. And even an aggressive hard-sell blurb might still avoid turning off some readers enough to sell the book—but it will turn some off.

Again: Clinch the sale, do nothing, or lose the sale. Those are the blurb’s only options. A hard sell is far less likely to clinch anything than to lose it, unless it’s 4 AM and your reader is drunk with a credit card in hand and you’ve personally hired the ghost of Billy Mays to lend his compelling shout to your blurb. You are not the mall kiosk guy; nobody likes that guy. Be the author who’s proud of their work, and shows it by never boasting, never goading, but weaving a spell in words that makes them want to take just one more step—and then another, and another.

About Lummox JR

Aspiring to be a beloved supervillain
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