Bad blurb advice

It’s been quite a while since I last did a post about book blurbs, and this one is way overdue. It also coincides with another of my favorite pastimes, because it’s a rant.

I fall in and out of heavy writing/publishing mode, but when I’m especially active in those communities I like to help people who are looking for help with their blurbs. Writing your own blurbs is hard, and a great many people have trouble writing any blurb at all because it’s such a foreign format compared to the prose within their book. So it irks me no end when That Guy shows up on just about every thread to derail any positive developments by offering spectacularly bad advice. Knowing absolutely nothing about the subject, his advice is always the same: Just do all the things trad-pub does, especially the bad clichés that result in such bland cookie-cutter blurbs, because those guys are selling lots of books and obviously that means their blurbs are awesome. Pretty sure I’ve touched on that before, but he’s wrong, and I’m gonna go into more detail.

Now first let’s talk credentials. I jokingly call myself an unlicensed blurb doctor, because I’m self-taught; but in truth, so is everyone else who does blurb doctoring. But if you’ve read my other posts on the subject, I hope one thing is obvious: I’ve studied blurbs. I’ve put a lot of effort into training myself not to use the easy clichés, learning about structure, figuring out what parts make one blurb strong (in my opinion) and another one turn me way off. And that study has paid off, because in passing that info along and working on others’ blurbs, I’ve had a lot of fantastic feedback. So I feel confident in saying that even though there’s no licensing board, I’m as close to a licensed blurb doctor as anyone else who has a claim on that title, and That Guy is the equivalent of that one guy who always comes out of the woodwork who insists that the patient ignore sound medical advice in favor of some long-debunked quackery.

What I’m saying is That Guy is an asshole. He goes out of his way to shout down good advice on this subject wherever he can find it—anyone’s, mind you—and always encourages people to stick with the same tired, even off-putting, banal crap you’ll find everywhere else. I’m going to explain why he’s wrong.

Fallacy 1: The giant is so strong because he has a man bun

First of all, let’s talk about sales. Yes, any idiot can see that although trad-pub is hurting, it’s still the 800 lb. gorilla in the room. Books whose blurbs carry a lot of bad habits—massive clichés, a dozen kinds of reader-talk, and good gads the questions—sell thousands of copies. Clearly, That Guy says, these guys are doing something right!

Yes they are doing something right: reach, marketing, and covers. (Covers and blurbs are both forms of marketing, but for the purpose of this discussion I’m separating them out.) Trad-pub has many advantages that the indie writer does not, and one of them is reach. Simply put, they can get their books on shelves at most of the brick-and-mortar retailers who still exist; and the A-listers can even reach grocery stores and Walmart. These titles are marketed in advance to various interest publications, book reviewers, etc. to get the word out; even when the extent of that marketing isn’t much for a particular book, it can still be a big deal as far as making sure the book his the ground running. And finally trad-pub is, as a general rule, very very good at developing book covers—the first thing a prospective reader will see.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: trad-pub sells well in spite of its blurbs, not because of them. In truth, blurbs are one of the smallest factors in what sells a book, because next to reviews and/or sample text they’re usually the last thing the reader sees. I put so much emphasis on blurbs only because they’re something that we as writers can easily control. Although it’s a different skill set from writing prose, it’s not so different as to be completely alien.

Fallacy 2: That man bun was tied by an expert

Here’s where That Guy’s “logic” really pisses me off: He assumes that there’s such a thing as a professional blurbist in the industry at all. There isn’t.

If you spend any time actually learning about how the publishing industry handles the behind-the-scenes stuff of getting books ready for publication, you’ve probably heard rumors that quite a lot of that stuff gets foisted off onto grunts and interns. If you’ve ever spent time in the real world, you know that all kinds of big companies operate that way, and could have guessed as much on your own.

The plain fact is I’ve outright been told by people who used to work in the industry, doing the actual job of writing blurbs, that this is true. Publishers don’t put a lot of thought into blurbs at all, and ascribe them little enough importance that they give the task to people who are low on the totem pole and given no prior training. Congrats, Sally, you’ve graduated from coffee-fetching detail and now we’re gonna throw you in the deep end of this pool we don’t care that much about. We just need you to churn out something to roughly these word count specifications; got it?

The professionals are not experts, and often enough not even professionals. (Interns don’t count.) In fact I’d go so far as to say most of them know way less about blurbs than a typical blurb doctor, because they’ve done nothing to study blurbs beyond simply looking at what the people before them did, and aping that. This has been going on for decades. Want to know why so many blurbs look alike? That’s why!

Even so, I want to give these people credit where it’s due. In a previous post I pointed to an article by Beth Bacon where she wrote about what she thought was a good blurb formula. While there were a lot of flaws in the example blurb she provided, the tautness of the writing was not one of them. Even while these industry cogs use the same shoddy old toolbox of bad habits, they also have a pretty good poetic toolbox to draw from. I don’t doubt many of them come from educational backgrounds where they’re enamored of the written word, have large vocabularies, and understand how to achieve an emotional context with great economy of words. That skill is worth studying.

Fallacy 3: The science is settled!

Not to be swayed by mere logic, That Guy then tries to pull out the big guns and throw logic right back. Because BookBub, you see, did actual A/B testing on blurbs and found out that all these horrible clichés and reader-talk and all that sort of garbage actually works wonders. They’ll tell you all about it themselves, and it’s worth a read—but not because it can teach you anything about blurbs. Read it with the critical eye of the skeptic and the problems become apparent.

That’s right. I’m a blurb science denier.

More to the point, I deny that BookBub used good methodology or that their results have any relevance to blurbs at all. If we’re going to talk science, then the standards of good science apply. All possible biases should be weighed and removed from the experiment to whatever extent they can be, the experiment should measure what it actually sets out to measure, and the results should be interpreted based on what the experiment measured and not what the person reading about it wants to think it meant.

I’m not here to crap all over BookBub; they meant well. And to be fair to them, I think they did measure what they set out to measure—it just wasn’t about blurbs. The problem is they, like so many other people, conflated the word “blurb” with something else. What they’re actually talking about aren’t blurbs at all, even though they keep using that word. The entire article, and the testing they did, was all about short pitches for ad copy. Those are typically much shorter than blurbs and live in a different environment. (More on that in a bit.)

What BookBub did was take a number of short pitches and run A/B testing on them, which is to say they randomly showed two different versions of the same not-really-a-blurb, one of which had a minor change like telling a reader why they’ll like the book or talking about reviews or making an author boast or comparing to other works or whatnot. For quite a lot of those tests the A version would basically be shorter, with the B version adding an extra bit of information. And right there, you have an implicit source of bias: more detail vs. less, more words vs. fewer, will tend to win when information is at a premium.

And again this is copy for an ad; it’s not a blurb. A book blurb is exactly the same as a back-cover or jacket description. In an ad, this text is right up front and it’s in a tightly confined space where brevity is a hundred times more important. In a proper role as a description, it’s what readers see on Amazon after they click the cover, or in a bookstore it’s what readers see after the cover/spine has grabbed their interest and they want to see more. BookBub did their testing, and drew their conclusions, on a different animal.

For that reason it’s not too surprising either that some things that are horrendous in blurbs—like comparing to other books, telling the reader what to think, etc.—work here. Aside from the fact that they were compared to copy that was identical but for the addition of that line (again, bias would tend to favor more length), this is an ad. An ad is meant to be a little louder; people understand it in that context and even treat it with the appropriate skepticism. A blurb on the other hand is more about seduction, drawing the reader into an emotional connection to the story.

And even though these are ads and not blurbs, their results still include some hilarious affirmations of things I’ve been saying all along. For instance, that article mentions that posing the book as a question doesn’t work. In another article where they did some subtler testing, more specificity on factual items (number of recipes, aristocratic titles, name of award) always won, while more specificity on author boasts (“insightful and accessible” vs. “insightful”) always lost. These are results I would have predicted from what they do to blurbs, but it’s funny that they apply to short ad pitches too. In an ad format an author boast may work better than nothing at all, but a longer author boast apparently flops.

As I’ve said before, a real A/B test has never been done, can never be done, on blurbs. Even if Amazon were set up to handle A/B testing for you, you’d need a large sample size (and therefore considerable success already as an author, skewing the results) to even make sense of the data. You’d need to compare a solidly constructed blurb to one that makes one minor change in favor of a cliché or other junk; ideally you’d need to compare dozens of very similar versions. It simply isn’t possible to do this in any scientifically meaningful way. BookBub can at least attempt meaningful testing because while they’re not testing blurbs, their ad copy is put in front of people first thing—it lives in a different place—and whether it gets a click or not does not necessarily mean it will get a buy.

Conclusion: That Guy can suck it

There is no such thing as a blurb doctor who is always right. I’ve seen other blurb doctors take very different approaches to reach solid results, including some who are masters of the one-paragraph blurb which I am not. But there is such a thing as an intrusive twit who seeks out every opportunity he can find to steer you wrong.

The publishing industry doesn’t care about blurbs—not enough to sink real time and money into them and to study new ways of making them pop. Hence why their blurbs always look like the same mediocre drivel. They do however put enough effort and money into other aspects of marketing as to overshadow this job completely, and the people they’re hiring/exploiting to do it have enough skill with words to somewhat make up for shortcomings of form. Meanwhile the only science that’s been done on blurbs wasn’t done on blurbs at all, and wasn’t done scientifically enough.

Don’t take my advice on blurbs as gospel. But whatever you do, don’t take the advice of someone who tells you the industry must be doing something right because sales, you guys! and insists you’re better off making a blurb that looks like everybody else’s. His refusal to acknowledge that the industry has a lot more cards in their hand and that’s what leads to better sales is a refusal of reality. Make your blurb better than theirs; it’s very doable, it’s worth it, and as an indie writer you need every advantage you can get.

About Lummox JR

Aspiring to be a beloved supervillain
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