The Skinny On Blurbs

Your manuscript is finished and the agent submissions checklist is all set:

  • Target list: check.
  • Killer elevator pitch: check.
  • Brief bio including previous literary accomplishments: check.
  • SASE ready to go to those agents who still request one: check.

Or perhaps you’ve decided to self-publish and everything’s ready, including a cover designed around a gorgeous image you’ve found that perfectly captures the spirit of your book.  

It’s time to pull the trigger.

But wait.  Isn’t something  missing?

If either your querying materials or your self-published cover do not include blurbs, then yes: something’s missing.  Something you absolutely can’t proceed without.  

Quick primer in case you’re not familiar with this quirky term:

A “blurb” is that little snippet of praise from another author or a reviewer brandishing a book’s cover.  Think, “Immensely readable. From small town to the grit of the city, family farm to union factories, the Midwest of Michelle Hoover’s Bottomland is alive with secrets, hard choices, and the acute costs of independence.” —Daphne Kalotay, author of Russian Winter and Sight Reading

Or, “Half in Love With Death is a suspenseful psychological thriller and a mesmerizing coming of age story. I raced to find out what happened, yet longed to linger with this rich cast of characters and Emily Ross’s stylish prose. This haunting story of a teen girl’s search for her missing sister, served up with plenty of plot twists, will excite YA mystery fans.” Diana Renn, author of Tokyo Heist, Latitude Zero and Blue Voyage

These well-crafted snippets not only showcase readers’ praise of a book, but they also serve a very important purpose long before a book is marketed or promoted:

At every phase of the game, blurbs offer a crucial layer of vetting.

In an industry where where no specialized training or prior experience is required to go knocking on agents’ or editors’ doors, blurbs help distinguish those writers who’ve done their homework by seeking critiques from others more experienced than themselves.  They also demonstrate that a manuscript has gone through the requisite rounds of revisions and rewriting and is at the point where a published author can read it start to finish and approve.

So if you’re sending out a manuscript to agents, your submission would be a thousand times stronger if the query letter and / or cover page include at least one blurb — ideally from an author with some clout.

If you’re self-publishing and hope to market your book in any way, whether by submitting it for awards or conducting a PR campaign, you absolutely must include not one, but at least two blurbs to drive home the fact that you, too, have done everything in your power to make your book as strong as it can possibly be — including having it read and critiqued by pros.  From a PR perspective, it’s hard enough to get reporters to pay attention to a self-published book.  Without blurbs, it’s mission impossible.  I’ve had to turn away many self-published authors approaching me with beautifully-written books but not a single blurb.

In conversations with authors I work with, I find that the above facts about blurbs and their purpose can lead to more questions and sometimes, a whole lot of confusion.  So here are my answers to some important FAQs about blurbs which I hope will clear things up:

Q: Whom should I approach about writing a blurb?

A: Traditionally published authors who have read your manuscript as a work in progress, critiqued it and mentored you on the writing path.

Q: What if nobody did that?

A: Are you sure that you’re ready to publish?

Q: When should I ask?

A: As soon as your manuscript is complete and before you start shopping it around or taking steps to self-publish.  That way, if you’re looking for an agent you can include the blurbs in your query letter.  Perhaps the authors who wrote them will go a step further, too, when you ask by offering to introduce you to their agent.

Q: What should I say?

A: Politely ask if he or she would be willing to take a look at your manuscript and consider writing a blurb for it. Include a brief description of the story.  Think: elevator pitch. One short paragraph is more than enough.

Q: How many people should I ask?

As many as you can.  You never know who will say yes and who won’t, and you want to give yourself the best chance possible of gathering at least two blurbs before shopping a manuscript or self-publishing.  More never hurts.

Q:  Should I ask a few literary luminaries like Jennifer Egan, Jonathan Franzen or John Grisham?

A: Have they read or critiqued your manuscript? If not, even if your book has a theme you think they’d connect with, you can always ask but don’t expect an answer — unless they are your cousin or best friend.  And even then, authors with such high-profiles tend to accept blurb requests only from their editors — if at all.

Q: What if somebody I ask says no, or never answers?

A: Welcome to publishing!  If the answer is no, move on and don’t let it get under your skin.  If the answer is silence, be patient.  Follow up occasionally and if after several months you still haven’t heard back, let it go.

Q: What if I don’t really like the way a blurb I’ve gotten is written?

A: Don’t sweat it.  Blurbs are a “pass / fail” exercise.  There will always be one phrase or word you can pull out as a quote, and don’t forget: the mere fact that the author who has written it is willing to vet you speaks volumes.  

Q: How long should a blurb be?

A: Less is more — especially if the blurb will be used on your book cover.  A typical blurb is two to three lines. In fact, if a cover blurb is too long your editor or marketing team will trim and chop it until it fits.  Sometimes blurbs get reduced to a single phrase such as, “A stunning debut.”  In the end, as long it has a positive ring to it, the name of the author providing it and thus vetting your book is more important than what the blurb actually says.

Finally, it’s important to understand that the very best kind of blurb emerges organically through your path as a writer.  If you’re taking all the right steps toward learning the craft, you will meet teachers, mentors and manuscript consultants along the way.  They’ll read your work and see the results of your revisions.  They’ll watch your writing skills develop and flourish. The blurbs that grow out of these relationships are the most genuine and heartfelt, and it’s these very relationships that will most often help you move forward along  the path to publication.