Archiving for Posterity: A Twitter Thread on Book Blurbing, 5/13/23

Archiving here for the sake of posterity (and not relying on Twitter for it; they’ve gone wonky, alas, so this is a cut and paste job)

John Scalzi

1. To reiterate this once again for everyone: If you see me blurbing a book, it’s because I have actually read the fucking thing and I liked it enough to say so in public. I (and I daresay Neil) don’t have to blurb a goddamned thing for self-promotion.

2. A blurb won’t make or break a book, but they certainly can have an effect on the margins – several is the time where someone has told me they found a new favorite book because they saw my blurb for it and that helped them to take a chance on it. That makes me happy. It worked. 

3. I think it’s easy to be cynical about blurbs and I think it’s reasonable to take them with a grain of salt (the bit about good authors sometimes having bad taste is… not wrong). But the heart of blurbing is authors being actual READERS and being excited to share new books. 

4. Can you understand that when I blurbed, say, Ryka Aoki’s Light From Uncommon Stars, I was trying to convey my actual *sheer delight* at a wonderful story told in a way that I as a writer never could, and I as a reader felt was something new under the sun? How cool is that? 

5. Did I know Ryka before I blurbed the book? Nope. Did I feel I owed a blurb because Tor is my publisher? Ask the Tor editors how many books of theirs I pass on (spoiler: Most). Did I do it to spin a web of self-promoting obligation? Fuck, that’s WORK, and I’m lazy. 

6. I get nothing tangible from blurbing (aside from having read a book); I want nothing from anyone for doing it; no author or editor is obliged to me if I do blurb a book. If a book I blurb succeeds, I may joke about my power, but the author and book did the real work. 

7. I get tired of everyone suggesting blurbs are mostly just a quid-pro-quo activity. There absolutely has been logrolling, but the day-to-day reality of it is editors reaching out and saying “I have this book, I love it so much, I think you’ll love it too, can I send it to you?” 

8. Mostly I have to say no. I have very little time and I always – always – have five or six books in my “read for blurbs” folder on my computer. Even when I say “yes, send it,” I bounce off most of the books – some bad, some meh, some very good, but not for me. 

9. Beyond that, you know what? If my name is going to be on someone else’s fucking cover, then I’m not gonna have it associated with something (or someone!) I think is trash, just to be nice. I’m not that nice, people. My name means something to *me,* and I have standards. 

10. You may or may not like a book I blurb; my taste may not be your taste. But if you see my name on a book, talking about it specifically, you’ll know this for sure: That book? I think it’s worth reading. Hopefully you’ll think so, too. That’s it, that’s all. Nothing else. 

11. There you have it. And now, as always, I end this tweet thread on a cat. Thanks for reading.

— JS

37 Comments on “Archiving for Posterity: A Twitter Thread on Book Blurbing, 5/13/23”

  1. Note I have not linked to the originating essay, because some folks (surely, not you) will take that as an invite to visit the person who wrote that and be rude to them. As ever: please never be an asshole on my behalf. Also entertain the notion that the person mentioning me is not doing so with malice in their heart, and that it may be their experience is simply different than my own, which is sad, but understandable. Be that as it may, I don’t want the suggestion that I do what I do for cynical reasons to go without informed rebuttal.

    You can probably still find the originating article if you are committed to doing so; if I learn that someone from here was less than polite there I will not be happy.

  2. So much for blurbs! How about Big Ideas? i have bought (and read!) a few. Some did nothing for me. Some (like the recent DragonFall by LR Lam) I found fascinating, revelatory, and thoroughly enjoyable.

  3. Sheer delight was my exact respond to Light from Uncommon Stars, also.

    I hadn’t realized our tastes were that close, although I end up with more than a few books you blurb. I guess I’ll start paying more attention.

  4. “We all know it’s a big commercial racket. It’s run by an Eastern syndicate, you know,” as Lucy Van Pelt would say. I think this is mostly because there are some people for whom everything is transactional and they can’t perceive of someone who has some fame sharing that with someone else unless there is something in it for them. Instead of, you know, people actually liking other people and the work they do. And being a fan, they want to share their joy with others.

  5. I’ve added a note to the essay that links back to this statement. I won’t be removing the post, as there’s little point in doing so. It was not a good idea for me to be that careless with names, and I apologize for my thoughtlessness.

  6. John, I’m amazed at how responsive you are for a big name author. You seem wholly sincere in wanting to “give back” to the SF genre – which is admirable and rare. There are always cynics …
    (Cute cat BTW)

  7. Serdar:

    No worries and thank you!

    Michael Vilian:

    And I have a quote on a Sam Sykes book that says “I do not wish Sam Sykes dead.” I think most people understand what’s going on there.

  8. John, you’re very welcome.

    I have to be clear — and this is something I am noting in a follow-up post — this was not a personal thing. But I made it into one by naming names too freely, and assuming motives that were not necessarily in existence, or which I should have considered were personal and not universal. I don’t want to fall into traps like that again if I can help it.

  9. I’m curious what, if anything, you say when they send you a book and you bounce off it. Do you tell the editor/author that outright? Or give a polite excuse?

  10. I do wonder sometimes about the generic recurring blurbs. I know I’ve seen blurbs like “X (author) is one of the best in the business!….” that don’t actually have anything to do with the book it is on, and then get re-used over and over again.

    Do they have to ask the blurber each time they put that blurb on a different book by the same author? Or do you lose control of a generic blurb, and they can put it on books you might not even have read, since, after all, you’re not actually vouching for the book in this case, just the author.

  11. Serdar:

    Thank you very much for the clarification; it is helpful and also a relief!

    Marie Brennan:

    If I bounce off it, I’ll tell the editor. It’s not an expression of the quality of the book, which may be quite good, just that I’m not the ideal audience for it.

    Matthew Cook:

    Generic recurring blurbs are often used on first runs of a book if more direct blurbs were not gotten, or the publisher thinks it’s enough for the purpose. I myself have a recurring blurb from Joe Hill that keeps showing up. In paperback editions, it’s often replaced, or moved to the back.

  12. I read 54 books last year. Light From Uncommon Stars was possibly my favorite. I got a copy of it in my Hugo package, but I had already read it, thanks to you, and I do mean THANKS.

  13. Ryka Aoki’s novel was FANTASTIC and I absolutely loved interviewing her on TO THE MOON, ALLISON. Glad you loved it, too. (Still would love to interview you!)

  14. I hadn’t heard about Ryka Aoki before. Another author to try.
    I normally open the book before I read the blurbs. Then look at the blurbs to see if there’s an author I haven’t read and try them.
    I’m a backwards child.

  15. I too open the book before reading the blurbs. In fact, I mostly don’t get to the blurbs.

    Tonight I’m rereading my favourite two works of Keith Laumer (novellas) The Day Before Forever and Thunderhead.

    I have a scrap of memory, maybe from a sf magazine book review, where a certain not-so-good book was blurbed by other writers but Laumer wouldn’t do so Someone said he was right, and all the others were wrong.

  16. Smudge looks to be asking what idiotic thing you’ve said or about to say on Twitter that requires a cat pic.

    Seems it happens often enough to merit the response of trying to lick Twitter to see what all the fuss is about.

  17. Light from Uncommon Stars is just so, so wonderful! Owns its weirdness and then leans in. Every character has their own story, even if readers only see a small part of it; not one of them is a walk-on in somebody else’s.

  18. To me, blurbs are the most useful thing to exist on the outside of a physical book. Cover art might make me pick up an unknown book, but blurbs make me take it home. And then I don’t care one whit what the blurbs say – just who said it. Not for their (lack of) taste, but simply because that’s the most accurate gauge for how the publisher is positioning the book.

    It works in the other direction as well. If someone I haven’t read blurbs a book I ended up liking, then I’ll be much more inclined to seek them out.

    However, there seems to be a trend [citation needed] toward more and more blurbs by “Salon”, “SFX”, etc. Those are utterly useless to me. Really not certain what publishers are trying to accomplish with those, either.

  19. Another upvote for The Light of Uncommon Stars. It’s really good!

    I think it’s easy to be cynical about blurbs and I think it’s reasonable to take them with a grain of salt

    I once saw a book that (no word of a lie) had a blurb from Harriet Klausner[1]. Needless to say, I passed.

    [1] For those who are unaware, knowledge is a quick Google search away.

  20. At one point, a few years ago, it was a running joke in the mystery field that it was impossible NOT to have a Lee Child blurb on your book…and every book.

  21. It was a running joke in our house for many years that when we saw a blurb from Marion Zimmer Bradley that said “Best book I read all year!” that it must have been the only book she read. Add to that the fact that we never saw any variation on the wording and it appeared on multiple books in the same year.

    I pay attention to author recommendation but not on blurbs. If they write about it, it may interest me enough to buy the book. I also have bought a number of books after reading their author’s guest post on your blog.

  22. and now I’ve read half of Light Of Uncommon Stars in less than a day.
    Curse you, Scalzi

  23. My thanks to David Scott Moyer! The last couple of years I haven’t had time to read the Hugo novels, just the novellas and short stories and such. But there it was, sitting in my library waiting for me! The Light of Uncommon Stars! Now loaded in my iPad and ready to be consumed when I’m working the front desk of the library.

    I was wondering if you’d done a Big Ideas with the author over the book. I’ve bought a few from that exposure and not been disappointed.

  24. For what it is worth (which is very little) I don’t ever read blurbs. I take no consideration of them whatsoever. So I am kind of curious that this seems to be such a big deal.

  25. I’m delighted that you feel comfortable sharing your blurb “process” with us, because I’ve always been curious about them. I don’t love blurbs — I feel like they have replaced the plot summaries on the back of books, which I used once upon a time to see if a book was in my wheelhouse, so to speak. I actually find the Big Idea summaries more helpful than blurbs as far as directing me to new authors/books that I will enjoy, but I would be a liar if I said the blurbs don’t sway me at all. It’s more that they confirm my already excellent taste.

  26. And now I have added Light From Uncommon Stars to my Amazon Wishlist because I am a suggestible creature.

  27. John, any chance you could replace your twitter feed with a list of “books I have blurbed recently”?

  28. Burnt Custard, why are you here? You have the second half of the book still to go. And it’s even better than the first half!

  29. “You can probably still find the originating article if you are committed to doing so; if I learn that someone from here was less than polite there I will not be happy.”

    No worries. I’m no longer an official Twit.

  30. I too found light From Uncommon Stars a most interesting and rewarding read.. I had, however, entirely forgotten the title, and had to look it up in order to remember… Sigh, too many books, no memory for names
    I will look at blurbs from authors whose blurbery I respect (Hello Neil!)

  31. I may be the only person who read Light from Uncommon Stars without having seen any of the blurbs. (I read it because our book group was discussing it. I liked it.)

    I suppose it’s possible that some blurb-writers use knowing the author or having some other personal connection as triage for deciding whether to look at particular books in the flood in the first place. However honest they may be about not blurbing unless they really like the book, the triage stage may give rise to the notion that blurbing is all log-rolling.

  32. But you gotta admit, Scalzi and the Blurbmen would be a great name for a band.

  33. I enjoy your work so it’s good to know that you read what you blurb about. It would definitely catch my attention on an unknown work if you liked it.

    I want to thank you for supporting your peers. I’ve looked through many of the photo “stacks” of your books for the month and I’ve purchased some of those as they seem like something I would like after researching them.

    I also enjoy the interviews you and Athena do with authors because that too has driven some sales of books I would never have found before.

    Please keep it all up. I love that you put in time to help other authors too.

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