But When I Want Sincerity, Tell Me Where Else Can I Turn?*

A recent meeting of the book club I belong to has got me thinking about blurbs. The book that we were reading turned out to be quite different to what was described in the blurb, and that was a problem for several members of the club. And it highlighted some of the challenges of book blurbs.

I think most crime fiction fans want to know something about a book before they decide to read it. Among other things, they may want to know, for instance, how gritty a story is, whether a book has a lot of violence, or whether it deals with certain topics. Readers also want to know what sort of story they’re getting (e.g., police procedural, noir, historical mystery, or something else). After all, we all have different tastes. So, it is important to be truthful in a blurb; that’s how readers decide what to read.

That said, blurbs are meant to sell. So, they often contain descriptions or adjectives (like ‘gritty,’ ‘lighthearted,’ ‘suspenseful,’ or ‘hair-rising’) that make some readers sit up and take notice. They are, after all, advertisements for a book, so it makes sense that they would tout the book’s features.

The challenge is balancing telling the truth about a story with making that story sound irresistible to as many people as possible. And that can be tricky.

Here, for instance is a blurb for Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express:

‘’The murderer is with us—on the train now . . .’
Just after midnight, the famous Orient Express is stopped in its tracks by a snowdrift. By morning, the millionaire Samuel Edward Ratchett lies dead in his compartment, stabbed a dozen times, his door locked from the inside. Without a shred of doubt, one of his fellow passengers is the murderer.
Isolated by the storm, detective Hercule Poirot must find the killer among a dozen of the dead man’s enemies, before the murderer decides to strike again.’

Fans of the novel will know that the facts laid out in the blurb are true. Is this blurb accurate? Does it have too much ‘hype?’ It certainly uses compelling language.

Here’s the blurb for James M. Cain’s novella, Double Indemnity:

Walter Huff was an insurance salesman with an unfailing instinct for clients who might be in trouble, and his instinct led him to Phyllis Nirdlinger. Phyllis wanted to buy an accident policy on her husband. Then she wanted her husband to have an accident. Walter wanted Phyllis. To get her, he would arrange the perfect murder and betray everything he had ever lived for.

This blurb has the advantage of being short, and of not revealing too much about what happens in the novel. It doesn’t give specific information about the story’s sub-genre, but it’s not hard to tell from the description that things are probably not going to go well for these people.

The thing about blurbs, too, is that they can’t be too wordy. Otherwise, people won’t read them, and likely won’t be interested in the book. So, sometimes a blurb has to leave out important story arcs and sub-plots. For instance, here is the blurb for Reginald Hill’s Child’s Play, the ninth in his Dalziel/Pascoe series:

Gwendoline Huby’s passing has left her relatives more aggrieved than grieving. The wealthy and dotty widow has bequeathed the bulk of her fortune to her son, Alexander, missing in action since World War II. Then a stranger appears at the funeral claiming, against all odds, to be the phantom benefactor. Imposter or rightful heir? For Dalziel and Pascoe, a prickly situation is made even more so when Alexander is murdered. But when a second body turns up—this time in the CID’s parking lot—the Yorkshire detectives can’t fathom a connection. Until they dare to look a little deeper into the Hubys’ family plot.

This blurb certainly gives solid facts about the main case that Dalziel and Pascoe investigate. And that in itself will attract readers, especially those who already like the series. But it leaves out a very important sub-plot about Sergeant Wield, who’s a valuable member of the investigating team. Should that sub-plot be in the blurb? Would that be too much? It’s an interesting example of how a blurb has to balance telling the story with not telling every detail.

We also see that balance in the blurb for Louise Penny’s Still Life:

Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Surêté du Québec and his team of investigators are called in to the scene of a suspicious death in a rural village south of Montreal. Jane Neal, a local fixture in the tiny hamlet of Three Pines, just north of the U.S. border, has been found dead in the woods. The locals are certain it’s a tragic hunting accident and nothing more, but Gamache smells something foul in these remote woods, and is soon certain that Jane Neal died at the hands of someone much more sinister than a careless bowhunter.

This blurb uses language such as sinister and foul to add to the ‘draw’ of the book. But if you look at the description, it’s a fairly accurate summary of the main plot point – the death of Jane Neal and the first trip Armand Gamache makes to Three Pines. It doesn’t mention any of the sub-plots in the story, but again, there’s value in some brevity.

It’s not easy, really, to write an effective blurb for a book. It’s got to be truthful, but exciting. It’s got to be informative, but not overburdened with detail. It’s got to be noticeable, but not melodramatic. But what do you think? Where do blurbs fit in with your reading choices? If you’re a writer, how do you handle writing them?

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Honesty.


20 thoughts on “But When I Want Sincerity, Tell Me Where Else Can I Turn?*

  1. You and I know how hard it is to write a blurb that tells enough to intrigue a reader without giving away too much plot. I know the blurbs for Killerbyte and Terrorbyte have always annoyed me (I didn’t write it) because I always felt they gave too much away. But, in saying that, it’s really hard to write a blurb – you’re balanced on a knife-edge the whole time. 🙂
    I really don’t appreciate it when a blurb isn’t a good representation of the story though. We rely on the blurb to tell us if the book is something we’d like. I’ve definitely read blurb on books that have little or nothing to do with the story itself. That’s how I managed to pick up a dreadful book that was billed as an organised crime but was fluffy and annoying.

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    1. It is really hard to write a blurb, isn’t it, Cat? You want to say enough to invite the reader in, but not so much as to give away the plot. And I don’t blame you for having gotten annoyed when the blurbs for your books gave away too much. There has to be enough intrigue so the reader wants to know more. I agree with you, too, about blurbs that don’t give a good representation of the story. That was the problem with the book my book club and I read: the blurb didn’t really reflect the book, and that was annoying to several of us. I’d say it’s almost as hard to write a good burb as it is to write a synopsis.

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  2. I like them and use them as introductions to my blog posts. Some can be wordy, but I think on the whole they do a good job of enticing readers. I do sometimes look back at them and reflect on their accuracy. I think I might spend more time deciphering the relevance of a particular title. Sometimes they can be a bit opaque.

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    1. You make a good point, Col, about blurbs that may or may not be accurate. If they are, then you’re right; they make for a great introduction to the book, and can draw the reader in. And I like that you use them in your blog posts, because they help give context to what you write about a book. But to me, if a blurb’s not accurate, that’s a problem. I think the reader can feel let down.

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  3. The first thing I do is see WHO WROTE the blurb. If I know and trust the opinion of that person, I read the blurb, if it’s institutional (newspaper, periodical, etc) and short, okay. Otherwise, knowing it’s a sales pitch, I skip it. I’m far more interested in reviews than any blurb.

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    1. You make a well-taken point, Rick. The author of the blurb has a lot to do with its quality. And, as you say, it depends on whether one trusts the person who wrote the review. I’m glad you brought up reviews, too. They can be very informative, and their purpose isn’t specifically to sell. In fact, reviews are an interesting topic in and of themselves; I may do a post on them some day.

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  4. I would be quite content if every book had a nice cover design and a photo of the author for the back cover. If I remember correctly our late Australian blogger friend, Bernadette, hated blurbs. I don’t hate them. I just ignore them. I have rarely found them useful and when I have read them usually regretted reading them. There is too much risk for me they will say too much and/or influence how I approach a book. A favourable comment from a blogger, newspaper reviewer or a bookseller is far more influential in my book buying.

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    1. Oh, yes, Bill, you’re quite right. Bernadette didn’t like blurbs; thank you for mentioning her. I miss her very much. As for the blurbs themselves, you’re not alone in not finding them particularly useful. Very often, as you say, thoughtful reviews and comments give a reader a lot more useful information.

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    1. Thanks for your input, Becky.. As you say , there are blurbs that are misleading, but many of them are more accurate than that. Interesting that you don’t choose a book based on the blurb; you’re not alone in that, I think. Many people prefer to look at reviews and other information.

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  5. I have stopped reading blurbs because they give away too much of the plot at times and nowadays I prefer not knowing anything about the book, not even the name of the victim as in the examples given in the post. It has its major drawbacks – recently started a book which I found very gripping only to realise 1/4th in the book that it was about a child’s kidnapping and had to stop reading it. Also am tired of blurbs that overhype the books – have lost count of the number of authors being compared to Christie.

    Very enjoyable post Margot and I too miss Bernadette. She was so refreshingly honest in her reviews.

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    1. Thank you, Neeru. You’re right about Bernadette; she was a treasure. There is definitely something to be said for knowing absolutely nothing about a book before reading it. One doesn’t have preconceived notions that way. Of course, as you say, it can also mean having to abandon a book. And as far as comparing a book/author to another, I know just what you mean, and it can be very annoying (especially if the comparison isn’t justified).

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  6. Really interesting post, Margot, and I am very conflicted about blurbs. The potential reader *does* need to have some idea of what they’re getting into but the risk of spoilers can be high, and with some books can spoil the impact (I’ve seen cover designs that do this too). And increasingly, the wording used to promote books is laden with cliche and hyperbole and actually serves to be me off reading them. Add in all the praise from other famous authors and basically you end up, for me at least, with a total turn off. Which might be why I read less new books than older titles! I appreciate it’s difficult but i think there needs to be a balance, with just a hint of what the book is about and less puff. That way, I can explore the book and make up my own mind!!

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    1. Thanks, KBR. You have a well-taken point, I think, about modern blurbs as opposed to those from some older books. Today’s blurbs often include clichés like ‘unputdownable’ and hyperbole. I’ve also seen blurbs that compare the book to the work of other authors, which can also be also a problem, I think. There is, indeed a balance that needs to be struck between all of that and not giving the reader any information at all. As you say, a hint of what the book is about is a good goal for a blurb.

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  7. Oh dear, Margot, you have reminded me of past struggles to write the perfect blurb for my own books. It is so very difficult to get the balance right. I always find it annoying when a blurb gives too much away and some of them almost seem to be plot summaries which isn’t the point at all. And yet they do need to give the reader browsing in a bookshop or online an idea of the kind of book it is.
    Oh, and Happy New Year, Margot!

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    1. Happy New Year to you, too, Chrissie! It really is difficult to get the balance right when you’re doing a blurb, isn’t it? As you say, it’s awfully annoying when a blurb gives away too much. I don’t like that any more than you do. On the other hand, you do want to give the reader some idea of the main plot line, so the reader will know what sort of book it is. There’s a balance, too, when it comes to length. Too short isn’t useful; too long gives too much away. It’s not easy, is it?

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  8. I find blurbs are so often misleading, or not revealing enough, so that I rely much more on reader reviews, hoping that people will avoid spoilers. The blurb is the first thing that catches my eye, though, so it can stop me from looking further or tempt me into heading to Goodreads. I find that I abandon an awful lot of pre-publication books I get via NetGalley mainly because all I have to go on is the blurb, and it then turns out the book contains some of my no-nos – child abuse, graphic violence, lots of swearing and so on. But if all these things were in the blurb some of them could be spoilerish, so I can see what a tricky balancing act the whole thing is. When reviewing myself, quite often the part that takes me longest to write is the brief plot outline at the beginning – trying to give a decent idea of the book without spoiling it takes a lot of thought and a lot of editing!

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    1. It does take a lot of work, FictionFan, and you do an excellent job of it! It isn’t easy to give readers a sense of the book without giving away too much.

      You make a good point about the value of blurbs when it comes to eliminating books one doesn’t want to read. I’m not one to go for a romance novel, for instance, so if there’s a strong romance thread in a crime novel, that makes me very wary, and I’m glad if the blurb mentions that. And I’m with you about graphic violence, child abuse, and so on. Not my sort of thing at all. As you say, though, that sort of honesty can get too close to giving away too much, which I also don’t want in a blurb. That’s part of why it’s really hard to write them, I think. And don’t get me started on misleading blurbs… Just, please, don’t.

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