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Two Sides to Every Story: A Conversation with a Blurb Writer

  • By Free Word
  • 31st August 2012
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We’ve always wanted to know whose job it is to write the blurbs on the backs of our favourite books. How do you go about distilling a book into a few short sentences? How do you do right by the author? We’ve finally found the man with the answers. Before becoming an assessor for The Literary Consultancy, Tom Bromley worked as a copywriter producing countless blurbs for books of all genres. We asked him our most pressing questions about this overlooked but vital art.

So Tom: How did you end up writing blurbs?

I was a copywriter for Little Brown, which I did for about 4 years or so. I used to write all the blurbs on the backs of all the books across their imprints. It was a really nice first job to have in publishing because it meant that you read everything.

That was my next question – you do read everything? Every page of every book?

It depends what stage the manuscript is at. You’re dealing with books before they’re published, and so sometimes you’re writing a blurb before the final draft has appeared. But usually you’d get the whole manuscript and read all of it. Certainly with fiction I think it’s important to get the sense of the overall shape of the book. You’ll want to make sure you’re giving the reader a sense of where the book’s going. If you read the first 50 pages of a novel you’d often send them off in completely the wrong direction.

That’s a lot of reading – how did you fit it all in? How long would it take you?

I’d normally try and do a book in a day. It would depend how long it was. I’d write one blurb in the morning and read the next book in the afternoon – that way you’ve got time in the evening to let it stay, and you’ll have had the chance to think about it when you come to write the blurb the following morning.

You must go through several drafts.

When you’re doing any kind of copywriting,  often the shorter it is, the more time it takes you to get absolutely right. It’s quite easy to write your first draft at 450 words, but getting it down to 300 would be quite hard. The other thing, of course, is that after you’ve written the blurb it gets put on a book jacket. So you’d look, and you’d get a sense of how the designer had put the artwork together with your text. You’d be able to see if it worked: if the length seemed right, or if it needed changing.

How much do you want to tell someone about a book? You want to pique their interest, but surely not give too much away?

I always kept in mind the image of someone in a bookshop. If they like the cover of a book then they’ll pick it up, turn it over and read the blurb. If they like the blurb, they’ll open the book up and have a read of the first page – by that point the writer’s on their own. But it’s your job to get them there and to let them decide if they want to buy it.

I think the best blurbs are shorter rather than longer. If a book is good, you should be able to summarise it very quickly. If you find you’re having to spend three or four hundred words trying to nail what the book is about, then maybe it isn’t quite as good as it should be.

Is that a good way to spot bad books?

One thing I found is that the better the book is, the fewer superlatives that you use. You always knew when a book wasn’t up to much because you’d find yourself saying ‘fascinating’, ‘extraordinary’, ‘remarkable’ and all of these kind of words. The one I always tried to avoid using was ‘absorbing’ – it’s a terrible word and always reminds me of a sponge or something.

Did you develop a particular style? Was there a structure you ended up using?

When I was doing fiction I would always have an extract from the book, even if it was only a line, because you wanted to try and give a flavour of what the writing was like. You wanted to give a set-up of the plot, what the start was like, but then leave it with your classic ‘dot dot dot…’ to keep the reader guessing and make them want to read on.

The other concern on a paperback is that you don’t want the blurb to be long, because you want to leave space for quotes from reviews as well. On some books you’d use more of those than others. When I was at Little Brown they did some research into the books of Patricia Cornwell, one of their big authors, and it transpired that the readers of her books didn’t trust the press quotes. The assumption was that all quotes on the back had been written by friends of the author and so they weren’t worth noticing. So we thinned down the reviews on the jackets at that point and made more of the blurb.

As a copywriter at Little Brown you were doing all of their blurbs, but how do other publishers approach it?

It varies. I think Penguin had a whole team of people, but other publishers leave it to the editors to write, who in turn end up leaving it to the authors to write. Some authors would get very involved with the process and really want to write it themselves, whereas some would want absolutely no part of it. It’s funny because it’s a really important part of the marketing process, but sometimes just gets left to chance.

You wrote blurbs for all kinds of writers and genres – was there any particular type of book you found particularly hard?

I don’t think so. If you were doing the more highbrow non-fiction, philosophy or politics, it can be quite difficult to distil some of those ideas down into a couple of hundred words or so. And some of the more esoteric literary fiction can be quite difficult to get across. I remember reading one book by EL Doctorow and not being sure what the book was really about.

Where do you think it’s heading? What’s the future of blurbs?

On the Amazon marketplace you tend to get blurbs that aren’t on the back of the book. Rather than being nicely laid out, with line breaks and pictures, on Amazon you get a wodge of text. For most of the books we buy on Amazon, we go there with the intention of buying them: we’ve already made that decision.

It takes the element of browsing out, doesn’t it?

Yes, and it’s changed other things too. Covers have to work as thumbnails, and not just look good on an actual book. But I think it is a little more democratic – on Amazon I’ll look at the readers’ reviews to get a sense of what the book is like rather than just have a hundred carefully crafted words by the copywriter. If there are 10 reviews and 8 are positive then I’d assume the book is quite good, and I’d follow the wisdom of the crowd.

What about ebooks?

An ebook is a very different medium. I suppose blurbs are quite strongly linked to the physical book.

So we might be seeing the end of an era?

I don’t know. It’s an often neglected part of the fiction writing process, but I think it’s absolutely essential.

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  • Julie-Anne

    I found this ” fascinating and absorbing “! I mean it. I have always wanted to know who “they were” i.e the people responsible for the blurbs. I find that the blurbs are, sometimes, even better reading than the actual book ( 00ps sorry authors ).

    I write poems as well as songs and I, often, test myself by trying to get my point across with as little words as possible and,in doing so, find that the finished piece is far more eloquent and well rounded.

    Thank you Mr Tom Bromley and Free Word for your article.

  • Judith Robinson

    This was the first time I have looked at this web page and i found it helpful. I “read” my husband Joseph Robinson’s books and do my best to edit and also help in writing the synopses which are very very difficult, especially for the writer himself, so this was especially interesting.

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