Book Blurbs: Do You Love ‘Em or Hate ‘Em?

FYI: I’m sharing my take both as a reader and an author, mostly with fiction books in mind.

As a bibliophile, I sometimes read, or merely skim, a description/blurb for a book by an author I’ve never read before. But if I’ve enjoyed an author’s work in the past, or if I already know that a book’s genre or subject appeals to me, I’ll commonly read only the book blurb’s first couple of lines, or I’ll skip reading the blurb altogether. (Granted, many times I’ll go back and read the blurb after I’ve read the book and I’m ready to review it.)

Why skip book blurbs beforehand? Well, on various occasions, I’ve found that…

1. Book blurbs can be a little misleading or inaccurate.

It can happen when the blurb writer didn’t actually read the book. Or when the blurb writer is adding commentary or taking a little license with the story’s details to sell the book. Or when someone wrote the blurb before the book’s final draft and didn’t update the blurb to match the revisions.

2. A book blurb may include story details that aren’t in the story.

Many to most times, authors know more about their stories and characters than they write into their manuscripts. Sometimes when authors are writing blurbs, they include some of that additional info without considering or remembering that those extra details don’t appear in their books. Or they mistakenly give the blurb writers those extra details to work with.

When I read a book blurb beforehand, I (like countless other readers) may naturally incorporate those blurb details into the story and start thinking the book said something it didn’t say. If any extra details I picked up in the blurb are clarifying or “helping” the story along as I read, then the story doesn’t stand on its own quite as well without the blurb’s help. That’s a problem.

3. Book blurbs tell me more than I want to know about a story before I read it.

It could be an important detail or two about events in the book. But now and then, even vague blurbs give away a key concept or the moral of the story when I’d rather discover that “ah-ha” moment or crucial connection for myself.

This kind-of goes hand in hand with Number 2, but sometimes a blurb will even state a story’s central message with more clarity or power than the author conveyed it in the story itself. If the power of the book blurb is “helping” my reading along, I may or may not realize what the actual story is missing. And if the author doesn’t realize it, that’s a problem.

Even so, I as an author know that book blurbs are necessary, since not all readers prefer to skim or skip them. Therefore, yes, I write blurbs for my books, and I strive to write them well.

I believe, as with any kind of good writing, much of good blurb writing is more of an art than a science, and I don’t claim to have mastered it. Nevertheless, a few tips I’d give to fellow authors about book blurbs would be:

1. Remember, this is a book blurb, not a book report. A blurb is a form of sales copy, meant to grab a reader’s interest. It shouldn’t sound like an essay you’d write for school. If you find yourself using dry, technical phrasing like “This book is about… The three main characters are…”—STOP. Go read some blurbs for books in your genre from well-known publishers. Leave your book reporting hat aside and get into creative writing mode.

2. Be concise. You’ve got a few seconds to catch a reader’s interest. You don’t want to lose it by being long-winded, random, or hard to understand in a quick read-through. Be brief, be intentional about every word, and as much as possible, keep your words to three syllables or less. Break your blurb into paragraphs, and keep them short. You only need enough info to intrigue readers here, not to give them an in-depth explanation about what happens in your book.

3. Don’t be gushy. Your book blurb isn’t the place to show just how much you adore your characters (“Tall, muscular, brilliant, stealthy, fearless Luke will stop at nothing to save the nation from destruction—as he alone can!”) or to guarantee how people will feel about the read. (“If you enjoy mind-bending thrillers, then you’ll absolutely love this novel!”)

Readers can tell when you’re (too?) impressed with your book. You can’t foretell or promise how they’ll feel about it, nor can you “make” them be impressed with it too, especially when they haven’t read it yet. You don’t have to gush to be interesting.

4. Your blurb should be a description of your story, not an addendum to it. Whether or not readers choose to read or revisit the blurb for their own reasons, your story should be able to stand on its own without any help from the blurb. Double-check to make sure the blurb doesn’t have details or messages you neglected to include or fully develop in the story itself, or facts that you didn’t mention in your opening or closing Author’s Note (if your book has one.)

If your blurb makes you question whether you developed something well enough in your story, take another look at your story and see if you need to clarify or strengthen it before you publish it.

5. When in doubt, ask for constructive criticism from readers and/or writers. There’s nothing wrong with asking for private feedback about your book blurb before you make it public.

6. After feedback and revisions, make sure your blurb is proofread. That’s right—careful proofreading isn’t only for what’s inside your book. Readers may not even venture to see what’s inside if your blurb makes a sloppy impression.

So, fellow readers! Are you more of a blurb-skimmer or skipper like me, or are book blurbs a must-read for you?
Fellow authors who write your own book blurbs: do you see blurb writing as a necessary evil or a satisfying challenge?

 

There’s No Such Thing As a Free Book

I want to give a little reminder to fellow book lovers—lest we get it twisted and think that just because there may not be a fee to click the “Upload” button at an ebook publisher, or to click the “Download” button at a retailer featuring a $0.00 ebook, that the book is truly free. That it’s of no expense to anyone.

Lest we forget the many hours, days, weeks, months, and sometimes years that authors spend laboring over manuscripts when they could be spending that time doing something else. Time the authors aren’t receiving wages for. Time the authors can’t get back.

Lest we forget the diligence, care, and research, the heart, soul, and sacrifice that so many authors put into their work.

Lest we forget the citizens’ taxes and donations and the other supplementary funds that go into paying for our public libraries, and the funds libraries spend purchasing books so that patrons can check them out over and over again.

Lest we forget that someone is paying for the prizes and shipping for every book and swag item we receive in the mail from giveaways we’ve entered.

Lest we think that ebooks are basically nothing because we can’t “hold them in our hands” like print books, and besides the many hours authors spend writing them, that editors, proofreaders, photographers and models, graphic designers, cover image licensers, and book formatters don’t have to be compensated for the materials, time, and labor required to put those digital books together.

Lest we forget the hours and finance needed to market books on an ongoing basis (because the vast majority of books don’t automatically [or magically] sell themselves from the instant they’re published and ever after, as they sit, possibly buried, amongst the multitude of other books on a retailer’s website), or fail to realize that an author or publisher likely paid anywhere from $30 to $800 for their “$0.00” book to appear in a newsletter or on a website or wherever you saw that book advertised.

And lest you forget yourselves, dear book lovers, and the time it takes to even procure books (the greater number of books, the greater amount of time), and the added hours and dedication it takes in life to actually, you know, READ BOOKS.

No, this isn’t an exhaustive list of the investments and expenses that books and publishing require/incur all the time, no matter what form the books come in. Nor is it a call to feel guilty for the gifts you’ve received from authors and publishers. Rather, it’s a reminder, fellow book lovers, so that even with our love for books, we don’t lose our appreciation for books, which add so much value to our lives.

A reminder that a “free” book isn’t free—that every book costs someone something, and that oftentimes, the cost is great. And worth it.

As a P.S., if you’re a book lover who can afford to purchase new books that are more than $0.00, then by all means, make those purchases! It will ensure that authors can keep on writing and publishing. Many local libraries are also willing to purchase some books that their patrons request, so it’s a good idea to ask! 🙂

 

The Kindness of Critical Book Reviews (Part Two)

I’m jumping right in to continue my thoughts on this subject, so be sure to read Part One first.

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Sure, critical reviews posted in the open can sting an author’s emotions sometimes. I know from experience! But that comes with the territory of this kind of work. Once an author releases their writing into the public, it’s subject to public opinion. That’s part of what it means to publish.

Just because a writer writes doesn’t mean the writer has to become a published author. Writers can keep their writing to themselves if they wish, or only share their writing with people in their personal circles. Taking the added step of releasing one’s writing to the masses is a conscious decision. A choice. If an author can’t handle what comes along with that choice, both public praise and public criticism, then publishing is the wrong business for that author.

Now, I understand and appreciate the courtesy that some readers extend to contact authors privately with critiques of their books. That can be helpful especially to independent authors if there’s an immediate issue an author can fix on their own, like if a reader finds a typo or two the author’s editor missed. (If the author’s book is from a traditional publisher, though, there may or may not be anything the author can do about the typos. The publisher’s website may let you know how to report errors you find in their books.)

Of course, contacting an author privately is indeed a courtesy on a reader’s part, not at all an obligation. Also, readers who wish to directly contact authors with critiques should be advised that different authors react differently to such a gesture. Some authors will be grateful and take note of the critiques. Other authors will answer with something like, “Thanks, but I didn’t ask you to come tell me how to write. If you’re such an expert and you want perfect books, write your own.”

Not saying it’s cool when that happens, but it does happen.

Nevertheless, even if you do privately contact authors with constructive criticism at times, that’s not a substitute for balanced reviews. Again, your book reviews are for other readers, and those reviews will paint a skewed picture if you have points of criticism in mind but you never mention them.

Besides, the rise of independent publishing in recent years has brought about significant changes to the book industry. In some respects, that’s awesome. Traditional publishers only have so much time, interest, staff, and finance to publish what they can. And they’ll often leave only so much room to take certain risks, particularly when it comes to debut or unknown authors. Because even quality manuscripts get regular rejections in the publishing world, independent publishing provides an avenue to get a wider selection of quality books into readers’ hands.

However, the opening of this avenue also comes with drawbacks. For a long time, traditional publishers have widely been the judges of quality and the gatekeepers controlling the access between authors and readers. Now that more independent authors no longer need those gatekeepers to grant them entry into publishing, there’s no one stopping authors who publish poor or clearly unprofessional work.

With so many more books streaming into the market, honest book reviews have become all the more important. Yes, potential readers should get an idea of other readers’ subjective likes and dislikes. But in addition to that, book reviews (especially at retail sites) can inform others about the quality of the publishers.

No book on earth is perfect, no matter how it was published, and no book is going to suit every reader out there. Still, no method of publishing should be a free-for-all for shoddy work. Many authors, traditionally and independently published alike, are putting out high-quality books, and honest reviews play a part in helping to maintain high standards for publishing across the board.

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“Okay… But, still, though. I was always taught that if I don’t have something nice to say, I should say nothing…and now I feel weird about this.”

Hey, now. Even with all this information about reviews, if you’re struggling, and if writing a critical review for a book will make you feel like a truly horrible human being, don’t do it. I wouldn’t encourage someone to violate their conscience. Maybe one day you’ll feel differently about book reviews. ❤

Nonetheless, praise and criticism play crucial roles in the world of arts and entertainment. For literature to thrive, for authors and reviewers to maintain credibility, and for the integrity of reviewing as a whole, there has to be a free flow of open honesty.

If too many reviewers shy away from ever voicing criticism about books because the reviewers are just trying to “be nice,” it ultimately does a disservice to fellow readers as well as to authors. You can be tactful and gracious while being sincere. If you’re a reviewer who genuinely cares about authors and fellow readers, then respect them enough to be honest with them.

 

The Kindness of Critical Book Reviews (Part One)

“If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” I appreciate the spirit of this well-known adage, which encourages kindness, appropriateness, and respect for others’ feelings.

Yet, human beings are human, and even good intentions sometimes miss or misapply a principle.

Let’s say you go to a symphony hall to hear an oratorio from a group on tour. The choir’s pitch is too sharp, and they fall out of sync with the orchestra several times during the performance. Your friend, who couldn’t attend this evening of the tour, plans to buy tickets for tomorrow night. But you don’t mention the choir’s issues to your friend. You think, “If I say something, word about the choir’s poor singing might get around to everyone, and I don’t want to hurt the choir members’ feelings. After all, performing in an oratorio is no easy task.”

Hmm…

Yes, I’m a believer in the “If you don’t have something nice to say” adage, but well-intentioned people can misapply it sometimes.

And the adage is sometimes misapplied to the practice of book reviewing.

Reviews of books at retail sites are meant to help other readers/customers make informed purchasing decisions. It’s word-of-mouth happening online. (And, yes, reviews can inform a potential reader without giving away plot spoilers!) Book reviews on sites like Goodreads and book blogs are also word-of-mouth, meant to give people an idea of what books they might want to check out. Many times, those reviews also spark social interaction and book discussions, as they should.

But how balanced and meaningful would those discussions be if readers only mentioned what they liked about the books they’ve read, never what they disliked? How can customers make informed decisions about the books they buy if the retail reviews never mention a book’s errors or weaknesses? If no reviewers ever speak up to say that a book wasn’t for them, how honest is that?

Some readers feel uncomfortable about posting reviews for books they didn’t like. “I don’t want to hurt the author by saying something negative, so maybe I’ll write a nice review and leave out the bad stuff…or I won’t review the book at all. Besides, it’s just my opinion. Other people might love the book.”

Well, now. Art, literature, and their related reviews are subjective. Even when you think a book is wonderful and you give it a good review, that’s also just your opinion. The fact that you love a book doesn’t mean or guarantee that other people will love it, too. But even though others might not enjoy the book you praised, it didn’t stop you from sharing your opinion about that book anyway, right?

I understand having the desire not to hurt authors. However, your book reviews are first and foremost for other readers, to let them know what effect(s) a book had on you. Any benefits to the authors are secondary, and many authors actually prefer to steer clear of reading reviews of their books. Some authors write as they wish and aren’t incredibly concerned about readers’ opinions either way, and other authors are good with the critiques their books receive during the writing and revising process, so they’ve already gotten all the feedback they’re looking for.

Besides, not all book reviews (which are primarily for other readers) have to be flattering to authors. But they’re all supposed to be honest, whether the reviewers liked the books or not.

Did you know there are readers who won’t purchase a book by an author they’ve never read before if the author’s books only have glowing reviews? The readers suspect it’s just the author’s friends and/or superfans posting biased praise. So having some reviews from people who weren’t wild about an author’s books lends credibility to the author.

Also, critical reviews can help to sell books when one reader’s “dislike” is another reader’s “like.” For instance, someone may write in a review, “This mystery novel had way too much romance for my taste.” Then other readers who love healthy helpings of romance in mysteries see that point as a plus.

For me as a reader, critical book reviews, not glowing ones, are what finally sell me on books a lot of times. And by no means am I the only reader who sees that happen.

As for the possibility of critical reviews or comments hurting an author’s feelings… Well.

As an author who chooses to read reviews of her books, I wouldn’t want reviewers to only issue compliments and to avoid mentioning points of criticism at all costs, as if to coddle me. That would be like false respect.

Writing and publishing is serious business. I’m passionate about what I do, and I work incredibly hard in hopes of making a real difference. But I won’t know what real difference I’m making—won’t know how I’m truly affecting the audience I’m writing for—if readers aren’t honest. If they liked a book of mine, I want them to be free to say why. If they didn’t like a book of mine, I want them to be free to say why.

And hopefully they can say it without spoilers, or they can at least caution fellow readers with spoiler alerts first. 😉

It isn’t mean not to like something. (My personal love of green beans isn’t kind and considerate any more than my dislike of lima beans is cruel and heartless.) Being completely honest in a book review doesn’t mean you have to be ungracious. You can tell the truth and be sincere without being a jerk or attacking the author as a person.

This post continues in Part Two.