Sunday, June 28, 2015
Can you tell a book by its cover blurbs?
If you've ever picked up a hardback or paperback book, you've no doubt read the cover blurbs -- short endorsements, usually from other writers, extolling what's good about the book and why you should read it. But what should a reader expect after reading these always glowing snippets?
Occasionally, I'm asked to write blurbs. After the most recent request, I indicated that I might consider the assignment. The author then asked, "What would you like to read to consider doing so?"
"The book," I responded. He promptly sent me a pdf of the page proofs, also indicating that he would have gladly sent just the introduction and a chapter or two. After reading the book, which turned out to be good, I sent him an endorsement. In thanking me, the author wrote, "You may be the first person in history to actually read the book for which you write a blurb."
He was joking, of course. Plenty of other people endorsing books take the time to read them before producing a blurb. I like to think that those who've blurbed my books in the past read the manuscripts I sent. However, it's not uncommon for blurbs to be written by people who never read the book. On occasion, published blurbs are not even the work of the person to whom they're ascribed. Some blurbers demand payment.
The right thing for authors and publishers to do is make every effort to use only blurbs from contributors who commit to reading the book. Knowingly publishing endorsements from people who haven't done so -- or even written their own blurb -- may be de rigueur in the publishing industry, but it's dishonest. At best, it's a hollow effort to help prospective readers make informed decisions.
As for readers, since there's no guarantee of baloney-proof blurbs, the right thing to do is take them with a grain of salt. After all, author and publisher are unlikely to use anything but positive blurbs on a book cover.
Better to dump the practice altogether if no effort is made to ensure that those endorsing books start doing so honestly.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School.
Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin
Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.