Friday Book Design Blog: Blurb special

Jonathan Gibbs

friday AncientLight 194x300 Friday Book Design Blog: Blurb specialThis blog post was brought about a tweet sent out at the weekend by top-notch book designer Peter Mendelsund asking:

“Talk to me about backads on books Blurbs etc Is there a better way? What would u like 2 see on the back of a book? Do u buy based on blurbs?”,

which produced an interesting set of responses, largely critical of the practice, or its execution: “I actively avoid reading blurbs – don’t like being directed how to read a book” (@virginia), and “blurbs are sneaky, bad taste” (@FredrikGiertsen), while @stuartbache referenced some research into bookbuying habits that showed people glance at the front cover, but study the back, which certainly fits with my idea of how this thing works. Certainly, nobody looks at the back of a book first, but equally certainly the front cover’s job is only stage one of the operation.

Myself, I do have a certain – if not fondness, then at least respect for blurbs, but I should really stop myself here and admit that I’m not quite sure if we’re all using the word to mean the same thing. What is a blurb, anyway?

My ABC For Book Collectors (Nicolas Barker’s 2004 update of John Carter’s 1952 standard text) says that it originally applied to “the commendatory description of a book on the paper covers or flaps of the jacket, supplied by, even in extremis purchased from, a writer of suitable authority”, but that it has expanded to mean the puff or write-up you get in publisher’s catalogues. Let’s not worry about those – no one outside the industry gets to read them. Let’s assume, for the sake of this post, that a blurb is a quote from a writer or a newspaper. Two issues pertain: what should they say and who should they be from? (That’s one issue). And: how should the designer use them?

friday raw shark texts Friday Book Design Blog: Blurb special(The descriptive blurb, either on the back cover or on the inside flap gets ignored – it’s either written by the author or the publisher, makes no pretence at objectivity, and any claims to quality in it can safely be ignored.)

Newspaper quotes on paperbacks are certainly useful (and as a reviewer it can be a thrill to see your words, or even your name there) but far more interesting is the blurb on a new book, when it hasn’t had a chance to be reviewed yet – though that doesn’t preclude a newspaper quote. My hardback of Hari Kunzru’s debut novel, The Impressionist, has two newspaper quotes that must have come from books of the year previews: from The Daily Telegraph, “Epic in scope and ambition… the pace is rollicking… a work that will be talked about everywhere” (which, strangely, doesn’t really seem to say if the book is any good); and, from The Observer, “The most eagerly awaited British début of 2002” (which, at this distance, has a certain charming bathos about it).

For ludicrously over the top blurbs, however, how about this (which I remember being tweeted by @john_self), on the front cover of John Banville’s most recent novel, Ancient Light, from fellow Irish author Sebastian Barry: “Could any book be better? Did it even need to be as tremendous as this?”

Now, here’s not the place to go into the question of who’s blurbing whom – I’d say that writers tend to be, or stay, friends with other writers they respect and admire as writers – why shouldn’t they give each other quotes? If there’s a dodgy side to it, it’s authors being encouraged by their publishers to blurb other authors on their lists – it would take a confident writer to say no to that, you’d think.

What strikes me about the Barry blurb is the delicate question of whether the quoting writer is a big enough name to stand alone, or whether the reader’s mind needs jogging with a book title. So, that Ancient Light quote is from “Sebastian Barry, author of The Secret Scripture” whereas Barry’s own novel, Annie Dunne, for instance, is dubbed, on its front cover, “A masterpiece” by plain “Colm Toíbín” – while Barry, on that same front cover, is “Sebastian Barry, Bestselling author of The Secret Scripture”. I’m being cruel – but these examples are picked more or less at random, and just go to show how much subtle play there is to be had in all this. There are the instances (help me, here) of the blurbing writer’s name being bigger than the author’s. Or the prominent placement of the ‘faux sticker’ with the blurb – or the comparison (“Better than x or your money back”) – so beloved of crime thrillers.

friday on beauty 261x300 Friday Book Design Blog: Blurb specialThen there’s the freshness of the quote. The ‘advance praise for The Rehearsal’ on the back of Eleanor Catton’s debut novel (from Joshua Ferris, Kate Atkinson and Emily Perkins) is clearly all about the book in question, but the general ‘praise for’ you often get on the backs of new books by established writers is more slippery. What if everyone is praising the writer’s only really good book, or one that’s totally different from the one in hand?

What about the recurring quote? Does it matter which book it was that was being reviewed (if it even was a review) when a Telegraph writer called Geoff Dyer “quite possibly the best living writer in Britain”? It’s a sentiment I entirely concur with, for what it’s worth, but on my shelves I find the quote on the front of Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi (2009 Canongate first edition), But Beautiful (2004 Abacus reissue), The Colour of Memory (2003 Abacus reissue and 2012 Canongate edition), The Ongoing Moment (Little, Brown first edition), and on the back of Working The Room (2010 Canongate first edition) – where, bizarrely, it’s shortened to “possibly the best living writer in Britain”. My point being, perhaps quotes like these should have a shelf life, or a quota system. I mean, even Dyer’s publishers must get tired of reaching for that particular quote, mustn’t they? Not to mention the paper in question, seeing as the quote is never attributed to the journalist that wrote it.

friday forgotten waltz 195x300 Friday Book Design Blog: Blurb specialPerhaps the most bizarre example of quote-mustiness comes on the back cover of Javier Marías’s last novel The Infatuations (the front cover of which I blogged about here), where of the four quotes given, one is an anonymous newspaper review, one from Marina Warner, and the other two from Roberto Bolaño and WG Sebald – both of whom were dead when the book was written. Unless Hamish Hamilton have a fully-functioning literary Ouija board, then, this is idiosyncratic, to say the least – but doubly so in the case of the Bolaño quote, which reads: “By far Spain’s best writer today.” Today!!?! The man died in 2003!

Once we get beyond the question of what quotes to use, there is the question of how to use them, which is where the book designer comes in. Presumably, just as an author might like to think their name alone can sell a book, and neither quotes nor blurb nor anything else is needed (see JD Salinger, who successfully kept imagery off his covers, and Graham Greene, who managed to get them taken off his Penguin paperbacks, only to see his sales fall dramatically), so a designer would like to think a good jacket design tells you everything you need to know about what’s inside, or at least vouches for its quality. You wonder how those meetings go when publicity departments foist a collection of quotes on the designer, and the designer tries desperately to whittle them down.

friday blind fatih 194x300 Friday Book Design Blog: Blurb specialWell, you can make a gimmick out of them, as with Steven Hall’s The Raw Shark Texts, where the spine itself carries a quote from Toby Litt, with the title and author name picked out from it.  Not much to like about that approach, other than that it leaves the front and back covers free of quotes – on the front, just title, author name and illustration, on the back a nice thriller-like teaser of what’s inside.

Given a series of quotes that they are – presumably – forced to include, the best that designers can do is integrate them into the overall concept. This is done nicely on the back cover of Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, where the text is sandwiched between the layers of wallpaper patterns, allowing the words to be read, but also kind of ignored. (It works better with the book in your hand than in the image here – paradoxically, the large size of the words make them less obtrusive than if they had been smaller.)

Alternatively, the paperback edition of Anne Enright’s The Forgotten Waltz manages to put the quotes slap bang in the centre of the front cover, while also making them seem almost peripheral. It’s an elegant response to dealing with a large number of different elements: illustration, author name, book title, prize mention, publisher logo, blurb.

It’s helpful that those quotes are all reasonably short, and maybe that’s the trick with blurbs. The cover for CJ Lyons’ Blind Faith limits its quotes (all from big name crime writers) to single words. You wonder if that’s how the quotes were given (“Lee, could you give us a word for the front of CJ’s book?”), or if they were selected from, you know, a list of adjectives, or maybe even a paragraph.

underworld 300x200 Friday Book Design Blog: Blurb specialFinal nod to the first book I thought of when I thought of blurbs. Don DeLillo doesn’t need blurbs, but if you’re going to have them, you might as well have them from the likes of Salman Rushdie or Michael Ondaatje. What I like about the front and back cover of Underworld is the way the designer mimics the uprights of the Twin Towers (the novel was published in 1997), with short verticals on the front, and longer ones on the back. Just a shame they had to double up the Rushdie quote, using a snippet of the one on the back for the front. Hey, maybe they couldn’t get anyone else to say anything nice about him…

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