Where did the funny little word get its start? 1906 in an essay collection by humorist Frank Gellet Burgess, “Are You a Bromide?” Is it ironic that the word bromide actually means “a conventional, boring, or trite saying?” Probably not. Actually, Burgess invented numerous funny words but only “blurb” and “bromide” ended up gaining widespread circulation. However we exactly feel about the self-promotion of blurbs (because that’s really what it is both from a publisher’s and an author’s perspective), it’s more than a funny-sounding word. It’s a legitimate, well-established technique that’s here to stay. Now, you can even join the epublishing bubble and “make your own book” at blurb.com. And venture capitalists like Mickey Hess will blurb your book in 24-hours.
Today, the blurb comes in many forms and fashions. As a publisher I’m often asked this question from first time writers, “How many blurbs do I need?” As a writer, I’ve had to think strategically about who to ask, who to call on to help promote the book. As both a writer and a publisher, I’ve long since realized that it must be a rare thing indeed for a blurb to actually generate sales for a book. Different writers and publishers, as one may guess, have different opinions on the subject. For instance, in a very real way, it probably does help generate sales if the idea of blurbing a book actually is intended to give the appearance of credibility. And when those endorsers are big names in a given field, authors and personalities we trust or who’s credentials and platform so large they can’t be ignored or denied, perhaps we are more inclined to purchase that particular book that we wouldn’t have if we were going all blank slate.
Pick writers you want your book to be in conversation with, because it’s possible the reader will see their names dozens of times while handling your book during reading, and begin to associate your work and theirs. This is more important (and less cynical a goal) than any sales bump a blurb might offer, as it can be a way of influencing how your book will be read and thought of: As an example, my books and chapbooks have been blurbed by Brian Evenson, Laird Hunt, Matthew Derby, Amelia Gray, Deb Olin Unferth, Norman Lock, Karen Russell, Lucy Corin, Chris Bachelder, Lance Olsen, and Michael Kimball, among others. That’s almost exactly the party I’d like my books to attend, and despite all the complaining people do about blurbs, I’m so grateful to these people for helping me get there.
There is a lot to be said for this communal approach. Of course, few of us would complain to have our book blurbed by national circulations like The New York Times, The San Franciso Chronicle, The Philadephia Examiner, and so on. Nor would we complain if someone famous outside literary circles felt so inclined. Big or small, a celebrity or colleague and friend, blurbs are one of those funny little literary conventions that we should embrace.