Lollipops and blurbs

There are many things about the publishing industry that mystify those in the outer circle of initiation… hell, there are many things about publishing that mystify those in the inner circle. Like blurbs, which require someone, usually famous, to read a book written by someone else, famous or obscure, and sum it up in a few pithy sentences. Paul Theroux called it one of the most painful chores of a writer’s life, and except for professional blurb whores, most writers would agree.

The original blurb was often just the opinion of the publisher or the editor, and it was intended to be read as an advertisement for the contents. Then came reviews, and publishers began printing enthusiastic endorsements by reviewers. Not all of them blurb whores, though you can often tell dubious praise by the number of ellipses included.

(Art of the Blurb 101: always find the complete quote. What reads in the blurb: “a stunningly….illuminating…work of.. genius” might be, in the original, “a stunningly incompetent piece of crap, illuminating nothing but the paucity of modern publishing. This is the work of an utter moron, clearly persuaded by a cohort of

specious friends as intellectually challenged as he is, if that’s possible, that he is a genius.”)

But relying on reviews creates several problems for publishers. One is that reviews tend to come out only after the book does, so you have nothing to cut-and-paste from for the jacket. Then reviewers tend to be a little inkstained wretchy, a little nonfamous, and who cares if some obscure guy called Brad Malkovich from The Georgian Free Press has hailed a book as “stunningly…illuminating” or not? (There’s also the fact that reviewers, to the annoyance of editors and publishers, frequently don’t share the ed’s opinion of a book, but we’ll let that pass.) So… you need a Famous Writer, or at a pinch, a Famous Reviewer (which is all too often an oxymoron) to produce the necessary burble for the blurb.

And Famous People are notoriously busy, yes? And even non-famous reviewers may not get around to reading your book in time to produce a decent review, let alone a blurb, yes? Thus was born the existence of the “proof copy” or the “early embargoed copy”. These are preview copies of the book handed out either to Famous Authors who will then hopefully write a stunningly illuminating blurb, or to reviewers on the understanding that they get to read the Book of the Season earlier than hoi polloi.

This can cause confusion. Recently, Vinod Mehta, editor, Outlook wrote of Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City:

“So, I’m looking forward to reading Mr Mehta’s book even though the book jacket and the publisher’s press release appear guilty of gratuitous “corruption”. Both instruments of sale have some generous plugs from the likes of Salman Rushdie, Amitav Ghosh, William Dalrymple and others. It is possible that this portrait of a fascinating metropolis deserves all the showered praise. Alas, the manner in which it has been obtained seems to be suspect.

Maximum City has only just been released, therefore, one is justified in asking how these ‘reviews’ were acquired and in which publication they appeared? Was the book submitted for formal reviewing? Or did the author send the manuscript or advance copies to select friends and admirers with a request for some publicity? This kind of duplicity and deception—possibly under pressure from Penguin-Viking—is unnecessary since it is more than likely that Mehta has written the definitive work on Mumbai. Private plugs masquerading as public notices is a corrupt practice which needs to be condemned.”

Bibliofile, the gossip column on Outlook’s books section, gleefully recorded what followed: “All hell broke loose when Outlook editor-in-chief Vinod Mehta in his Delhi Diary questioned the ethics of “friendly” authors providing a pre-publication endorsement for debut books. Calling it a “nasty little tirade”, Penguin’s enraged executive editor Ravi Singh denies any publishing house, ‘and certainly not in India, is big or foolish enough to ‘pressure’ major authors for such endorsement.’”

Outlook’s highmindedness is amusing; they run an entertaining books page, but they’ve also seen nothing wrong in asking Boria Majumdar to review a book by Ram Guha. (The two had a very public disagreement on the subject of sources shortly before Outlook’s review was commissioned.) Or getting Balbir Punj, author of rightwing columns you should read with tissues at hand to wipe away the excess from his frothing at the mouth, to review a serious work of history. They’ve done good stuff on those pages–published essays by Dalrymple, Pankaj Mishra and Arundhati Roy–so I suppose a few contentious decisions shouldn’t count. All the same, they’d be best off examining their own ethics while they’re at it.

And they’ve left the whole question of blurbs wide open. If most readers are aware that blurbs are an advertisement, then writers who provide blurbs, before or after the publication of a book, are performing the same function as celebrities who’re endorsing soap. We don’t expect Amitabh Bacchan to really use the products he plugs (and indeed, there are so many of them these days that he’d have to build a new house just for them). But we do expect Salman Rushdie or John Updike to mean it when they give a new author the thumbs up. One of these days, it’ll occur to publishers that it would sell far more copies of any book at hand if you got Madonna and the latest boy band to endorse it, and that’ll be the death of blurbs masquerading as honest opinion (even if we all know they’re just ads, RIP).

But is it ethical to release a book to any writer/reviewer, however famous, before actual publication? It depends. If you hand Michiko Kakutani the latest by Tom Wolfe, she’ll spit on it anyway. (And, as Publisher’s Lunch pointed out, she’ll do it a few weeks before the book comes out.) Hey, she’s too busy to check on embargoes and publishing schedules; she has venom to manufacture, right?

“Because Mr. Wolfe begins by depicting these characters as representative types, he has a hard time turning them into credible individuals. And because he wants, intermittently, to sentimentalize their dilemmas, he has a hard time generating genuinely potent satire.

Add to that his inability to nail the externals of his characters’ lives and his failure to conjure the campus mood (never mind the national zeitgeist), and the result is a disappointingly empty novel….”

So this is the situation, as Kitabkhana sees it. We have pre-published books, ready to walk, talk and do the fandango several months before they actually hit the bookstores. We have pre-packaged authors, with marketing teams working out flow charts on the demographics (for the lucky ones; the rest just get brown-bagged). We have authors who’re pressurised or persuaded into pre-reading the pre-published books so that they can produce previews that will show up on the blurb. And as Kakutani just demonstrated, there’s no reason why we can’t turn the review, usually timed for the arrival of the book in stores, into a preview, and never mind whether the book’s in or out, up or down. For all we know, undaunted by the NYT Lady’s bodyslam, someone’s already working on writing the blurb for Wolfe’s next novel. And no one cares. Except for the editor of Outlook, bless his soul.





4 responses to “Lollipops and blurbs”

  1. Jabberwock Avatar

    Ah yes, the misrepresented blurb: gives new meaning to reading between the lines. Remember a US film critic recounting how a sentence in a one-star review he’d written was abbreviated to “…inspired…superb…” for a poster. The original line was something to the tune of “it’s hard to believe this travesty was inspired by the superb French film etc etc” Of course, he took the production company to court.

  2. Hurree Avatar

    Nice one! I remember a similar story doing the rounds about a Hollywood movie studio that ran a full-page ad where the top film critics of the day apparently raved about an awful movie. What they did was to look in the phone directory for ordinary citizens with the same names–Brooke Atkins, for instance, whom they paid to “blurb” the movie. They carried the fake endorsements next to pictures of the real people–assuming, quite correctly, that few people knew what Brooke and co looked like!Any more stories from the darker side of blurbing?

  3. Anonymous Avatar

    Yo, Babu, you really outdid yourself this time. This was a great essay: funny and perceptive. And, yes, stunning…illuminating…elck

  4. Anonymous Avatar

    This is so smart, Babu! I don’t know how I missed it this weekend. — Maud

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