HIGH FANTASY: HOW BLURBS WORK

Reports on the value of global book publishing vary, but it’s worth several hundred billion dollars a year. In the time that it’s taken you to read these few words, hundreds of titles were purchased – most of them on the basis of the blurb. So, how does the book description work?

Some surveys show that book recommendations are the major factor in a person’s decision to purchase. This just proves that surveys are only as good as the questions asked.

Recommendations from family, friends, acquaintance and sites such as Goodreads provide visibility. A book can’t be purchased if the buyer doesn’t know it exists. But how many of us buy books on someone’s recommendation without looking at it? It’s hard to know, because the surveys don’t ask that question. I think, however, the answer is “not many.” Nor do the surveys ask how many people checked out a recommended book, and then decided not to read it after looking over the blurb.

At the end of the day, nothing is more vital than the blurb in the process of readers finding the sort of book they want to read.

I wrote here from an author’s point of view on how to write a blurb. The current post is for readers. It’s not a “how to read a blurb” as such, it’s more of an attempt to understand what happens subconsciously when you do read one, and it’s an interesting process. Don’t despair, writers: I’m willing to bet that this will give you something to think about as well.

Before we get to blurbs, let’s take a quick look at covers. Blurbs and covers serve a similar function – more so than is often realized.

Try this is an experiment: scroll through the thumbnail images of covers on Amazon as quick as you can. I bet you probably get an instant impression of what genre those books belong to in less than a second. Some of them just leap right out at you – epic fantasy, sword and sorcery, paranormal, thriller, crime, romance, horror. You can go back and look at them afterwards to figure out why, but it doesn’t really matter. Your subconscious picks up the visual cues and makes the leap without you even having to think about it.

Most people (most writers anyway) would say that a blurb should explain what the b0ok is about. It should provide enough detail to sketch out the basic plot. It should talk about the characters, and it should do all this in a way that intrigues the reader.

That’s standard blurb-writing advice. But I don’t think it’s what readers want, or what the best blurbs do.

Readers use the same sort of cues in a blurb as they do in covers, they’re just in the form of words rather than images. A good blurb doesn’t try to condense 300 pages of story into a few paragraphs. That can’t be done successfully. What a blurb can do, just like a cover, is to give the reader cues that say, for instance, epic fantasy. Not only that, it can narrow those cues down further. I think this is how the best blurbs really work. By “best,” I mean those that match the right book to the right reader.

Readers usually have a preference for certain types of epic fantasy. For instance, A Game of Thrones and The Belgariad are both epic fantasy. Their covers show them as such. Their blurbs show them as such, but the two books appeal to entirely different reader groups. One is dark and gritty, and the other an uplifting coming of age adventure.

Let’s look at their blurbs. They both share epic fantasy word-cues: long ago, time forgotten, quest, sorcerer, magic and prophecy etc. They both share a dearth of plot details. But what I’m interested in is how their specific cues set them apart. I bold these below, and it gets untidy, but a vivid picture emerges if you read them as a list.

A GAME OF THRONES (PAPERBACK EDITION)

Long ago, in a time forgotten, a preternatural event threw the seasons out of balance. In a land where summers can last decades and winters a lifetime, trouble is brewing. The cold is returning, and in the frozen wastes to the north of Winterfell, sinister and supernatural forces are massing beyond the kingdom’s protective Wall. At the center of the conflict lie the Starks of Winterfell, a family as harsh and unyielding as the land they were born to. Sweeping from a land of brutal cold to a distant summertime kingdom of epicurean plenty, here is a tale of lords and ladies, soldiers and sorcerers, assassins and bastards, who come together in a time of grim omens.

Here an enigmatic band of warriors bear swords of no human metal; a tribe of fierce wildlings carry men off into madness; a cruel young dragon prince barters his sister to win back his throne; and a determined woman undertakes the most treacherous of journeys. Amid plots and counterplots, tragedy and betrayal, victory and terror, the fate of the Starks, their allies, and their enemies hangs perilously in the balance, as each endeavors to win that deadliest of conflicts: the game of thrones.

PAWN OF PROPHECY (PAPERBACK EDITION)

Long ago, the Storyteller claimed, in this first book of THE BELGARIAD, the evil god Torak drove men and Gods to war. But Belgarath the Sorcerer led men to reclaim the Orb that protected men of the West. So long as it lay at Riva, the prophecy went, men would be safe.

But Garion did not believe in such stories. Brought up on a quiet farm by his Aunt Pol, how could he know that the Apostate planned to wake dread Torak, or that he would be led on a quest of unparalleled magic and danger by those he loved–but did not know…?

A good blurb gives a reader an instant (even if unconscious) cue, without trying to explain many plot details, as to the exact type of book that it describes. Words such as brutal, bastards, madness, protected, safe and loved are loaded with meaning – the kind that set a tone, and if our book-reading preferences are attuned to that signal, we pick it up.

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