The Art of the Book Blurb

The Art of the Book BlurbUncovering the art of the book ‘blurb’; that short text on the back cover and in the book summary that entices people to open the book and read. But what is it, and what makes for a successful ‘blurb?’

‘Blurb’ was allegedly coined by American humorist Gelett Burgess addressing the annual dinner of the American Booksellers’ Association 1907. He later defined ‘blurb’ as:

A flamboyant advertisement; an inspired testimonial. 2. Fulsome praise; a sound like a publisher.

This back cover epigram has several important objectives:

  • Reinforce the genre of the book title and cover
  • Tease the overall story of the book
  • Communicate characters, plot and theme in a concise, impactful way
  • Outline the tension and conflict within the story
  • Hint at the mysteries and uncertainties (stakes)

Ideally, the blurb achieves all this in 150-250 words. That’s three or four short, punchy paragraphs. The blurb is not a summary of the book, not even a precis. It’s definitely NOT an essay.

After the cover, the blurb is the most significant marketing tool for a book. A good blurb will shift a stack of books. A bad blurb will destroy sales fast.

Lost in Adaptation

The blurb is like a TV or movie adaptation of the book; compression and target audience may take it far from the source novel. A change of medium from long-form to short-form text, the blurb compromises some aspect of the novel with every word. Do you focus on plot, character, conflict, genre, tone or style? Each emphasis lessens the coverage of the others. You have to cut important supporting characters and sub-plots.

Adding a little marketing spin can take the blurb even further from the novel. It’s like the choices directors make to bring each version of the book to the screen. You can lose a lot in adaptation.

A Masterclass in Blurb

The long blurb for the original edition of The Blade Itself perfectly displays the art of the book blurb. A total of  211 words, including a quote from Homer. The text echoes the wry and dark tone of Abercrombie’s writing inside the book; you suspect Abrcrombie wrote this himself, or else the marketing department did an exceptional job interpreting his style.

There’s a LOT of information on plot, characters, genre and tone in those 211 words. The text describes characters failures, flaws, temperaments and motivations with a darkly comic twist. It hints at conflicts and conspiracies to come.

It also drops a few seductive words including compelling, unpredictable, wickedly funny and unforgettable. Whether the book is any of those… that’s book marketing for you.

In later editions, this text is shortened to make way for cover thumbnails of other books in the series. The shortened version has to work even harder.


Pride and Prejudice (yes, collect a sticker) pre-dates the modern publishing tool that is the blurb. Austen’s original editions didn’t carry one. But look at recent editions and reprints and you find a plethora of different blurbs.

Written by different people and in different publishing houses, the blurbs for these editions vary wildly in content and tone. Some appeal to younger romance readers, others to older, more traditional readers. Some use tone and language to target the traditionalists. Others aim at the youthful romance addicts with more contemporary description of the character conflicts.

Those blurbs are more or less successful according to the imagination poured into them. Austen’s style may be a little old-fashioned, but the book sparkles with wit and drama.

The really boring blurbs are those that summarise the plot or try to justify why the book is such a classic.

My turn

Try to write a book blurb for your favourite book. It’s not easy. Try to write one for your own; it’s difficult, exasperating and frustrating.

Here’s a version of a blurb for Sisters of the Scildan novella:

Stolen as children; trained to protect the Emperor; each has the Sight, except one.

Expelled from the School of the Scildan, Gulatta has only her skills with a blade.

Sworn to protect the only friends and family she has left, the taint of treason will bring the Emperor’s retribution down on them all.

Now Gulatta has a choice; stand aside while the capitol drowns in blood, or risk everything to save those she cares for.

Resistance will pit her against the Empire, the Envoy and the sisterhood that cast her out: the Scildan.

Every few days, it goes through another revision, becoming less detailed in plot and character. Setup, theme and conflict take centre stage. Does it work? Does it master the art of the book blurb? Ask me again next week.

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