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Sylvia Warren graduated from Oxford in biology, after diversions in precious metals, parasites, and archaeology. She now works for Blackwell’s as their University of Oxford Liaison.

Page Turner

Sylvia Warren

September is a dead month for publishing: the summer reads are over and everything that the publishers want to get to the Christmas bestseller lists is waiting for Super Thursday in October (505 hardbacks are set to be released on the 5th). With such an overabundance of choice, marketing blurbs come into their own. They say “never judge a book by its cover”, but what else do you really have? The accolades from other authors, the papers screaming five star reviews, and a short piece of text on the back of the book like an overeager child in class, straining to get their hand above the rabble crying “Pick me! Pick me!” Unfortunately, a lot of books get this catastrophically wrong.

It is almost impossible for a thriller to cross my desk without a gushing piece of copy declaring it the next ‘Gone Girl’ or ‘Girl on the Train’, despite bearing no resemblance barring being a story that may or may not have a female character present. Literary fiction tends to use a stock set of phrases as well: “searing prose” and “a profound meditation on...” featuring regularly, even if they just mean the author has not been especially nice or has had a few bad things happen to their characters. Here I should point out the blurb has nothing to do with the author of the book; this is entirely the work of the overstressed and understaffed marketing department. All genres seem to use “a tour de force” as a catch-all, probably meaning that they are writing the blurb after lunchtime on a Friday.

Famous authors are also roped in to provide a selling point for lesser known or debut works. I am sure that many of them diligently read the copies they are sent, craft a well-worded paragraph, and go back to their writing. However, I do get the feeling that some of the praise may be the equivalent of doing your homework in the period before it’s due. There seems to a pick-and-mix between “original”, “devastating”, “humane”and “brilliant”, with a “funny” or “touching” if it seems relevant (if you think I’m exaggerating, please look at the back of George Saunder’s ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ or Laurent Binet’s ‘The 7th Function of Language’. In these two examples everyone from Martin Amis to Zadie Smith provide 20 one-line reviews featuring these words.

Writing a blurb is not easy – I have to do it in my editorial work. When I spoke to Kate Fox, author of ‘Watching the English’ (“a searingly brilliant deconstruction of English behaviour”...ahem, it is actually a great book), she admitted she started her publishing career with writing blurbs. As we commiserated over the difficulties, she told me, “If you can write a blurb you can sell ice to Eskimos.” But what about selling books?

One thing that does not work for me is that novel “is now a major motion picture”. Mind you, this approach does not seem to have done so badly for Ian Fleming.

- Sylvia Warren