The sense and nonsense of ‘blurbs’: promotional quotes on book covers

Jelle Strikwerda researched recruiting quotes on hundreds of books

Man bekijkt een boek in een boekhandel © Trade
© Trade

‘Fascinating read’, ‘page-turner’ and ‘great book’, often followed by the name of a famous person. The ‘blurb’, as the promotional quote on the front and back of books is called, is found on many book covers. Jelle Strikwerda did research on this advertising phenomenon and was interviewed by the VPRO Gids.

 Jelle Strikwerda
Jelle Strikwerda

Little research on the ‘blurb’ phenomenon

During his internship at the communications department of publisher Overamstel, Jelle Strikwerda interviewed all publishers working there about the purpose of the blurb. The fact that so little research had been done on blurps, fascinated him: “At the time, we were reading articles on ‘judging a book by its cover’, for a course within my Master’s in Communication and Organisation. The course was about the influence of book covers on, for example, its rating or sales.”

“However, blurbs appeared to receive hardly any attention in the academic literature, while they are often given a prominent place on the cover and in other marketing communications.” For his thesis, titled ‘The art of quoting’, he analysed 862 blurbs, taken from 675 books published by Overamstel between 1 October 2015 and 30 September 2018.

From famous actors to magazines: everyone’s quote can be on a cover

When asked who is best quoted on a cover, Strikwerda received different answers from the publishers he spoke to: “Some let the source depend on the book’s target audience. For a history book, for example, a laudatory quote from the Historisch Nieuwsblad is preferred to Paul de Leeuw saying that ‘he thinks it’s a great book’.”

“Others indicated that potential readers are increasingly guided by blurbs from famous people and those quotes would therefore be more recruiting than blurbs from traditional media. On this week’s best-selling books, for example, praise from Arie Boomsma, Chantal Janzen, Ruud de Wild and Reese Witherspoon.”

There are also bad blurbs. These are quotes that could be pasted on any cover: ‘read from cover to cover’, ‘page-turner’, ‘great book’, ‘incredibly exciting’ and ‘fantastic’, often followed by the name of a well-known person.

Good blurbs are more than a recommendation

When asked what makes a good blurb, Strikwerda replies, “One of the blurbs on the back cover of Stoner by John Williams has, as far as I’m concerned, everything that makes a blurb strong:

‘A spectacularly unspectacular novel about the life of an unremarkable man, shaped in near-perfect and precise language, with an unpretentious wisdom that touches the soul’ NRC Handelsblad *****

Obviously it has a praise component, saying something about both writing style and content of the book. It also has  a substantive component, which provides the reader with context and interpretation about the book and it comes from a reliable source, which can be assumed to have actually read the book. The number of stars from a review completes it.”

Substantive blurbs help potential readers deciding what to read

There are also bad blurbs, Strikwerda observed: “These are quotes that could be pasted on any cover: ‘read from cover to cover’, ‘page-turner’, ‘great book’, ‘incredibly exciting’ and ‘fantastic’, often followed by the name of a well-known person.”

Strikwerda concludes in his research that a content component was missing in three quarters of the blurps. “While a substantive blurp can indeed distinguish a book from other books by offering the potential reader context and interpretation about the book. So there is work to do for publishers.”

Read 'Does a blurb sell more books? No one knows' (VPRO Gids, 25 March 2023)