Why Endorsements Don’t Sell Me A Book

Whenever I’m receiving at the bookstore, I check out almost every book. I take note of the design first and then read the covers, and if I’m interested I often flip through the text to sample the writing. Today I was perusing a copy of Margaret George’s Elizabeth I, a new release by Penguin (under their Viking imprint) (note: there was nothing I could see indicated on the box or invoice telling us to hold back the book, and I did check, though Penguin’s site shows a release date of April 4. For that reason, the book is not yet out on the floor). I have three other books by George, so this one caught my attention because of her name and the subject matter. And it’s a really desirable hardback (albeit cumbersome, being 688 pages), with attractive cover art and a nice finish.

Then I read the back endorsements and I honestly suddenly felt overcome by the desire to throw that beautiful book. These particular endorsements culminated into the straw that broke the camel’s back and inspired this post. I’m serious about this, because I assume that endorsements are a crucial part of the marketing strategy and often affect a buyer’s decision, particularly if they recognize the endorser. So how many of you are utterly weary of reading hyperbolic clichés like “Stunning tour de force,” “Best book I’ve read…” “The next so and so” (lately every suspense, thriller, and mystery author is the next Stieg Larsson—seriously, it’s laughable now), “An utterly engaging masterpiece,” “A literary banquet,” “The prose sparkles…” “Soars with inspiration and crackles with joy…” ad nauseum? And then there’s “Think so and so and so and so…” or “Think so and so and give him such and such, etc., and you’ve got…” and other bizarre author mashup recipes. Lastly, there’s the unimpressive yet overused “So and so does it again.”

Often, the endorsements are flowery and overflowing with adjectives. And when you clump a bunch of them together, the effect, for me, is not that I’m going to bust if I don’t purchase this book right now because it sounds so freaking awesome. It’s rather that I’m turned off or nonplussed. If these writers are saying the same thing about everyone, if they couldn’t be bothered to come up with a few original words of praise, what is that telling me not only about the writer but also the book itself?

These endorsements do the author no favours, then; in fact, quite the opposite. They’re trite and unimaginative, and as such have lost their credibility. When reading them, I get the sense that the reviewer either didn’t love the book but was asked to produce a sentence or two for clout or had no time to come up with something that might indeed reflect any genuine emotion. And I’m not sure who’s that busy. In the end, I open the book and let the the writing speak for itself. That, above all else, is what sells a book to me. I always read before buying.

What gets to me most is that these hackneyed tidbits splashed across covers are typically written by renowned authors. Or reviewers for notable newspapers. People who, one expects, have at least a modicum of talent in the way of creative writing, and not only talent but imagination. So are all these poor reviewers suffering from endorser’s block? Why do all these books sound the same? And is it really possible that we have this many stellar books being published? I argue no. Either we’re getting lazy in our reading and critiquing or our standards are slipping. Not every book is perfect, and that’s likely not what the blurbs are saying but they’re coming pretty damn close. Every book’s a potential award winner. Another reason I can’t believe the endorsement hype. I’m too often disappointed.

If we—I include us book bloggers, booksellers, book lovers who recommend books, as well as esteemed endorsers—cannot think of anything original to say in praise, how can readers believe us? And how can what we say be effective if it sounds as though we’re trying too hard to come up with brilliant and clever blurbs? Each book is different; each author deserves our translation of how we feel into unique compliments that sound genuine. Incidentally, I find more examples of this genuineness on book bloggers’ sites, because they’re just trying to share the love, not dress up a sentence or two for their coming out on the front or back cover. Perhaps more publishers should start quoting us, the real person, the average reader, on their books. We receive ARCs all the time. Some authors argue that we book bloggers are relatively ineffective when it comes to book sales. Perhaps we could improve that by venturing out of our box. The question that arises is, is an endorser’s name more important than what they say? I’d hate for that to be true.

Regardless, a note to professional endorsers: hyperbole is tiresome. Cliché is boring and unimpressive. Tiresome and boring and unimpressive equal ineffective and unattractive. Even insulting.

So I issue a challenge to all of you out there who are reviewing books, whether book bloggers, authors, newspapers, or journals. And I include myself. Create your own vocabulary, but try not to use the thesaurus. This is not about you: it’s not your job to try and make yourself sound awesome at the same time. So no more tours de force, no more masterpieces, no more stunning literary banquets, no more authors’ finest and most compelling page-turners, no more unputdownables. No more entertaining, superb, captivating, enthralling, brash, irreverent, inventive, and impressive volumes or debuts. No more exaggeration. Be original. Be creative. Be bloody fair to the author. Praise means nothing when it’s over the top and you’ve said it to all the girls.

26 comments

  1. Hi Steph,

    Lots to think about here! You make some really great points. (One might even call them brash, funny, and heartbreaking, but then something tells me that’s been done before …)

    For myself, as a reader, I know that effusive praise and advance hoopla about a book almost inevitably guarantees that I’ll find the read itself disappointing. This is partly inner “orneriness” and partly a result of having high expectations when going into a book. You’re right — no book is ever perfect, and to have a jacket blurb screaming that something is 100% spot on feels like a lie right from the outset.

    Having said that, I don’t envy the “blurbers” their role. Writing catchy and exciting bits for a book cover must be exhausting, and soul-draining to boot. Blurbs are so much a marketing tool now that originality doesn’t seem to have a place anymore, so sometimes I wonder if it’s as much the fault of the blurbers themselves as it is the pressure to say something that will market the book in an effective way. As we have seen time and time again, the bigwigs (in publishing, in film, basically everywhere) do not think that creativity sells. (Unless your particular brand of creativity happens to have trend potential, of course.) So I suspect that the bigwigs might be influencing the blurbers to play it safe and say the usual things — they might be tiresome, but these words have succeeded in marketing books for years and years and years.

    It’s sad. The whole business makes me sad. Though I am happy (in a small but strong, single-candle-facing-the-encroaching-darkness kind of way) to know that there are still people out there who will fight for creativity in all of its forms … :)

    1. Hopefully not heartbreaking!! I hope I haven’t offended anyone.

      Maybe that’s my argument, that endorsements are such a marketing tool now that originality no longer has a place. But that marketing tool isn’t working for me anymore for that exact reason. Could it be failing to impress others, too? If so, what’s the point? How do we change that so that we can better affect book sales? Are these blurbs really what are causing people to buy, or is it more design, story, and actual writing and then word of mouth by ordinary readers?

      The whole business makes me sad, too. Good summary. And yet happy as well, yes, because there are still those of us out there persisting, insisting that while it is indeed a business, some heart remain.

  2. Is it the endorser/celebrity’s fault or the publicist’s fault that all the blurbs sound so similar and over the top? I can imagine writing a long blog entry, which happens to have the phrase “this book is amazing,” followed by a detailed (and hopefully) erudite discussion of why it is amazing. Yet the publicist, simply because she has very limited space to work with, only puts “this book is amazing” on the cover, quoting me.

    That being said, I do agree that I would prefer to see more original blurbs on the back of books. I also ignore uber flowery blurbs like “a literary banquet” “sparkling prose” etc. I’d love more specific comments, like Emma Donoghue’s “Pigeon English made me laugh and cry throughout,” which gives me something tangible to judge from.

    Still, if you were asked to write a blurb about a book you liked, what would you say in one phrase/sentence to convince people to buy it? Without sounding exaggerated and without being a tepid “I enjoyed this book”?

    1. Good point, that perhaps it’s because it’s a blurb, an excerpt, it ends up sounding trite or whatever. But still, as writers or reviewers or both, surely we can come up with something less repetitive?

      Funny that you should mention that, “I enjoyed this book” bit, because I had that and I took it out: I’d said, I’m not saying we should simply say, I loved this book, read it, but I am saying that we need to give more thought to what we say, or, more, how we say it so that it’s effective. When publishers RT a review we post, they often pick out a sentence, and to our credit, it doesn’t sound cliché.

  3. I like book blogs for the same reason – feeling that the bloggers are genuinely passionate about the books, not just doing a blurb because one’s been requested. I usually ignore blurbs on books because, like you say, they so rarely say anything at all – so what if so-and-so is the next so-and-so? if the book is enthralling/thrilling/enchanting? You’re right that when you hear something too many times, it stops meaning anything at all. It’s the blurbs from other authors that get me more than blurbs quoted from newspapers – because the authors I figure have generally been asked to come up with a sentence and do so because they have to maintain some healthy standing in book blurbing circles.

  4. Yes, yes, yes! I could have written this post myself. I also agree whole-heartedly with your latest comment above.

    I’m not sure why the opinions of the people chosen to blurb about the book should matter to me. They are just other people and their opinions probably aren’t that much more valid than all the people’s opinions who did not end up on the back cover. Every building that goes up doesn’t need to be endorsed by the architect’s other architect friends, every painting endorsed by other painters than the one signing the work. Ultimately the work itself – the dancer’s pirouette, the painter’s rendering of carnation, the line of the designer’s frock – speaks louder than the chatter and applause from the gallery.

    1. Ha ha.

      Entering books from a catalogue today at work, I came across two next Stieg Larrsons and two “female equivalents” to Larrson. In the same catalogue, and I never finished entering the orders. Surely they can’t all be the next SL.

  5. I rarely read the endorsements when buying a book; I usually read them as I’m reading the book or when I’ve finished.
    I agree with you that they are all the same. I’m reading a début novel at the moment (it’s actually on hold) and I’m not finding it very good. It was given to me by a friend. After reading about 100 pages, I thought “Is it just me?” and I had a look at the endorsements and all of them are over-the-top. As Jacklyn says, it is obvious that the best and most flattering lines were chosen from the reviews. It’s the same for anything being reviewed; only the best bits are chosen to represent the product and they are taken out of their context.

    However, the challenge you set at the end of your post is quite intimidating. I’m sure I use many of this cliché phrases when writing reviews, without even noticing.

    It would be fun to hold a challenge amongst book bloggers and see what kind of endorsements we come up with on a set book!

    1. I’m scared, too, Em. I never said it would be easy, but if we’re writers of any calibre at all, surely we can at least try. I don’t think there’s really any excuse. And I’m sure we’ll all slip.

      That challenge you suggest would be a little beside the point. It creates pressure, and you don’t want something that’s forced, because then we’d become too conscious of our objective.

      1. My immediate reaction when I read Em’s comment: Ooh, blurb competition! That DOES sound like fun!

        Then, Steph, I saw your reply. In complete fairness, my interest in the competition has less to do with any particular purpose and more to do with me just liking competition.

        That being said though, isn’t the pressure you mentioned, because of our consciousness of our objective, actually the point in the first place? Book publicists are very conscious of the need to make their book stand out among thousands, and are equally conscious of the limited space in which they can accomplish this. Authors asked to write blurbs also feel the pressure to continue being within that inner circle of people being asked for blurbs, and so try to make their blurbs stand out not just from other potential blurb sources, but also from journalists, bloggers, random people on the street who may have won an ARC.

        You did set a very interesting challenge to bloggers, to make our entries stand out from idle friendly chat in a coffee shop. I think to a certain extent we already feel the pressure to make our entries stand out — that’s how we get readers on our blog, after all. At the same time, I agree that since our objective is to state our opinions and not to sell the book, we don’t feel the kind of pressure authors and publicists feel. Is it fair then to say bloggers, book lovers etc can do better than authors and publicists unless we can prove our case while putting ourselves in their shoes? I’m not saying we should definitely have a blogger blurb competition, but wouldn’t facing that kind of pressure, with that same objective, and providing more original blurbs actually prove your point that it can be done?

        You set the challenge for the ordinary booklover/blurber to do better than the norm. I think it’s up to us to prove you right, and the best way to do so is to write with the mindset of a professional blurber and come up with something better.

        1. I understand what you’re saying and you ask good questions, but this isn’t about competition to me. I don’t equate challenge with competition. I wasn’t saying in my previous comment that we shouldn’t rise to the challenge of being more creative (in fact, the opposite is true); rather, I’m saying that a competition, by its very nature, would possibly mar the outcome.

          I don’t see this as about needing to prove something but rather urging us to be more thoughtful, to take the effort to come up with something unique that does command attention.

  6. Here’s an example of an effective endorsement: “Brandys has quickened the conscience and enriched the writing of the twentieth century.” High praise but simple. There’s no “gritty authenticity” or “unputdownable propulsion.” (Unputdownable propulsion?? Really. Even if you put that in the context of the rest of the review, it’s ugly. And now I’m thinking of squid.)

  7. I’m right there with you, Steph. One of the things I like about Australian publishers is that their books are light on endorsements. They might have one or two on the back cover, but that’s it. I was rather taken aback when I moved to Canada and started reading more North American editions – not only were both covers littered with them, but you almost always get two to five pages of them at the front of the book!

    I’ve never, ever bought a book or read a book based on endorsements. In fact, I don’t read them at all, unless I’m bored and I want to see what useless hyperbole is currently going around. Cause you’re absolutely right, and I have noticed it: it’s incredibly repetitive.

    I especially don’t want to read them because I don’t want to find them filtering into my own reviews! A few times I’ve used a clichéd phrase now and it makes me wince, but my brain can’t think of anything more original – it feels dried up! I loathe it. Part of the reason why my reviews end up so long is because I refuse to take the easy route and use a standard, popular expression. And to be honest, when I see them on blogs (which isn’t often), I find myself not trusting the review.

    I just wish publishers would go easy on the damn things. They’re really not as affective as they think they are!

    1. I just wonder if it’s a little bit of desperation on the part of struggling publishers. Who isn’t struggling these days? I don’t know. But that’s interesting that you noticed a difference between Australian and North American books. Maybe the Australians don’t publish many galleys. Maybe we feel that the more endorsements praising a book, the more likely it is to appear as though the book is already a huge hit with everyone, which does affect many people’s buying habits.

      I don’t know. Whatever the case, however many they put, I just wish they could be simpler and more honest-sounding. I read one by Hornby this morning, but I forget what book it was for and where I saw it, but it was perfect. He just said what the book was, and I wanted to read it, then. No flowery adjectives, no striving. I wish I could remember where I saw it now so I could quote what I mean.

      And yes, I too risk using the stereotypes when I’m reviewing because it’s so easy. I’m hoping the way I felt when I wrote this post, the way I feel in general when I read reviews or check out books, will keep me searching for ways to promote a story that truly speaks to someone (the buyer, the reader, the author).

      1. PS. What does sparkling even mean, when describing a book? All these volumes sound like Edward Cullen! And when people say they’re “howling with laughter and sobbing with tenderness in the same sentence,” they sound as though they’re suffering mental illness. But talk about hyperbole! That speaks to me far less than this simple tidbit: “Entertaining…A parable about the feeling many now have of not being in control of their own story.”

        1. It certainly always looks a bit desperate to me, Steph. And competitive, which is a very American trait I’ve noticed.

          Ugh. Was it “sparkling with wit”? That sounds tired but I can tell what they mean – otherwise, not at all! I agree – the ones that say a short line about what the book’s about are good ones. That’s also quite a tricky thing to do – I used to read the Miss Snark blog and she would grill people on “the hook” – the one line that sums up your amazing manuscript and will make agents or publishers want to take it on. I suck at them! I can never focus my thoughts – or rather, I haven’t trained my brain or practised doing it.

          1. No, not sparkling with wit, just sparkling and hugely enjoyable.

            I know what you mean by having difficulty summing up a book; it’s very hard when there’s so much going on, so much to appreciate.

  8. What a great post, Steph. I laughed, nodded and cringed through the whole thing and I must hold my hand up as one who is guilty of “unputdowbables”.

    I’m not sure how much notice I take of these endorsements on the back of books normally, but I’m sure I’ll become aware of it now. That said, I do tend to notice when a really hyped up book doesn’t meet my expectations and then I wonder what these authors who endorsed it saw that I didn’t.

    I wonder if that’s true that bloggers don’t affect book sales – I can’t see that for a minute. The amount of books I’ve bought from reading others blogs, and I’m just one person.

    I’ll be watching my back for those superlatives in my reviews from now on ;)

    1. Thanks, Boof!

      I know, I know; since I wrote it, I especially have to be careful about what I write. But I’m really taking notice now of the endorsements, too. One that made me notice, a simple statement, and likely because it would be so amazing to have such a thing said about you by such a person, was this: “Téa Obreht is the most thrilling literary discovery in years” — Colum McCann. It says nothing about the book—and everything. Whenever blurbists use such extreme language (the most, the best, etc.), it sets us up for disappointment, but this is one I admit makes me want to check out The Tiger’s Wife. It’s high praise, and maybe “one of the most” would have been better, but at the same time you sense he means it and was excited about her writing. In contrast, the other endorsements leave me nonplussed: “So rich with themes of love, legends and mortality that every novel that comes after it this year is in peril of falling short in comparison with its uncanny beauty” —Time.

      I mean, really? Time has kind of limited what they can about the next brilliant novel, at least this year, haven’t they? But they’ll say something similar next time, nonetheless…. Three more unimpressive bits follow, and then McCann’s, the simplicity of which makes it stand out all the more.

      Still, all these absolutes… if anything, this is teaching me to become even more aware of the meaning of words and how much care we don’t take when we speak or write!

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