At last, I’m caught up reviewing September releases! It’s one of the busier months in the publishing calendar, so I shouldn’t be surprised that I had such a bounteous crop. Now I can pay more attention to R.I.P. selections, catching up on others’ blog posts, and getting ahead before the start of Novellas in November.
Blurb Your Enthusiasm is a delightful bibliophile’s miscellany with a great title – not just for the play on words, but also for how it encapsulates what this is about: ways of pithily spreading excitement about books. The first part of the subtitle, “An A–Z of Literary Persuasion,” is puzzling in that the structure is scattershot rather than strictly alphabetical, but the second is perfect: from the title and cover to the contents, Louise Willder is interested in what convinces people to acquire and read a book.
Over the last 25 years, she has written the jacket copy for thousands of Penguin releases, so she has it down to a science as well as an art. Book reviewing seems to me to be an adjacent skill. I know from nine years of freelance writing about books, in which I’ve had to produce reviews ranging from 100 to 2,000 words, that the shortest and most formulaic reviews can be the most difficult to compose, but are also excellent writing discipline. As Willder puts it, “Writing short, for whatever reason you do it, forces rigour, and it reminds you that words are a precious and powerful resource. Form both limits and liberates.”
How to do justice to the complexity of several hundred pages of an author’s hard work in just 150 words or so? How to suggest the tone and contents without a) resorting to clichés (“luminous” and “unflinching” are a couple of my bugbears), b) giving too much away, c) overstating the case, or misleading anyone about the merits of a Marmite book, or d) committing the cardinal sin of boring readers before they’ve even opened to the first page?
it can be easy to forget that a potential reader hasn’t read it: they don’t know anything about it. You can’t sell them the experience of the book – you have to sell them the expectation of reading it; the idea of it. And that’s when a copywriter can be an author’s best friend.
[An aside: Literary critics and blog reviewers generally see themselves as having different roles: making objective (pah!) pronouncements about literary value versus cheerleading for the books they love and want others to discover (a sort of unpaid partnership with publicists). I’m in the odd position of being both, and feel I engage in the two activities pretty much equally, perhaps leaning more towards the former. There’s some crossover, of course, with bloggers such as myself happy to publish the occasional more critical review. But we aren’t generally, as Willder is, in the business of selling books, so unless we’re pals with the author on Twitter we don’t tend to have a vested interest in seeing the book do well.]
Each reader will home in on certain topics here: the art of the first line, Dickens’s serialization and self-promotion, Orwell’s guidelines for good writing, the differences between British and American jacket copy, the use of punctuation, and so much more. I particularly loved the mock and bad blurbs she cites (we’ve both commented on the ludicrous one for The Country Girls!), including one an AI created for this book, and her rundown of the conventions of blurb-writing for various genres, everything from children’s books to science fiction. She frequently breaks her own rules (e.g., she’s anti-adjective and -ellipses, yet I found five of the one and two of the other in the Crace blurb; see below) and is very funny to boot.
Here’s some of the bookish and word-nerd trivia that captivated me:
- J. D. Salinger didn’t allow blurbs on his books.
- The American usage of the word “blurb” is for advance review quotes that fellow authors contribute for inclusion on the cover. I didn’t realize I used the word interchangeably for either meaning; in the UK, one might call such a quote a “puff.”
- Marshall McLuhan invented the “page 69 test” – to decide whether you want to buy/read a book, turn to that page instead of (or maybe in addition to) looking at the first paragraph.
- A New York publishing CEO once joked that Lincoln’s Doctor’s Dog would be an optimal title to appeal to readers (respected president + health + animal), but there are actually now six books bearing some variation on that title and all were presumably flops!
- “Wackaging” is the word for quirky marketing that has products talk to us (Innocent Smoothies, established in 1999, is thought to have started the trend).
- I pulled out my copy of Jim Crace’s Quarantine to see how Willder managed to write a blurb about a novel about Jesus without mentioning Jesus (“a Galilean who they say has the power to work miracles”)!
Some more favourite lines:
“There’s always something to love and learn from in a book, especially if it lasts as long as these books [children’s classics] have, and part of the job of people like me is to pick out what makes it special and pass it on.”
“always ask yourself, what’s really going on here? Why should anyone care? And how do we make them care?”
For all of us who value books, whether we write about them or not, those seem like important points to remember. We read to learn, but also to feel, and when we share our love of books with other people we can do so on the basis of how they have engaged our brains and hearts. This was thoroughly entertaining and has prompted me to pay that bit more attention to the few paragraphs on the inside of a book jacket. (See also Susan’s review.)
With thanks to Oneworld for the free copy for review.
Our address was chosen at random to take part in a nationwide time use survey run by NatCen Social Research in conjunction with the University of Oxford. On last Sunday and again this past Friday, we had to fill out the entire day’s activities in 10-minute blocks; for the whole week we also had to note our hours spent in paid work. My husband’s graph looked pretty standard, but mine resembled a Morse code message. Overall I did 35 paid hours –making for a fairly normal working week – but it was spread across the days, often in evenings or in odd chunks here and there.
Having my paid work, volunteer work and hobby all overlap in the realm of bookishness is convenient, but it also means I treat all my hours as potential work time. I consider my unpaid reviews (e.g. for Nudge, For Books’ Sake, The Bookbag, Shiny New Books and Third Way magazine) to be ‘work’ just as much as those I’m paid for, so it can feel like I put in much more than a 40-hour week.
The truth is that it’s hard to make a living from book reviews. Very few venues still pay for reviews – why would they, given the abundance of people who review for free on Amazon and Goodreads, among other websites? I’ve found some American print and web publications willing to pay for writing, but in the UK, paid opportunities can seem few and far between. My more reliable source of income is editing academic journal articles.
There’s one exception to the rule: self-published books. Indie authors have to do all their own marketing and publicity, so are eager to garner professional reviewers’ opinions. Several of my main gigs are for independent companies that provide book reviews to self-published authors, for a fee. There have some a handful of gems over the past 20 months, but there have also been some books so utterly terrible that they should never have seen the light of day.
I wrote to Ron Charles, the Washington Post’s book editor, last year and asked for his take on the situation. Here’s an excerpt from what I wrote to him:
“It seems to be an irony of this life that the books I want to be reading and most enjoy, I usually don’t get paid to review; while many of the books I am paid to review (most of them self-published) range from okay to terrible. I wondered if you might have any advice for me – specifically, whether there is still money to be made from reviewing for traditional print media.”
He let me down in the nicest possible way:
“The short answer is, ‘No.’ There has never been much money to be made reviewing books, and, lately, there’s almost none. The collapse of almost all the nation’s book sections along with the rise of a million book blogs and a trillion customer reviews on online bookseller sites mean there’s very little demand for professional book reviews. For people who want to read about books, this is largely a good thing. For people who want to support themselves by writing about books, it’s problematic. If you write well and enjoy it, that may be enough. Or you may find some new way to write about books that could draw an online audience. I wish the best!”
Do I have some novel way of writing about books? I doubt I could make that case. I write for pay when I can, but for the most part I just follow my tastes and amass all the free new books I can – through the unpaid review venues mentioned above, from the library, via giveaways, or as electronic downloads from NetGalley and Edelweiss. Although I’m a writer, I’m first and foremost a reader; it’s an essential part of my identity rather than a professional goal.
Many of you may be bloggers who have a day job and review books purely for the love of it. I’d be interested to get some feedback from any of you who write book reviews, especially if you get paid for some but not for others:
- Do you feel varying degrees of pressure depending on the audience or venue you’re writing for?
- Does the knowledge that an author (perhaps a self-published one) is paying for your opinion mean that you approach the work differently?
- Do you see a future for paid book reviews?