If you are like me than one of the first things you do after pulling a Civil War title off the shelf is look to see who blurbed it on the back cover. Do these brief statements of enthusiasm and support tell the customer anything of value about the book’s content or is it merely clever marketing?
It depends on how you read them.
I am going to go out on a limb and suggest that you are probably making a big mistake if you read a blurb as evidence that the author reviewed the entire manuscript from beginning to end. Quite often the blurb author has a professional connection to the book author, which you can follow up with by reading the acknowledgments section. You may find that the blurb author reviewed a chapter or two or even the entire manuscript at some stage in the process.
Quite often, however, the blurb reflects some level of review that takes place in the final stages of the book publishing process. My own experience bears this out. My publisher requested that I forward the names of fellow historians who were familiar with my project. I suggested Earl Hess, who had cited my published articles on the Crater in his own book-length study of the battle as well as Chris Calkins, who was the chief historian at Petersburg National Battlefield during the research phase. Finally, I suggested David Blight because who wouldn’t want his name on the back of their book. We knew each other fairly well so I thought it was worth a shot. The publisher sent along my manuscript and when the book was published I had blurbs from all three, but I can’t tell you how extensively they reviewed it.
I have a better sense of what goes on having recently written my first book blurb. The University Press of Kentucky, which published my book, asked if I would write a brief blurb for a collection of essays on the Civil War in popular culture and memory. The instructions were pretty straightforward: write a few sentences that can be used for advertising purposes. They asked that I complete the assignment in roughly six weeks and in exchange promised to send a complimentary copy of the book. I read more than half of the essays and skimmed the rest to get a sense of the book’s scope and the quality of the individual chapters. I felt comfortable with what I wrote.
My guess is that most book blurbs happen at this late stage in the publishing process so it’s probably not a stretch to suggest that authors don’t always have the time to review the manuscript in its entirety. That probably shouldn’t matter much.
I tend to see blurbs as reflecting the book author’s local academic/intellectual community. A name on the back cover often points to historians who have written on the same or similar topics. The blurb author may have worked with the same publisher as was described above. Just as often, however, the blurb tells you something about the author’s social circle. You see them together at academic conferences and other gatherings.
In the end, it’s probably best not to take the book blurb too seriously, but that won’t stop me from reading.
Questions: (1) What level of familiarity do you assume the author of the blurb has with the book’s content? (2) Is it important that you recognize the author of the blurb as opposed to the evaluation?