Do Book Blurbs Have Any Value?

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?

10 comments… add one
  • Victor Mobley Dec 18, 2013 @ 11:18

    Honestly, I’ve never given any thought whatsoever to blurbs. I understand they are a publishing necessity, but I’ve heard other authors mention that usually they don’t read more than a chapter, if that, before they blurb. Usually I just assume the blurb-writer is connected to the author in some way and part of a marketing scheme, and I’m one of those people who are not very receptive to marketing techniques. I tend to dismiss them.

    I will take a personal recommendation for a book over a blurb every time, or full reviews. But a blurb is just window-dressing for a book and I seldom even look at them.

  • W. Hettle Dec 16, 2013 @ 5:23

    Maybe we need a history version of Rotten Tomatoes. If the book was over 95% fresh, I’d buy it.

  • Brad Dec 15, 2013 @ 20:08

    When I look at a new book and read the blurbs I’m assuming the blurb author is more than familiar with the work. However, an actual review is much more important for me. If there are neither, well, you have to take a risk sometimes. I also don’t go by reviews from someone who isn’t familiar with the topic. To me those are worthless. If the book is older, I will not look at the blurb at all but look for the review in a place like Civil War Book Review.

  • Patrick Young Dec 15, 2013 @ 17:16

    Before the advent of the internet, I tended to take blurbs at face value. If I recognized the blurber’s name and liked her own work, I tended to use the blurb to inform my purchase. This privileged better known blurbers from elite academic institutions over lesser known subject matter experts.

    Now with the internet the blub’s influence on me has waned. I can look up a lot of info on the book’s author and I can almost always find a third-party review. I might be able to watch a talk by the author on cspan3 or youtube. I’ll also see discussions of books by bloggers or discussions on facebook or forums. Civil War Talk Radio also informs my buying decisions.

    I’m a little more jaundiced, as well. I have learned on the net which historians seem to be buddies with one another, and who was who’s student. This makes some of the blurbs look more like favors among friends than like consumer advice.

  • Woodrowfan Dec 15, 2013 @ 16:57

    I look to see if they are professional historians or not. And, if they are, do they study the same topic.

  • Rob Wick Dec 15, 2013 @ 16:36


    When James Swanson’s book “Manhunt” was published, the blurbs on the back proved to me that blurbs were mere advertising tools and nothing else. The book is about the capture of John Wilkes Booth, but the blurbs were written by Doris Kearns Goodwin, Patricia Cornwell (????), James McPherson, John Hope Franklin and Jay Winik. I have nothing but respect and high regard for all of them (although Patricia Cornwell is just plain weird) but not one, with the possible exception of Winik, has done any real research on Lincoln’s assassination or the capture of Booth. When I think of the historiography of Lincoln’s assassination, I think of William Hanchett, Ed Steers or Mike Kauffman. Of course, the people the book was marketed to (the average reader who is drawn by the drama that Swanson puts into the book, and who would have watched the movie the book was supposed to be a tie-in edition for) had likely never heard of Hanchett, Steers or Kauffman.


  • Mike Rogers Dec 15, 2013 @ 15:29

    For me, a non-professional, I look at the blurbs to see if I recognize any of the names. If so, I’m generally more inclined to take a closer look. My assumption is that the blurb writer has a least some familiarity with the book in question which lends some weight to my decision whether to read or not. But, having said that, if the book’s topic or interpretation seem to be interesting the fact that a blurb is there or not won’t probably be much influence.

  • GDBrasher Dec 15, 2013 @ 15:16

    This is generally true for the first hardcover edition (although it is often true that the blurb came straight from a peer review that played an important role in actually getting the book published), but when the paperback comes out the blurbs are usually taken from book reviews in journals and other periodicals. Theoretically, those are a bit more objective and revealing.

    • Kevin Levin Dec 15, 2013 @ 15:17

      Good point, Glenn. I should have been explicit that I was referring to the initial run. The fourth blurb on my book was from one of the anonymous reviewers of the manuscript.

      I tend to agree with you re: the paperback version but the use of published reviews can also be deceiving. How often have you seen a review excerpt on the back of a book only to learn that the review wasn’t entirely positive?

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