Jacket Blurbs: Too much, too little, or just right?

While everyone else seems to be making New Year’s Resolutions or preparing themselves for another party, I spent today finishing the book I was reading, so I could add it to the list of books I read in 2011.

Sad but true.

So I just finished reading Bleak History by John Shirley. I grabbed this book from the library on the strength of the statement: “John Shirley is co-screenwriter of the cult film The Crow.” To be honest, I didn’t even read the jacket copy. I just read that statement on the book cover, along with a blurb from Clive Barker, and figured I’d like the book.

It was only after was about halfway through that I read the back of the book.

As far as Gabriel Bleak is concerned, talking to the dead is just another way of making a living. It gives him the competitive edge to survive as a bounty hunter, or “skip tracer”, in the psychic minefield known as New York City. Unfortunately, his gift also makes him a prime target. A top-secret division of Homeland Security has been monitoring the recent emergence of human supernaturals, with Gabriel Bleak being the strongest on record. If they control Gabriel, they’ll gain access to the Hidden — the entity-based energy field that connects all life on Earth. But Gabriel’s got other ideas. With a growing underground movement called the Shadow Community — and an uneasy alliance of spirits, elementals, and other beings — Gabriel’s about to face the greatest demonic uprising since the Dark Ages. But this time, history is not going to repeat itself. This time, the future is Bleak. Gabriel Bleak.

If I’d read this before I started reading the book, I would have had certain expectations.

  1. Gabriel Bleak would utilise dead people (ghosts) regularly in his line of work.
  2. It would be widely known that Gabriel Bleak is the strongest “human supernatural” recorded, if not by Gabriel himself, then certainly by other major characters.
  3. Early in the book, it would become clear that the bad guys want to control Gabriel in order to access the Hidden.
  4. Gabriel would be aware of this threat, and would join forces with the Shadow Community (and other creatures) to quell a demonic uprising.

But here’s the thing.

  1. Gabriel Bleak doesn’t use ghosts in his line of work. Ever. Although he does (on occasion) talk to them, it’s only to tell them to move along.
  2. I don’t think it’s ever mentioned that Gabriel Bleak is the strongest “human supernatural” on record. It is implied, but that only happens about 2/3 of the way through the book. Prior to that, he’s just another dude with super powers who happens to be the protagonist.
  3. Gabriel spends the majority of the book trying to work out what’s going on, and avoiding the bad guys without any clue why they’re so interested in him. This tidbit of information is finally revealed on about page 340. There’s 370 pages in the book.
  4. As above, Gabriel spends most of the time just trying to survive. The Shadow Community try to recruit him, not the other way around. And even the demonic uprising isn’t revealed until the final 60 pages.

So, my question is this: Why provide information on the jacket copy that is either (a) incorrect, or (b) a major reveal at the end of the book? Is it because it helps to know this information before you start reading? (Otherwise, you have no idea why Gabriel’s being hunted at all.) Or is it to make the book sound more appealing?

Sure, if the blurb read: “Gabriel Bleak is just another guy with supernatural powers. But now he’sย being hunted down by a division of Homeland Security.”, that would be too little information. It’s not appealing, it’s not enticing, and it’s not going to sell books.

But revealing one of the final reveals of the book feels to me like it’s too much.

What do you think? Would you rather too much or too little info in the jacket copy? And what do you consider to be “just right”?

** Note: This is not a review of the book itself, which I quite enjoyed. This is just a review of the back cover copy.

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16 Comments

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16 responses to “Jacket Blurbs: Too much, too little, or just right?

  1. I hate that part of writing more than anything else. Even editing. (and we all know how I hate that lol)

    You can’t reveal too much, but you can’t lie about what’s inside the book in my opinion. So, you have bring about your awesome skills that come with writing to condense your novel into one, maybe two paragraphs and make it rather mysterious at the same time.

    I’d rather just have the author (as a reader) hook my attention and reveal just enough to make me want to buy the book. I’m not sure if that’s helpful or not. lol

    • I’m much the same – as a reader, I like to have enough info to know whether I’m going to like the book. I guess that makes it difficult when the “interesting bit” is revealed 2/3 of the way through the book. Mind you, if there’s nothing interesting in the first 200 pages, that’s probably not a good thing…

  2. I just want an overview. In my Jodi Picoult review, I gave WAY more information than the jacket but there’s SO MUCH I left out. I usually don’t give that much. It’s hard to say how much should be given on the jacket because each book is so different.

  3. I’m not as concerned with too much or too little as much as accurate – I don’t like to be misled (although I am guilty of it in some of my post titles and my blog gets an awful lot of people searching on phrases like “sex with fat moms”).

  4. I hate taking out a ‘witty, funny, original work’ and find its none of those things. It just leads to disappointment. Often these books have good stories and characters so I would enjoy them but wouldn’t get the entertainment I was looking for. Much like you with ‘Bleak House’.
    I guess we are all being mislead. We’ll just have to put up with it.
    Or else create a jacket website with truly accurate blurbs for the books we’ve read….. too much work.
    Happy New Year to you and your boys.

  5. My wife and I went to a movie. I’d seen the trailer, she hadn’t. The trailer gave insight into the altered reality of the world the protagnonist was in. She was mystified why things were happening, and I was jealous, because I knew the answer she got to learn naturally.
    I agree it shouldn’t be a spoiler. The inaccuracies are, I think, marketing people thinking they know what will sell.
    Where’s that perfect world we’re still looking for?

    • Your reflection on movies is so true, too. I hadn’t even been thinking about movie trailers when I wrote this, but the same thing applies.

      As for a perfect world…. Well, it’s a nice idea. But I’m not nearly perfect enough to live there. So I think I’ll stick to our beautifully flawed world, thanks. ๐Ÿ™‚

  6. Personally, I feel like the text on the back should give me an idea of what the writing is actually like. I like to read a quick blurb and get a feel for the book. When I read a blurb like the one you’ve posted above, I’m a bit disappointed. Because if I had read that, I would have put the book down and looked for something else.

    I think the blurb has to accomplish the SAME thing as a query letter: entice to read. Maybe I’ve been spoiled; I think I compare all blurbs to Patrick Rothfuss’s book’s blurb. The Name of the Wind has the perfect blurb for me. You can read it here if you’d like: http://www.patrickrothfuss.com/content/books.asp

    • I completely agree — and I possible would have put the book down as well if I’d been in a different mood (and I’d read the blurb before I started reading the book). Enticement’s the perfect goal, but enticing through false pretences is a crime. Isn’t it?

  7. That’s an interesting conundrum you pose. For many traditionally-published writers, though, it may be a moot question. Jacket blurbs are usually driven by marketing concerns: the goal is to get you to buy the book. But authors often don’t have much say in what goes on them (that is, some do, some don’t; I don’t know much about why). But it’s still an interesting question, because authors should be thinking about what goes in them, I think.

    I’ll agree that major reveals that occur from 2/3 to the end of the book ought to be out-of-bounds. That’s a bit of a spoiler, isn’t it? That said, if the the clincher – the thing that would make your book intersting to a certain audience – doesn’t occur until near the end, then there’s probably a problem with the structure of the book. I’d say anything in the book up to the half-way point is fair game. So if you’re trying to sell to a certain market, something pretty interesting to that market ought to occur prior to the halfway point of the book. To me… what usually makes a good jacket blurb is something that pulls mostly from the inciting incident, which usually should occur within the first quarter of a novel.

    Examples and counterexamples: I just started reading “Hunger Games”, and the blurb dwells on Katniss’s decision to replace her sister in the fight-to-the-death Games. This event takes place like in the second chapter or so. On the other hand, I recently read Lev Grossman’s “The Magicians”, in which the blurb dwells mostly on Quentin eventually discovering not only that magic is real (which happens very early in the book), but that the world of his favorite childhood fantasy books is real (which happens at around the 2/3 mark). In some ways, in the second example, knowing what’s coming I read the book somewhat differently than I likely would’ve otherwise (although even without the jacket-blurb reveal, that revelation is pretty strongly foreshadowed in the text itself; the books real reveals aren’t in the jacket blurb).

    So… hmm… No solid answer. But of course… outright falsehoods are right out. If what the jacket says is in the book is not in fact in the book (even knowing the author may not be responsible for it) I’m likely to look askance at that author in the future.

    • “If what the jacket says is in the book is not in fact in the book (even knowing the author may not be responsible for it) Iโ€™m likely to look askance at that author in the future.”

      This is definitely a concern of mine from an author POV. Especially considering, as you say, the author often doesn’t have a say in the marketing arena of their book if they’re traditionally published — especially through a large publishing house.

      From a reader POV, I just don’t like feeling tricked into buying/reading a book. I guess that’s why “marketing” has such a bad name, even though I’m sure that good marketers are all about selling the real positives of a product.

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