Don’t read the blurb!

The BookDepository

Publishers want you to buy their books and so will do their very best to ensure that the blurb on the back of every book is well written and appealing. They can make even the most boring book sound great. Don’t believe me? Go and find a book that you didn’t enjoy and read its blurb. Sounds appealing doesn’t it?!!

The problem is that blurbs give little insight into what the experience of reading the book will actually be like. I recommend ignoring the blurb and turning straight to the first page of the book. Reading the first few paragraphs will give you much more useful information about the writing style and a better indication of whether or not you are likely to enjoy reading the book.

I have always known that I am terrible at selecting books simply from reading the blurb. In my pre-blogging days I wandered around libraries picking up books that had appealing covers and found a very poor percentage of them to be enjoyable. Now I have an array of wonderful bloggers to provide me with book recommendations I rarely read the blurb on a book, but last week I investigated the Waterstone’s 11 and noticed just how poorly my thoughts on the blurb matched with my enjoyment of the first chapter. If I had to rank the books based solely on their blurbs then Pigeon English wouldn’t have got near the top, but I only had to read the first few lines to know that it is a book I’ll love.

Photo credit: Darwin Bell, Flickr

Another problem with blurbs is that they often give away too much of the plot for me. I prefer to know as little as possible about the story that is about to unfold and even though few books give away the ending, most will explain the events of the first 50 pages. I don’t like having the first hour of my reading experience summarised in a few lines – it lessens its impact.

What is the solution?

I occasionally receive proof copies of books in plain, unmarked covers. I love the fact that I am unable to form an impression of these books from the cover – it leads me to begin the book without any preconceptions and an open mind. I know that people like their pretty covers too much for this to ever happen and so the most I can do is persuade you not to read the blurb before reading the book. Try to decide if a book is for you by reading words the author has written, not the publisher.

Do you like reading blurbs?

When deciding whether or not to read a book do you read the blurb or the first page?

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  1. Good point, Jackie! I never read the blurb just before I start reading a book because it often spoils the first chapters for me, too. I do read the blurb when choosing a book. Just to get the general idea of what the book is about.

    But for me, the cover is most important. I know, I know, but I think I can select very well, just by the cover. I will follow your advice to read a few pages rather than (too much) of the blurb.

    1. Jackie says:

      Judith, I admit to reading the blurb when I know nothing about the book, but try to avoid doing so once I’ve decided to read it. I wish I could avoid looking at covers – they are even worse at influencing me to read books I don’t enjoy than the blurbs ;-)

      I hope you enjoy experimenting with reading the first few pages instead of the blurb. Good luck!

  2. I always, always read the back cover first, although I have the very same problems with that as you do: spoilers, and getting the wrong idea. I also tend to flip to a random part in the middle of the book and read a few lines to ensure that I find it well-written. Don’t know why I never thought about reading the first few paragraphs instead! I may have to try to take your advice, as it’s very logical, but I’m not sure I’ll be able to break the habit of reading the back cover.

    1. Jackie says:

      Kathy, I know a lot of people read p99 to see if they like the writing style, but I’ve never understood that. The first page is especially designed to hook you in. If it fails to do that then it can’t be for you. I’d be worried about reading a spoiler on p99!

      1. That’s interesting. I’ve never heard of the p99 thing! I don’t turn to a specific pg–I just open randomly. You’re right, though–either way, that’s a pretty big risk of spoilers.

        Of course all of this applies only to shopping in bookstores . . . these days, most of my recommendations come from book bloggers, and most of my books come from paperbackswap, so I’ve lost a lot of the serendipity of choosing new books.

  3. TERESA says:

    I don’t get much opportunity to browse in book stores so I am usually influenced initially by what I see online, which is initially the cover and having been taken in by tempting covers in the past I am much more wary now! I really like sites like lovereading where you can download the first chapter of books both for adults and children so I can make a more informed choice from that.

    Another thing which publishers do which really irks me is endorsements on the front cover from already established novelists. Maybe I’m being cynical but sometimes I doubt they’ve even read the book…

    1. Jackie says:

      Teresa, The first chapters seem to be available online more frequently now. I love it! I have definitely converted to reading the first chapter before deciding whether or not to buy a book. Ereaders do have some benefits :-)

      I find those author quotes quite meaningless. Some of them write the strangest things!

  4. Sandy says:

    I generally ignore the blurbs, after repeatedly having stories totally spoiled by them. What is wrong with these people? Don’t they know that the first literary commandment is “Thou Shall Not Spoil”???? I admit, I can be swayed both ways by covers though, and I know that is not a good habit. The covers normally mean absolutely nothing.

    1. Jackie says:

      Sandy, I’m very sensitive to spoiling. I often don’t even like to know if there as going to be a twist in a book as then I keep looking for it. I’ve been stung too many times by blurbs :-(

  5. Alex Baugh says:

    I never read the blurb because I agree with what you say – they can make a bad book sound great. I like to read the first few pages instead. If I don’t get hooked there, I won’t ever. But if the first few pages are iffy, I will continue on, unless it just goes downhill from there.
    These days I get the library book, if I love a book, I will then buy it.

    1. Jackie says:

      Alex, I agree with every word :-)

  6. Amy says:

    Ahhhhh I hate blurbs! I, too, prefer avoiding them as much as I can.

    1. Jackie says:

      Amy, It is good to know I’m not alone.

  7. Misift says:

    I never look at blurbs, but that includes blurbs from authors. It is quite common to see the same group of names hopping from one jacket to the author with gushy comments, and some of those I know for a fact to be good friends.

    1. Jackie says:

      Misfit, I know – it is so hard to know whether it is real passion for the book or just friends helping each other out :-(

  8. litlove says:

    I recommend you learn French, Jackie! French novels don’t really have blurbs, maybe just a short quotation from an early part of the story, and the vast majority of them have completely plain covers. I actually find that a nightmare as it’s really important to me to know what the story is going to be about. As I get older, I get pickier in what I want to read, and whilst I completely agree that the style of an author is a huge factor in whether I’ll enjoy a book or not, I do want to have a good idea of what I’m going to be confronted with in its pages.

    1. Jackie says:

      litlove, The French seem to have it exactly right! I think you and I have very different reading requirements – I like to know as little as possible about the book I’m about to read. I like to experience the narrative journey and hate to know anything about what is going to happen. Perhaps that will change as I get older, but for now I really appreciate a good plot with lots of twists to discover.

  9. Shannon says:

    If I’m not familiar with the book I usually pick up a book based on the cover, then read the blurb, and if I like it look at the first page. Though I find the first page doesn’t often do much to change my mind.

    But recently I read a book that was completely different from what the blurb had indicated and I was not impressed! So now I don’t put as much stock in what the blurb says and I look up the book online for reviews before I decide to read it.

    1. Christina says:

      I’m with Shannon. Everything she said in her first paragraph is exactly what I do, and I’ve had a similar experience with a book or too. Definitely have to be careful about picking up books I’ve never heard of because I’ve been given the wrong idea before and been completely disappointed. Of course, this makes browsing the bookstore so much harder.

      1. Jackie says:

        Shannon/Christina, I agree with you. I have been mislead by blurbs in the past – I’m not sure why they would do that as it must always lead to readers being disappointed. :-(

  10. annie says:

    We had exactly this discussion at book group yesterday when we were talking about William Trevor’s ‘Felicia’s Journey’. Half of us had an edition where the blurb gave so much away that the tension of the book was destroyed and the other half an edition which had a blurb that suggested that whoever had written it hadn’t actually read the novel. And that was before we got onto the cover which in one case had definitely been created from a description rather than the text itself. You can avoid the blurb, but I don’t see publishers going for the old school approach of covering your books in wallpaper off-cuts.

    1. Jackie says:

      annie, How odd! Thanks for the example. Sorry to hear that half your group were mislead and the other half had the tension ruined. That isn’t right at all :-(

      The good news is that I can cover my own books and avoid reading all the blurbs in my house, even if noone in the publishing industry decides to do it.

  11. Alex says:

    Sometimes I feel a bit in the dark if I know NOTHING of a story. A blur usually gets me in context and only very rarely do I get frustrated with spoilers or (even more frustrating) wrong expectations.

    1. Jackie says:

      Alex, It sounds as though you have a much higher tolerance to spoilers than I do. You’re quite lucky really!

  12. Maxine says:

    I never read a blurb – until I’ve finished the book! I read a lot of crime fiction and the blurb invariably ruins any suspense or surprise that happens in the first half of the book (and sometimes more than that), making the reading of it pretty pointless. Like you I rely on recommendations from trusted book bloggers or websites (eg for crime fiction, Reviewing the Evidence or Euro Crime). I don’t read all of a review, though, in advance – I skim it, and bookmark the review to read after I’ve finished the book.

    1. Jackie says:

      Maxine, I agree that crime fiction is especially bad at ruining those initial few chapters. I don’t want to know that the beautiful couple on p1 are going to divorce in chapter 3 and then commit murder in chapter 5. I want it all to unfold on the page. Why do they always have to over explain :-(

  13. Bookechoes says:

    Some books I’ve enjoyed have actually had terrible blurbs! Several of the Harry Potter books (the American printings anyway) had blurbs that made them sound like slapped-together cliche teenage comedy T.V. shows! In this case, perhaps, the publishers thought Harry Potter was so popular that they didn’t need to write a decent blurb.

    1. Jackie says:

      Bookechoes, I agree that the reverse is also true! Some blurbs are a terrible representation of the books – another reason to avoid reading them ;-)

  14. Steph says:

    I’ve stopped reading blurbs entirely when it comes to books. Like you, I just pick up the book and start reading. If it grabs my attention from the get-go, that’s all I need. I find that blurbs too often raise my expectations in a way that may not be reasonable, and I am having a lot more luck just letting books reveal their stories to me on their own terms.

    1. Jackie says:

      Steph, It is good to know I’m not alone :-) Impressive, gushing blurbs do raise expectations too much at times. The book should do the talking.

  15. cbjames says:

    These days most of my reading comes from reading on-line reviews. But, I confess I do read blurbs and I do “buy” books based on a good blurb.

    You are right about them, though. I’m aware of this, but I still fall for a good blurb.

    I’ve not idea what my ‘success’ rate is, but I think it’s pretty good. I enjoy most of the books I start, though not all of them. I find blurbs are very useful with non-fiction. There are many subjects for non-fiction that I’m not at all aware of, so a good blurb really helps.

    1. Jackie says:

      cbjames, perhaps I’m just really bad at knowing which types of books I like, but I have a terrible hit rate with my random selections :-(

      I agree that non-fiction books are different. I always read the blurb before buying a reference book.

  16. Violet says:

    I like reading blurbs. Although I buy a lot of books based on blogger recommendations I also like to buy books impulsively. I read the blurb and if i like it I read the first page only if I haven’t read the author before.

    1. Jackie says:

      Violet, I’ve almost stopped buying things impulsively now. I have too many books to justify random purchases at the moment, but it is a hobby I’d like to indulge in again sometime :-)

  17. stujallen says:

    pot luck at library don’t read blurb just where the book is from generally ,all the best stu

    1. Jackie says:

      Stu.Wow! I’m amazed at how successful your random choices are. I wish I could pick books I like that easily.

  18. I find myself relying on blurbs less and less. Writing is so important to me and the recommendations of book bloggers have actually become my favorite source of reads (plus the award lists, of course!) Knowing who has similar taste to me is key, as is understanding why a blogger likes or doesn’t like a book. My biggest problem with blurbs is that they often give away far too much. I like to read a sentence or two to get a feel for the setting (and make sure it’s not a sequel), but I also prefer getting into the book itself! I must hunt down blurbs of books I haven’t enjoyed lately to see how they read!

    1. Jackie says:

      Carrie, I have just checked the blurbs for two books that I didn’t know had sequels when I started reading and saw no mention that the story continued after the book ended. Another blurb fail :-(

  19. Brenna says:

    I used to chose the majority of my books based on their blurbs. I would go to the bookstore without a list and peruse the isles, reading the backs of books and a few of their pages. However in the last few years I’ve gotten a lot pickier – I keep a running list of books I want to read, separated by which section of the bookstore I can find them. I manage this list base of reviews I read and won’t typically add a book unless I’ve read more than one review (positive or negative) that makes me think I would enjoy this book or could learn a lot from it. So blurbs don’t play a large part in my book selection any longer, mostly because a lot of them turned out to be disappointing. In short, I think you’re giving great advice – don’t read the blurbs and if you do, don’t chose the book solely on that blurb.

    1. Jackie says:

      Brenna, Wow! You sound much more organised than me – I can be swayed by a single positive review from a trusted source. That is probably the reason I have far too many books in my house. You seem to have a much better system. :-)

  20. Patty says:

    I have to say that I love reading blurbs and can always tell if I like the book or not from the blurbs…

    1. Jackie says:

      Patty, I wish I had that skill :-(

  21. NancyO says:

    I’m a blurb reader, but I have to say I’ve run across the occasional few that were so misleading that I couldn’t believe I was reading the same book. I’m generally happiest when the blurb understates!

    1. Jackie says:

      Nancy, Blurb writing must be a tough job. It must be very hard to tread the fine line between gushing and overselling.

  22. Teresa says:

    I do read the blurbs, but I rarely rely on them alone when choosing a book. Most of the books I pick up in stores already are familiar to me because of blog reviews, but if I can’t remember whether the book is something I want to read or to avoid, the blurb is enough to jog my memory a lot of the time. (And I hardly ever mind much about spoilers.) A blurb is useful for giving me a sense of setting, characters, genre, but it won’t reveal much about the quality of the book. Most of the time, they just read like sales pitches, which I suppose in essence is what they are. For choosing whether to actually read a book, I’ll usually read a few pages in the beginning or middle (or both!) to get a sense of the style.

    1. Jackie says:

      Teresa, I agree that blurbs are sometimes good for jogging the memory or checking that you have the right book – it is annoying how many books have similar titles as I’m easily confused :-(

  23. Violet says:

    I’m a sucker for a great cover, and I always read the blurb. How do I know what the book is about if I don’t read that enticing synopsis? I also read the author’s bio and take note of his or her photograph. The acknowlegement page can also sway my decision whether to buy or not. A long, gushing page thanking everyone, and his or her dog, tends to turn me off. :)

    1. Jackie says:

      Violet, I don’t really mind what the book is about – I’ve discovered that great writers can make even the dullest subject amazing. I would never have picked up Sarah Hall’s How to Paint a Dead Man had I read the blurb – I think I hate books about art (especially those with little plot) but she managed to win me over with the first page. It is one of the reasons I love making my way thorugh prize lists :-)

  24. Jenny says:

    Reading the first lines almost invariably leads me wrong. I may think I like a book’s style, but when I don’t know what the plot is leading up to, I just get frustrated. Going in blind is no good to me at all.

    1. Jackie says:

      Jenny, It is interesting to see how different we all are. :-)

  25. Jenners says:

    I really think that a book should be based on its content and not anything else. I will read blurbs but I don’t always let it make up my mind. It might help me decide whether to consider a book further though … so I guess it DOES play a role in my deicision-making.

    I think that for prizes (like the Orange Prize that you love so much) all the books should be read blind — no covers, no author names … just the book.

    1. Jackie says:

      Jenners, I do love working my way through a prize list blind – I have discovered so many wonderful books that way. I think more people should try it :-)

  26. heidenkind says:

    Blurb all the way, baby!

    1. Jackie says:

      heidenkind, noooooo!!! ;-)

  27. Annabel says:

    I still fall for a good blurb and a pretty cover all the time. I’ll have a quick flick inside and read a few sentences from the middle of a book before committing to buy though if it’s a book I don’t know. Simon T’s page 60 rule helps make that decision.

    1. Jackie says:

      Annabel, I used to fall for pretty covers all the time. Now I try to be stronger. It doesn’t always work, but I am getting better at resisting.

  28. Andi says:

    I love reading blurbs, but I’m also realistic enough to know that it’s a bit like dialogue with a used car salesman. Hmmphf! I tend to rely on my bloggy friends to know if I’ll really enjoy a book.

    1. Jackie says:

      Andi, Great comparison!! Take everything the car saleman/blurb says with a very big pinch of salt :-)

  29. Bina says:

    Oh they can be very annoying! But since I noticed they say mostly the same thing for every book, I dn’t pay much attention. But sometimes, when I finished a book, I loke to compare my reaction to the blurbs, sometimes someone gas actually managed to capture the essence of the book in a blurb (happens rarely, but keeps me from dismissing them entirely).

    1. Jackie says:

      Bina, I like reading the blurb after I’ve finished reading too. It is interesting to see what they think is important to mention.

  30. kiss a cloud says:

    That’s exactly what I’ve been doing all my life, I read the first page to determine if I’ll click with a book or not. It’s the secret to why I end up liking or loving most of the books I read. The reason why I have very minimal negative reviews on my blog. I noticed that the only time I had negative comments about a book was when I agreed to accept ARCs, wherein I had to force myself to read the books even though from the very beginning I knew it was a mistake. Also for read-alongs, sometimes, but then read-alongs are fun because you get to experience whatever it is, negative or positive, with others.

    By the way, I also like reading blurbs for the fun of it, but never to judge whether I’d like a book or not, just for amusement.

    1. Jackie says:

      kiss a cloud, You seem to have it all worked out really well. I think I am heading more in your direction all the time and I hope that leads to an increase in the quality of the books I read.

  31. Trish says:

    I wrote just a personal post (Sunday Salon) about reading dust jackets a few months ago–not necessarily from this angle but just whether people prefer to know a lot or a little about a book going into their reading. People seemed to be really divided, but I never read the blurb. I don’t even really read book blogger’s summaries–I like knowing as absolutely little as possible before reading a book.

    Sometimes after I’ve finished reading the book I’ll read the blurb, but I’m usually surprised at what is mentioned. Sad that marketers have such a big pull!

    1. Jackie says:

      Trish, It is amazing how split people are on this issue. I guess re-reads are the ulimate example of knowing everything about a book and still being happy to read it again. Not for me!

  32. I can’t resist reading the blurb but it can definitely be misleading. The Other Hand for example. GRRRRRRR.

    1. Jackie says:

      Novel Insights, I know a lot of people were annoyed by that, but I loved it!! The more intrigue the better!

  33. Dorte H says:

    Great post.

    I do read blurbs, but I never buy a book based on this piece of glowing praise alone. Usually I don´t buy a book until I have seen a few reviews of it, and of course there are some bloggers whose reviews tempt me more than others´ because after two years I know whose taste I share.

    In my pre-blogging days I went by author, meaning I re-read a lot because my beloved authors didn´t write enough new crime fiction to keep me busy. Those days are over!

    1. Jackie says:

      Dorte, In my pre-blogging days I used to work my way through the back catalogue of every author I liked too. I used to run out of books to read all the time!! As you say, it is great not to have that problem any more :-)

  34. Charlie says:

    I like blurbs, because they’re quick to read, but like you say sometimes you are given too much information. At first I disliked back covers that only had review quotes on them because it had me stumped, I didn’t think to look elsewhere for a summary! Nowadays I like to read the first paragraph or so and just flick through the book in general.

  35. Meghan says:

    I try never to read blurbs. I also like to know as little as possible about a book before I start reading it, so I do my best to ignore plot summaries and the like across the internet. I just look for a general idea really and the style of a book I like. I much prefer to let the story unfold the way it was meant to, without me knowing anything at all.

  36. I try not to read the blurb but I have a bad habit of buying books months before I get round to reading them, and then I’veoften forgotten even the vaguest thing about it. I should learn to trust myself and just open it rather than glancing at the blurb and having plot details revealed.

  37. JoV says:

    Oh no, I never imagine life without a blurb! I always read the blurbs and what eye opening experience to know so many people who don’t! Blurb is my only method of filtering before I decide to take them off the shelf… I am really surprise that so many people don’t read the blurbs. LOL..

  38. Kathleen says:

    I do read the blurb but only decide whether or not to read a book after I’ve read the first few paragraphs. This method of choosing books has rarely failed me.

  39. Anna says:

    I generally read the blurb to see if it’s something that would interest me, topic-wise. But then I read the first page or two to get a feel for the writing style before making a final decision.

  40. Sakura says:

    I love reading the blurb and often refer to it even when I’m reading the novel. And I have a weakness for a beautiful cover too;P


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