One-Minute Book Reviews

May 14, 2013

The Ethics of Book Blurbing: What’s OK and What’s Not? A Survey

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:24 pm
Tags: , , , ,

George Orwell called blurbs “disgusting tripe.” What do you say?

By Janice Harayda

A publisher who was trying to promote a book once asked the late novelist Beryl Bainbridge for a quote about it. “Just say whatever you want,” she replied. Few novelists might allow publishers such liberties. But blurbs lend themselves to a host of questionable practices, as George Orwell understood when he called them “disgusting tripe.” Authors trade blurbs. Editors pressure writers they edit to provide them for other writers they edit. Commercial services sell blurbs to authors who have no obligation to disclose that they paid for the praise on their dust jackets.

What’s ethical and what’s not? On Saturday I’ll be speaking about the politics of blurbing and reviewing at the Biographers International conference in New York, and I’d love to know your answers to the questions below. On the following survey, a “blurb” means “praise solicited by an author, editor or publisher before the publication of a book” (not praise extracted from a review after it appears). Please answer any or all of the questions that interest you in the Comments below or tweet them to me at @janiceharayda. Thank you!

Is it ethical for authors to:
provide blurbs for books they haven’t read?
trade blurbs with other authors?
charge a fee for providing a blurb?
accept non-cash favors (such as sex, gifts or meals) in exchange for blurbs?
provide blurbs for authors edited by their editor or represented by their agent?
solicit blurbs from friends, relatives or other groups?
provide blurbs for books they dislike in order to help a friend?

Is it ethical for editors or publishers to:
ask authors whom they publish to provide blurbs for other authors they publish?
add exclamation points or other punctuation to blurbs?
take blurbs out of context in ads – for example, by using only a few words from a long blurb?

Is it ethical for journalists and bloggers to:
quote from a blurb without saying who gave the blurb – for example, by using phrases like “has been compared to” without saying who made the comparison?
review books for which they provided blurbs?

You may also want to read “Backscratching in Our Time,” a long running series on One-Minute Book Reviews that calls attention to authors who praise each other’s books in blurbs or elsewhere.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning journalist and novelist who has been the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle.

(c) 2013 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

10 Comments »

  1. Is it ethical for authors to:
    provide blurbs for books they haven’t read?
    – No

    trade blurbs with other authors?
    – Maybe. If they actually read and enjoyed the book.

    charge a fee for providing a blurb?
    – No. I understand reading the book and writing the blurb takes time, but if they are getting paid for it, how honest will they actually be knowing if they are brutal they might be cutting off a future income stream?

    accept non-cash favors (such as sex, gifts or meals) in exchange for blurbs?
    – Belgian chocolate is never inappropriate. Other things? Maybe. Sex? Definitely not, unless the blurber is the author’s significant other.

    provide blurbs for authors edited by their editor or represented by their agent?
    – As long as they actually read the book, and recognise that if I buy the book based on their endorsement and hate it, they’ll have broken my trust and I’ll never buy another book by either author again. But I’m not going to name names.

    solicit blurbs from friends, relatives or other groups?
    – As long as they read and enjoyed the book.

    provide blurbs for books they dislike in order to help a friend?
    – No. See above.

    Is it ethical for editors or publishers to:
    ask authors whom they publish to provide blurbs for other authors they publish?
    – Yes – as long as that’s not contingent on their own book being published or promoted

    add exclamation points or other punctuation to blurbs?
    – Go ahead. That’s an easy way for me to decide not to buy it.

    take blurbs out of context in ads – for example, by using only a few words from a long blurb?
    – No.

    Is it ethical for journalists and bloggers:
    quote from a blurb without saying who gave the blurb – for example, by using phrases like “has been compared to” without saying who made the comparison?
    – Quoting without attribution is getting very close to breaching copyright… And you need to get the context correct. Sometimes I’ll compare a book with another by an author I loathe.

    review books for which they provided blurbs?
    – Maybe. If there was no compensation for the blurb.

    It strikes me from some of my answers that a lot of the behaviours that I consider not ethical are actually just plain stupid, because they’ll bite the author back in the end. But, you know, if authors/editors/publishers want to engage in dubious behaviour, go ahead. Just don’t be suprised if I don’t buy it. Or their book.

    Comment by Iola Goulton — May 15, 2013 @ 4:03 am | Reply

    • These are wonderful comments, Iola. I love your line about Belgian chocolates, which I hope to quote when I speak at the International Biographers conference on Saturday and which I believe will make participants smile.

      I agree with almost all of your comments. One exception: Is it OK for critics and bloggers “to review books for which they provided blurbs”? In U.S. journalism this is generally considered unethical (though bloggers may have a different view). The issue isn’t compensation but the Holy Grail of journalism — that journalists should be above not just conflicts of interest but the appearance of conflicts. Reviewing a book that you blurbed creates the appearance of a conflict. Thanks so much for your thoughtful responses to these questions.

      Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — May 15, 2013 @ 10:40 am | Reply

  2. I was thinking of blogger reviews, not journalist reviews, so you are probably right. As a blogger, I’d feel honoured if someone asked me to blurb that I’d definitely want to review it on my blog (and I’d acknowledge that I’d been asked for a blurb). But I don’t have quite the same reach as a NY Times reviewer, so there is less appearance of a conflict.

    Comment by Iola Goulton — May 15, 2013 @ 11:14 pm | Reply

    • If you acknowledged up front that you’d blurbed the book, you might even win points for honesty from your readers (and come out ahead of the game). There are so many undisclosed conflicts online — among Amazon reviews, for example — that the visitors to your blog might find it refreshing that you’d dealt with the issue so openly.

      Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — May 16, 2013 @ 2:14 am | Reply

  3. Is it ethical for authors to:

    provide blurbs for books they haven’t read? Nope.

    trade blurbs with other authors? Maybe, if they’ve both really read and like each other’s work.

    charge a fee for providing a blurb? Never.

    accept non-cash favors (such as sex, gifts or meals) in exchange for blurbs? Probably not, but it’s the way of the business world. Well, except for the trading sex part, which is also business but of a different nature.

    provide blurbs for authors edited by their editor or represented by their agent? Only if they actually read and enjoyed each other’s work.

    solicit blurbs from friends, relatives or other groups? Usually not, though I’m sure a blurb loses a little of it’s punch if you start it with, “According to the author’s mother…”

    provide blurbs for books they dislike in order to help a friend? Hmmm…the word “dislike” gives me pause. I’ve read books I sincerely disliked, but could honestly say were very well-written and not without literary merit. So if the dislike is based on personal taste but the author could genuinely find things to praise about the book, I’d say it OK. But if the dislike stems from the work being of poor quality, then no.

    Is it ethical for editors or publishers to:

    ask authors whom they publish to provide blurbs for other authors they publish? Again, only if they actually read and enjoyed each other’s work.
    add exclamation points or other punctuation to blurbs? I have to say no. Punctuation can easily add emphasis the original writer didn’t intend, which seems a little dishonest.

    take blurbs out of context in ads – for example, by using only a few words from a long blurb? This should only be done if the few words reflect the general content of the blurb. I’d hate to say a book was a spectacular failure, and have the blurb quote me as saying “…spectacular!”

    Is it ethical for journalists and bloggers to:

    quote from a blurb without saying who gave the blurb – for example, by using phrases like “has been compared to” without saying who made the comparison? Probably not, but I suspect I’ve been guilty of this when I was too pressed for time (or, honestly, too lazy) to find the correct attribution.

    review books for which they provided blurbs?
    Assuming they read the book and the review is in keeping with the tone of the blurb, I don’t see why not.

    PS, If you say/read the word “blurb” a lot in a short period of time, it stops seeming like a real word at all. :)

    Comment by heykat — May 16, 2013 @ 3:12 pm | Reply

    • Like me, you seem to have seen enough blurbs to realize that the only way you can deal with some of them is to have a sense of humor. I haven’t seen “According to the author’s mother,” but I *have* had anonymous (though easily traceable) praise for books left on this site by authors’ spouses. And I’ve seen close to the deletion of “failure” from “a spectacular failure.” I’m rushing to catch a train right now but hope to respond to some of your other comments later tonight or tomorrow. Thanks!

      Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — May 16, 2013 @ 3:28 pm | Reply

  4. […] because John Irving called it “terrifying”? Nobody knows. But publishers and authors still solicit and trumpet blurbs with panicked […]

    Pingback by Two thumbs up! (I hated it) — May 20, 2013 @ 9:35 am | Reply

  5. […] The Ethics of Book Blurbing: What’s OK and What’s Not? A Survey (oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com) […]

    Pingback by First Time Blog Hosting | beginingsinwriting — May 25, 2013 @ 11:11 am | Reply

  6. […] The Ethics of Book Blurbing: What’s OK and What’s Not? A Survey […]

    Pingback by Blurbs | Nina Kaytel — February 6, 2014 @ 3:34 pm | Reply

  7. […] The Ethics of Book Blurbing: What’s OK and What’s Not? A Survey […]

    Pingback by Self Publishing: C’mon, Everybody’s Doing It — February 19, 2014 @ 3:16 pm | Reply


RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

The Rubric Theme. Blog at WordPress.com.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 372 other followers

%d bloggers like this: