Blurbs. An illustration of a book with the title “Undercover” is pictured on top of a curvy color block background. There is also a cup of tea and glasses.
Laura Vergara / WBEZ
Blurbs. An illustration of a book with the title “Undercover” is pictured on top of a curvy color block background. There is also a cup of tea and glasses.
Laura Vergara / WBEZ

Nerdette is embarking on “Undercover,” a three-part series into the different ways a book comes to life. In our first episode, we will examine a seemingly small but very important element of the tome you hold in your hands. Next week, we’ll hear about what it takes to get a print book into your earbuds. And in our final installment, we’ll learn about what can make or break an on-screen adaptation of a book.

We’ll answer some of the following questions: why are so many people so upset about the blurb economy? Do authors actually make any money off film adaptations of their books? And what do a narrator’s vocal warmups sound like?

Today, we are zooming in. Past the title, past the cover design, to the simple quotation you might see on the top of a book. We are talking about blurbs.

You will usually see a blurb above the book’s title. Maybe you’ll see a couple more on the back cover. It might be just a word or a phrase (“Triumphant!”). It might be a whole sentence (“I couldn’t put this book down”). It’s always high praise, and it’s often from a successful author.

Dan Smetanka is the editorial director of the independent publisher Catapult book group. He says a good blurb is almost as important as a good cover.

“The perfect book cover says, ‘don’t keep walking, stop! Stop! Look at me,” Dan says.

All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung. The cover is dark blue. There is a fine with sparse leaves. The vine is cut.
Celeste Ng’s blurb for ‘All You Can Ever Know’ says, “required reading for anyone who has ever had, wanted, or found a family—which is to say, everyone.” Catapult

There are so many books out there these days, so publishers are doing everything they can to get a reader’s attention. And the blurb is absolutely part of that equation.

Danya Kukafka is the author of the novel Notes On An Execution. She calls a blurb a “stamp of approval” from another author.

“If you pick up a book and you see that three other authors you like enjoyed this book and given a quote for it, you’re more likely to buy it,” Danya says.

And a blurb can be helpful even before a book hits bookstore shelves. Blurbs can get the attention of sales representatives, booksellers, and critics, too.

As an executive editor at Penguin Press, Ginny Smith Younce is thinking about who might blurb a book long before it’s published. “We try to think creatively about people who might know their work or who might be intrigued by their work,” Ginny says. Those people might include alumni from the same graduate program, a member of their writing group, or a friend of a friend.

Mercury Pictures Presents by Anthony Marra. On the book cover, the top of a skyscraper reaches into a cloudy sky.
Celeste Ng calls Anthony Marra’s ‘Mercury Pictures Presents,’ “A genuinely moving and life-affirming novel.” Penguin Random House

At first glance, a blurb is an endorsement from another author. But it turns out, the whole thing revolves around who knows who. In other words, it’s a system of favors.

Ginny calls it a “business of tastes and relationships.” Author Attica Locke says it’s “a major favor economy” that she finds “quite stressful.”

“It’s a weird old system that I think everyone agrees needs to be retired,” Danya says. Traci Thomas, the host of The Stacks podcast, is the most blunt about it: “It’s a s***** system.”

But it’s a system everyone still relies on, a game everyone has to play. Take Danya, for example. Notes On An Execution has a blurb from Brit Bennet, the very well-respected author of The Vanishing Half. She and Danya are friends. “I worked on her first book, The Mothers, when I was an assistant editor at Riverhead,” says Danya.

Notes On An Execution by Danya Kukafka. The book cover is purple. There is a locket with images of a house and a girl.
Brit Bennett calls ‘Notes On An Execution,’ “a searing portrait of the complicated women caught in the orbit of a serial killer.” HarperCollins

Even if you’re new to the industry, it’s still about who you know. Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s first book, The Nest, had a blurb from Amy Poehler. “I didn’t really know much about publishing a book when I sold the nest. And I was like, ‘Well, I mean, I know Amy Poehler. Should I ask her?’ And I could hear people fainting on the other end of the phone.”

She knows Amy through her husband Mike, who used to write for Conan O’Brien. “I didn’t know a lot of writers, so I felt like that was the one thing I could offer that might help,” Cynthia says.

We can’t quantify exactly how Amy’s endorsement helped, but The Nest was a super successful debut novel. The book hit bestseller lists, it was optioned for film rights, and Cynthia got a second book deal.

Partly because of all that success, Cynthia has tried to pay the favor forward – which means now she’s blurbing lots of books for other new authors. “My blurb has to be worth like three cents. Like I’ve just devalued it by spreading it too freely,” Cynthia says.

When Cynthia is asked to blurb a book, she thinks about who is asking her to do it. Is it an editor or agent whose taste she trusts? Does the book sound interesting? How much spare time does she have? If she’s able to commit, she agrees to blurb before actually reading the book.

The Nest by Cynthis D’Aprix Sweeney. The book cover shows an ornate golden crest with the title on it. It looks somewhat like wallpaper.
In Amy Poehler’s blurb for ‘The Nest,’ she says, “I couldn’t stop reading or caring about the juicy and dysfunctional Plumb family.” HarperCollins

When Cynthia reads a book to blurb it, she can’t just read it like she’d read a book for fun. She is constantly trying to formulate the blurb as she reads. “Sometimes I feel like blurb writing is like playing a game of Mad Libs,” Cynthia says.

After all of this work goes into requesting the most high profile blurbers and picking the most ravishing, luminous, iridescent adjectives, do readers even read the blurbs? Can a blurb actually make or break a book?

“Oh God, I hope not Greta, don’t say that,” Catapult editor Dan Smetanka says. “It’s hard because you will hear from some people who say, Oh, I never read blurbs, it doesn’t matter. And then there are others who will pick up a book because of that front cover quote.”

The entire system can be especially difficult for authors from marginalized backgrounds who are trying to gain their footing in an industry that is overwhelmingly white.

This is something Traci, the host of The Stacks podcast, thinks about a lot.

“Some authors from certain marginalized communities need blurbs in a way that some other authors don’t,” Traci says. “It becomes sort of a thing of like, ‘I want to support this indigenous queer author by blurbing them because there aren’t that many indigenous queer authors whose books are being published.’ Then what happens is, the authors of color who are willing to write blurbs end up writing a hundred blurbs.”

Writer Attica Locke thinks about this a lot, too. She says she would not be where she is now if two big names in crime fiction hadn’t blurbed her first book. Five books later, it’s still an issue. “You’re constantly aware of owing something back, of wanting to uplift a new voice,” Attica says.

Black Water Rising by Attica Locke. The book cover shows a forest stream at dusk.
James Ellroy called Attica Locke’s first book, ‘Black Water Rising,’ “superlative.” HarperCollins

That’s what makes them so complicated. They’re all about helping people who are new to the industry, which is conceptually great. But practically, they also require a lot of effort.

“It’s an overwhelming amount of work in an industry that is already probably short staffed and overwhelmed with work,” Catapult’s Dan Smetanka says.

Everyone acknowledged that it’s super messy. But it seems to be what works, too. “I think there’s so many things about publishing today that is deeply flawed but necessary. And you have to set that kind of cynicism aside and just approach it from the idea of, ‘This is a really great book and I want to share it with you,’ and hope for the best,” Dan says.

So, for now, for better or for worse, the blurb will live on.

“I will continue to blurb,” Attica says. “I’m in a non-blurbing phase right now, but I have blurbed over the last couple of years and I will continue to do it.”

Blurbs. An illustration of a book with the title “Undercover” is pictured on top of a curvy color block background. There is also a cup of tea and glasses.
Laura Vergara / WBEZ
Blurbs. An illustration of a book with the title “Undercover” is pictured on top of a curvy color block background. There is also a cup of tea and glasses.
Laura Vergara / WBEZ

Nerdette is embarking on “Undercover,” a three-part series into the different ways a book comes to life. In our first episode, we will examine a seemingly small but very important element of the tome you hold in your hands. Next week, we’ll hear about what it takes to get a print book into your earbuds. And in our final installment, we’ll learn about what can make or break an on-screen adaptation of a book.

We’ll answer some of the following questions: why are so many people so upset about the blurb economy? Do authors actually make any money off film adaptations of their books? And what do a narrator’s vocal warmups sound like?

Today, we are zooming in. Past the title, past the cover design, to the simple quotation you might see on the top of a book. We are talking about blurbs.

You will usually see a blurb above the book’s title. Maybe you’ll see a couple more on the back cover. It might be just a word or a phrase (“Triumphant!”). It might be a whole sentence (“I couldn’t put this book down”). It’s always high praise, and it’s often from a successful author.

Dan Smetanka is the editorial director of the independent publisher Catapult book group. He says a good blurb is almost as important as a good cover.

“The perfect book cover says, ‘don’t keep walking, stop! Stop! Look at me,” Dan says.

All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung. The cover is dark blue. There is a fine with sparse leaves. The vine is cut.
Celeste Ng’s blurb for ‘All You Can Ever Know’ says, “required reading for anyone who has ever had, wanted, or found a family—which is to say, everyone.” Catapult

There are so many books out there these days, so publishers are doing everything they can to get a reader’s attention. And the blurb is absolutely part of that equation.

Danya Kukafka is the author of the novel Notes On An Execution. She calls a blurb a “stamp of approval” from another author.

“If you pick up a book and you see that three other authors you like enjoyed this book and given a quote for it, you’re more likely to buy it,” Danya says.

And a blurb can be helpful even before a book hits bookstore shelves. Blurbs can get the attention of sales representatives, booksellers, and critics, too.

As an executive editor at Penguin Press, Ginny Smith Younce is thinking about who might blurb a book long before it’s published. “We try to think creatively about people who might know their work or who might be intrigued by their work,” Ginny says. Those people might include alumni from the same graduate program, a member of their writing group, or a friend of a friend.

Mercury Pictures Presents by Anthony Marra. On the book cover, the top of a skyscraper reaches into a cloudy sky.
Celeste Ng calls Anthony Marra’s ‘Mercury Pictures Presents,’ “A genuinely moving and life-affirming novel.” Penguin Random House

At first glance, a blurb is an endorsement from another author. But it turns out, the whole thing revolves around who knows who. In other words, it’s a system of favors.

Ginny calls it a “business of tastes and relationships.” Author Attica Locke says it’s “a major favor economy” that she finds “quite stressful.”

“It’s a weird old system that I think everyone agrees needs to be retired,” Danya says. Traci Thomas, the host of The Stacks podcast, is the most blunt about it: “It’s a s***** system.”

But it’s a system everyone still relies on, a game everyone has to play. Take Danya, for example. Notes On An Execution has a blurb from Brit Bennet, the very well-respected author of The Vanishing Half. She and Danya are friends. “I worked on her first book, The Mothers, when I was an assistant editor at Riverhead,” says Danya.

Notes On An Execution by Danya Kukafka. The book cover is purple. There is a locket with images of a house and a girl.
Brit Bennett calls ‘Notes On An Execution,’ “a searing portrait of the complicated women caught in the orbit of a serial killer.” HarperCollins

Even if you’re new to the industry, it’s still about who you know. Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s first book, The Nest, had a blurb from Amy Poehler. “I didn’t really know much about publishing a book when I sold the nest. And I was like, ‘Well, I mean, I know Amy Poehler. Should I ask her?’ And I could hear people fainting on the other end of the phone.”

She knows Amy through her husband Mike, who used to write for Conan O’Brien. “I didn’t know a lot of writers, so I felt like that was the one thing I could offer that might help,” Cynthia says.

We can’t quantify exactly how Amy’s endorsement helped, but The Nest was a super successful debut novel. The book hit bestseller lists, it was optioned for film rights, and Cynthia got a second book deal.

Partly because of all that success, Cynthia has tried to pay the favor forward – which means now she’s blurbing lots of books for other new authors. “My blurb has to be worth like three cents. Like I’ve just devalued it by spreading it too freely,” Cynthia says.

When Cynthia is asked to blurb a book, she thinks about who is asking her to do it. Is it an editor or agent whose taste she trusts? Does the book sound interesting? How much spare time does she have? If she’s able to commit, she agrees to blurb before actually reading the book.

The Nest by Cynthis D’Aprix Sweeney. The book cover shows an ornate golden crest with the title on it. It looks somewhat like wallpaper.
In Amy Poehler’s blurb for ‘The Nest,’ she says, “I couldn’t stop reading or caring about the juicy and dysfunctional Plumb family.” HarperCollins

When Cynthia reads a book to blurb it, she can’t just read it like she’d read a book for fun. She is constantly trying to formulate the blurb as she reads. “Sometimes I feel like blurb writing is like playing a game of Mad Libs,” Cynthia says.

After all of this work goes into requesting the most high profile blurbers and picking the most ravishing, luminous, iridescent adjectives, do readers even read the blurbs? Can a blurb actually make or break a book?

“Oh God, I hope not Greta, don’t say that,” Catapult editor Dan Smetanka says. “It’s hard because you will hear from some people who say, Oh, I never read blurbs, it doesn’t matter. And then there are others who will pick up a book because of that front cover quote.”

The entire system can be especially difficult for authors from marginalized backgrounds who are trying to gain their footing in an industry that is overwhelmingly white.

This is something Traci, the host of The Stacks podcast, thinks about a lot.

“Some authors from certain marginalized communities need blurbs in a way that some other authors don’t,” Traci says. “It becomes sort of a thing of like, ‘I want to support this indigenous queer author by blurbing them because there aren’t that many indigenous queer authors whose books are being published.’ Then what happens is, the authors of color who are willing to write blurbs end up writing a hundred blurbs.”

Writer Attica Locke thinks about this a lot, too. She says she would not be where she is now if two big names in crime fiction hadn’t blurbed her first book. Five books later, it’s still an issue. “You’re constantly aware of owing something back, of wanting to uplift a new voice,” Attica says.

Black Water Rising by Attica Locke. The book cover shows a forest stream at dusk.
James Ellroy called Attica Locke’s first book, ‘Black Water Rising,’ “superlative.” HarperCollins

That’s what makes them so complicated. They’re all about helping people who are new to the industry, which is conceptually great. But practically, they also require a lot of effort.

“It’s an overwhelming amount of work in an industry that is already probably short staffed and overwhelmed with work,” Catapult’s Dan Smetanka says.

Everyone acknowledged that it’s super messy. But it seems to be what works, too. “I think there’s so many things about publishing today that is deeply flawed but necessary. And you have to set that kind of cynicism aside and just approach it from the idea of, ‘This is a really great book and I want to share it with you,’ and hope for the best,” Dan says.

So, for now, for better or for worse, the blurb will live on.

“I will continue to blurb,” Attica says. “I’m in a non-blurbing phase right now, but I have blurbed over the last couple of years and I will continue to do it.”