The Ethics of Book Blurbs

Posted on 11/25/12 7 Comments

Last week I was perusing the book tables at the ETS conference when I came across a book that featured a blurb from a friend of mine. The blurb made the book sound like a great purchase so when I saw my friend later in the day I asked him to elaborate on the book.

“It’s not that great,” he replied, the tepidity in his voice inesacapable.

Surprised, I replied, “But in the blurb you said it was an outstanding and challenging contribution to the field!”

“Ah yes,” he said, with a smile “but note what I didn’t say.” And from there he went on to explain how he had carefully wordsmithed his blurb so that it would sound like a ringing endorsement to the average reader while retaining a subtle undercurrent of tepidity which would presumably be readily apparent to the highly skilled blurb exegete.

Yes folks, the ethics of blurbing a book can get messy sometimes. And for the most part it remains the elephant in the room (or, if you prefer, the elephant on the back cover). But there are exceptions where people are willing to confront those ethical issues more directly. I remember hearing of one student at Regent College who, caring nothing for social decorum, went up to J.I. Packer and asked “Do you really read all the books you blurb?” Shocked at this brazen question, Dr. Packer refused to answer. Assuming that he did read all the books he blurbed, I suppose the next question would be this: did he really like them?

  • christthetao

    Interesting topic! I have refused to write blurbs for books I didn’t like by friends. But on the other hand, I have sometimes refrained from posting negative reviews of bad books by friends on Amazon, to avoid hurting their feelings. I imagine Socrates doing the former, Confucius doing the latter, and Jesus coming up with some completely different solution, that blows everyone’s minds and points us back to more fundamental issues.

    • Randal Rauser

      Fortunately I’ve never been asked to blurb anything I didn’t think was worth blurbing. But I admire your stance.

      Over the years I’ve learned to become much more circumspect about blurbs. Now I’m pretty good at distinguishing the boilerplate commendation from the genuine glowing blurb. It was hearing some of the genuinely glowing blurbs of Craig Keener’s two volume work on miracles that convinced me I had to have it. But beware of the blurb that declares “This delightful work belongs on the shelf of anybody concerned with the issues involved”, because that probably ain’t worth the paper it’s printed on.

  • epicurus

    I’ve always ignored book blurbs, but maybe not for Randal’s reason. I figured that if 100 people hate it but the publisher can find 2 that think it’s ok, guess which are going to be on the back cover. Reminds me of a medical podcast I used to listen to, where they discussed expert evidence in court. The lawyer would just go through lists of doctors until he found one that agreed with the position the lawyer wanted and poof, there’s your expert.

    • christthetao

      You would have to work pretty hard to get 100 respected (therefore, overworked) people to read and evaluate a book pre-publication. The two blurbs on the back of our new book, are the only two I’ve gotten so far, because the publisher left that up to me, and when those two agreed to review it, I didn’t see the point in pestering lots of other people. (And several of the people I would have pestered, were already in the book as contributors.)

      Compare these two blurbs:

      “This is an extremely significant piece of work with huge global implications. Vishal brings a timely message.”

      (Ravi Zacharius, on the back of Vishal Mangalwadi’s The Book that Made Your World: How the Bible Created the Soul of Western Civilization.)
      “The scale and breadth of Sanneh’s scholarship is daunting but the narrative is engaging. This is the most important book Orbis has published since Gutierrez’s Theology of Liberation.”
      The first review sounds like Randal’s “boilderplate.” Moreover, Vishal and Ravi are friends, so one might expect a blurb. On the other hand, knowing Vishal’s work, I would expect his comments to be literally true: and then reading this book, I find that they are: this IS a significant work with global implications, etc, etc.
      Cox’s review surprises me more. Comparing a liberation theologian like Cutierrez to a book as orthodox as Sanneh’s Translating the Message? Can anything good come out of Harvard Divinity School? Yet the detail of Cox’s review (I only cited a small part) his obvious authority as a thinker, and the clarity of his observations, incline me to feel confident that Sanneh’s work is, indeed, very worth reading — as, again, it is, with virtues Cox is more likely to appreciate (as an academic), as opposed to those Zacharius would pick up on (as a preacher-apologist).
      Anyway, there are not 100 Ravi Zachariuses or Harvey Coxes in the world, for better or for worse.
      So I think there’s an art to reading reviews, and I think they can be (but not always are) extremely enlightening.

      • epicurus

        Ok, maybe I shouldn’t have said 100, but my thinking is that I’m only going to see good reviews on a book cover, not bad ones. But I see your point.

  • Bilbo
    • Randal Rauser

      Well done! Thanks for the link.