Author Gary Shteyngart has written three award-winning novels. He’s widely considered one of America’s smartest and most inventive authors. He teaches writing at Columbia University. But the place you’re most likely to come across Shteyngart’s name is, oddly enough, on the back of somebody else’s book.
Shteyngart is the reigning blurb king. His short, pithy endorsements are on more than 100 books. Just walk into a bookstore and make your way to the fiction section, or even non-fiction or humor. Close your eyes and randomly pick up a book, preferably a new release. You might’ve just grabbed A.M. Homes’ May We Be Forgiven, of which Shteyngart wrote: “I started this book in the A.M., finished in the P.M., and couldn’t sleep all night.”
Or perhaps it was Rachel Shukert’s Everything is Going To Be Great: “If you read only one memoir by a disaffected, urban, 20-something Jewish girl this year, make it this one. Shukert rocks the lulav.”
Or maybe you chose How To Be a Person: The Stranger’s Guide to College, Sex, Intoxicants, Tacos, and Life Itself by Lindy West and others, of which Sheteyngart said: “Suck it, Proust. This book about stuff is much better than those things you wrote.”
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And it’s not just books Shytengart praises in concise, Twitter-esque prose. He has blurbed literary venues. (On Pete’s Candy Store in Brooklyn: “Think of a fine pre-war dining car with an endless supply of booze.”) He’s blurbed Tweets. (“Simon Montefiore has written a classic tweet that will endure for hours.”) He’s blurbed newspaper articles about blurbs. (On A.J. Jacobs’ New York Times’ story “How to Blurb and Blurb and Blurb”: “The fact that A.J. Jacobs wrote this in 20 minutes, hung over in bed and dressed in his rubber-ducky pajamas, bespeaks of his superior talent.”) He’s even blurbed his own blurbs: “Gary Shteyngart’s blurbs are touching, funny and true. This is a blurber to watch.”
Shteyngart is theatrical, imaginative, funny and the most prolific book blurber in the industry. (That in itself kind of sounded like a blurb.) There’s a tumblr account dedicated to his brief yet hyperbolic praise and even a short documentary being filmed just about his blurbs. But why does Shteyngart blurb so much?
Clearly, Shteyngart enjoys it, and he’s turned it into a kind of performance art. “I’d like to be a blurber of the whole world,” says Shteyngart, the author of the heralded (and well-blurbed) books The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, Absurdistan and Super Sad True Love Story. “I would like to blurb hair styles or gas ranges.”
Shteyngart admits that he hasn’t fully read all the books he’s blurbed (“Who the hell can read all of these books?” he tells me), and his blurbs occasionally sound as if he’s parodying the entire practice. But he swears his motivation is genuine and says he does it to help talented young writers get noticed. But, maybe more importantly, he blurbs for the benefit of booksellers and the industry as a whole.
Oren Teicher, CEO of the American Booksellers Association, says blurbs matter more to sellers than actual consumers because they help them determine what selections to put in a staff pick section or place in prominent positions in their stores.
“If you talk to any number of booksellers, they’ll tell you that anything that helps curate content is really important,” Teicher says. “Today blurbs are probably more important because more books are being published every year.”
It’s no secret that the publishing industry is hurting. According to Nielsen Bookscan, print book sales fell 9.25% in 2011, while fiction sales dipped 17.7%. Because books have a hard time competing for our time and attention, Shteyngart feels compelled to help quality books get exposure. With a blurb, “you’re really sending a message to the bookseller that maybe this book is better than another book,” Shteyngart says. “There are just so many choices. It’s my part to help keep this industry going.”
A blurb from a high-profile author increases the odds of a book winding up in a bookstore, perhaps even in a prominent “staff pick” position. But do blurbs actually boost sales? The scant research that’s been conducted on the topic indicates they have little to no influence on buyers’ decisions. A 2012 Bowker Market Research study shows that just 6% of consumers become aware of the books they buy through jacket covers or testimonials. Other “evidence” of blurbs’ effectiveness is mostly anecdotal.
Ann Patchett, an author who opened her own bookstore in Nashville last year, believes the only time blurbs have an impact is of they’re abundant and from prominent writers. Patchett herself is inundated with blurb requests, even for galleys before a book has been sold to a publisher.
“Every single day the UPS truck comes and brings me a galley,” she says. “I feel like a huge portion of my life is disappointing people and saying no to books I’m not even opening.” The number of books sent to Patchett each year? About 300. She blurbs about a dozen.
Amid the blurb-mania, some writers are scaling back their blurbing habits, which in turn just increases demand for their praise. Jonathan Franzen, author of The Corrections and Freedom and one of the nation’s most revered writers, tells me that he’s been on a blurb sabbatical since April, after realizing that he’d already written five book blurbs during the first three months of 2012. (He normally gets 150 to 250 manuscripts a year and blurbs about eight.)
Explaining his decision to hold off on blurbing for the next couple of years, Franzen says, “I thought, either I’m getting to be an old softie, or people are writing good novels.” Franzen believes it’s the latter, but nonetheless, he found himself reading just to blurb rather than for his own projects. “I realized, this has to stop,” he says. “So I’m out of the blurb business.”
Partly because his blurbs are scarce, Franzen is one of the major “gets” in the blurb world. “If you get a quote from Jonathan Franzen, that’s a big deal because he’s not everywhere,” says book publisher Amy Einhorn. But despite Franzen’s declaration, the manuscripts keep flowing his way.
Luckily for blurb seekers, there are writers like Shteyngart and A.J. Jacobs, a writer best known for cheeky, full-immersion reportage for books like The Year of Living Biblically (in which he tries to live by every rule and guideline found in the Bible)and The Know-It-All (in which he reads all 32 volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica). Jacobs is the only other high-profile author in contention for the title of King of Blurbs.
While Jacobs says he feels obliged to help young, unknown writers, having been in their position himself, he admits he also blurbs because he simply likes seeing his name in bookstores. “It’s nice to do what small part I can to get the word out” about good books, says Jacobs. “But frankly, there’s also the ego factor. It’s just kinda fun to see your name on other books.”
As for whether blurbs help book sales, Jacobs has no clue. “That is a great mystery,” he says. “My gut says they don’t have a big effect. I don’t buy books based on blurbs.”
Nonetheless, the blurbing will go on, despite the fact that prolific blurbers like Jacobs and Shteyngart can’t fully explain a blurb’s purpose, or why they feel the need to keep cranking them out. “It’s a curious question,” Shteyngart says. “’Why does this man blurb so much?’ I don’t know. It’s not a tax deduction.”