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Too Much Information: Blurbs, Reviews and Spoilers

By Isabel Costello @isabelcostello

Too much information: blurbs, reviews and spoilers

As I mentioned at the start of the year, I’m taking a relaxed approach to the blog in the run-up to my Spring Spotlight on 11 March.  At the moment top priority goes to a pitch for a project I can’t talk about and preparing material for a retreat I’m leading in a few weeks’ time – it’s got nothing to do with this gorgeous beach (and nor has the post) but it is somewhere special – details at the end. 

The topic which sprang to mind this week is spoilers.  Just books, because if we get into TV and film we’ll be here all night. I’ll come onto reviews later, but let’s start with the last place you’d expect to find them: blurbs.  Since that term has several meanings, I’m talking about the short description intended to give readers an idea of the story, of the kind you’d find on the back/inside cover or on a website. 

In the 8+ years I’ve been running the Sofa – which coincides with getting published – I have given a lot of thought to blurbs because they have such an important job to do.  In a hugely crowded marketplace, the greatest challenges authors and publishers face are A. letting readers know the book exists and B. giving them a reason to choose it over every other book which exists. As a very experienced bookseller friend advised me, ‘the front cover is what makes people pick the book up.  The back cover is what makes them buy it.’ (Yep, he made me rewrite the blurb when my debut came out in paperback.)

That’s a lot of pressure on one or two paragraphs, and it’s not easy. There’s a real art to saying enough to entice the reader to the story, whilst preserving the intrigue which will make it compelling and enjoyable.  This normally involves some reference to the big narrative drivers of conflict (things not going smoothly) and reversal/surprise (things/people not being as they seem, without giving too much away).   The best blurbs give an accurate impression of where the heart of the story lies, because readers don’t take kindly to discovering the pacy thriller they were led to expect is more of a rambling family saga (for example).

Once I’ve decided which titles to include in my next selection I turn to the blurbs which make up the biggest part of it.  My heart soars when a blurb really captures the book I loved and want to encourage others to read – and not only because it saves me time rewriting them. Most do an admirable job given how alarmingly easy it is to make a really good book sound dull, clichéd and like you’ve heard it all before.

Last weekend I read a novel set in the USA which had been highly recommended to me by a friend.  Despite a gripping premise (the library ordered it in on the strength of the one-line description), I really had heard it all before – from reading the jacket copy on the inside flaps the day I collected it. Some of you will be frustrated that I’m not naming the book, and if I’d loved it regardless, I would.  Sadly, despite really good writing, the story felt thin and unsatisfying which is hardly surprising, considering I already knew about 85% of it. A disappointing experience which left me unable to judge its merits as a work of fiction.  If a UK edition follows, I hope for the author’s sake that this blunder won’t be repeated as many American readers also lamented it in reviews.

Whilst this is the worst example I’ve come across – and all the more perverse coming from the publishers – there’s no shortage of people dishing up spoilers without warning, especially in online reviews. Many readers now won’t look at any book reviews in advance for this reason and I’m in that camp (although I do love reading them when I’ve finished). I know how hard it is to review a book without giving spoilers – there’s a lot more I could have said about last week’s Two Books about Three Women – but much as I like the sound of my own voice  it’s not fair to ruin the story for others.  With practice, it’s possible to allude to key developments/details in a way that someone who’s already read it will get, without giving the game away for everyone else. I’m bound to have slipped up sometimes and I’m sorry, but these are the two things I always try to keep in mind:

1.Would I have wanted to know this before reading the book?

2. If in doubt, leave it out!

I’d be interested to hear your views on all this – without going into detail on the spoilers, obviously!


If you’d like to join me and other writers for a few days of Inspiration and Motivation – themes of my linked workshops – and lots of writing time in wonderful surroundings, there are still a few places available on the residential retreat organised by A Place to Write, 3-6 March in a huge historic house in Weobley, Herefordshire. Contact me @isabelcostello or host @janeayres1 on Twitter or leave me a message in the comments for further info.

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