The Art of Writing Blurbs (updated)

NB: The Alchemy of Stone is not a YA book.

I have just read a splendid book, Ekaterina Sedia’s The Alchemy of Stone, and now I must blurb it. I am realising once again that blurbing a book is really hard. As you may have noticed from this blog, I am not naturally succinct. I fail at all forms of writing that are on the short side: blurbs, pitches, haikus, summaries. They are all nightmarish to me.

I am so crappy at pitching my own books that Scott uses my feeble attempt to pitch Magic or Madness to a Sydney bookseller as his standard example of how not to pitch. (After hearing me out the bookseller put on a forced smiled and said, “Hmm, that sounds really complicated.”)

I wish I could just say:

Ekaterina Sedia’s The Alchemy of Stone is rooly good. Read it!

—Justine Larbalestier, Magic or Madness

Or do as Quentin Crisp used to, which was to respond to blurb requests with the following:

You may attribute to me whatever words you think will assist in the marketing of this fine work.

On this occasion my problem is that The Alchemy of Stone is a really complicated book and I love it but I don’t know how to describe it and thinking about it is hurting my head.

Maybe that should be my blurb? Hmmm.

The Alchemy of Stone is a really complicated book and I love it but I don’t know how to describe it and thinking about it is hurting my head. Buy it! Read it!

—Justine Larbalestier, Magic or Madness

Blurbing a dense, original and smart book like Sedia’s is especially hard. There are so many things to say about it. I love the alienness of the protagonist, Mattie, who is an intelligent automaton in a world in which automatons are dumb: they can neither talk nor think and are used as servants. How she grapples with being the only one of her kind and with actually knowing and talking to her creator is the heart of the book. She never once reads like a human being and yet she is a compelling character. I like her. I want her to succeed.

I love, too, the stone gargoyles who watch over the city, the power struggles between Mechanics, Alchemists, and the hideously oppressed miners and farmers, the subtle yet brilliant worldbuilding, the quasi-myth like though also fairy tale-ish feel to the language. Oh, yes, the language! Sedia’s a gorgeous maker of sentences. Not in an obvious show-y off-y way. Many of her sentences are sparse and unadorned. Yet several times I had to back up and re-read in order to savour and relish the implications of a particular word or phrase.

You see my problem? And I haven’t even really begun to describe why I enjoyed the book so much. Or mentioned the Soul-Smoker or explained why I don’t think it’s steampunk, which leads me into a long rant on why I don’t find “steampunk” a very useful term for describing books.

Stupid blurbs. I kick them.

How about:

Ekaterina Sedia’s The Alchemy of Stone bursts with inventiveness from its robot heroine to the Soul-Smoker and stone gargoyles that watch over the city. The book is full of explosions both literal and metaphorical as well as being a gorgeous meditation on what it means to not be human. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this beautiful book.

—Justine Larbalestier, Magic or Madness

Or something. Did I mention that I hate writing blurbs?

Alchemy of Stones is rooly good. Read it!

Update: Here’s what the publisher decided to go with:

“A gorgeous meditation on what it means to not be human. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this beautiful book, from its robot heroine to the Soul-Smoker and stone gargoyles that watch over the city.” —Justine Larbalestier, author of Magic or Madness


  1. Electric Landlady on #

    “Dense, original and smart” is an awesome thing to say about a book, I think.

    How about: “Ekaterina Sedia’s The Alchemy of Stone is dense, original and smart. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this beautiful book. Read it!”

  2. Steve Buchheit on #

    Blurb does not equal Review or pitch. I say wax eloquent on how much you love her writing.

    “I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this beautiful book” is an excellent blurb.

  3. Justine on #

    Electric Ladyland and Steve: I guess I project what I want out of a blurb into my writing of them. Both of your suggestions seem content-less to me. They don’t tell me anything about why the blurber liked the book.

    But doing it that way is definitely industry standard. The blurb Libba Bray gave HTDYF which I totally adore:

    Justine Larbalestier has a super-cool writing fairy, and I am vastly jealous! Thoroughly entertaining, totally enchanting, wickedly funny, and 110% doos, How To Ditch Your Fairy had me grinning from page one (when I wasn’t laughing out loud). And as soon as I can figure out how to do it I’m going to ask to swap fairies with Justine.


    Thoroughly entertaining, totally enchanting, wickedly funny.

    The first blurb tells you a lot about the book—even borrows some of its language—the second is much more generic and to me way less interesting. Though it does take up less space . . .

  4. Carrie R. on #

    Well, you convinced me to get the book!!

  5. JS Bangs on #

    “Dense, original, and smart” is certainly not contentless. It gives me a basic idea of what kind of fantasy it is, which is all I really need.

    If I didn’t already sort of know what HTDYF was about and was browsing in the bookstore, Libba Bray’s full blurb would just confuse me.

  6. Renleigh on #

    Your blurb should just be a link to this post, as you’ve made this book sound amazing and now I really want to read it.

  7. Justine on #

    JS Bangs: Which is why the Quentin Crisp strategy is the best one for all concerned. 🙂

    I take your point that sometimes blurbs are too writerly or become a conversation between writers and maybe don’t communicate that much to potential readers.

    However, in all seriousness I don’t think “dense, original, and smart” tells you much about a book. I can’t tell from that whether it’s crime, historical, YA, or a cookbook . . .

  8. Rachael on #

    I get what you’re saying, but for me, as a book purchaser, it matters more to me that I see, oh, Author X liked this book, and I like her books, maybe I will get this book after all, than what, specifically, you said about it. I’ve bought two books blurbed by Holly Black without really looking at her blurb. I was already thinking about buying both books and it was just the fact of her endorsement that pushed me over the edge. So maybe to obsess a little less, is what I’m saying. 🙂

    Also, I’d be interested to see that post about steampunk, being a person who finds it a useful term for describing books, indeed. And this one does sound like steampunk to me.

  9. Kelly McCullough on #

    Oh very yes to this whole post. I just hit my head against this same wall on Sunday. Night Shade is putting out a fabulous book by Mark Teppo. It’s a contemporary/urban fantasy called Lightbreaker and it’s smart and dense and generally outstanding. It was also a very hard to blurb for those same reasons, perhaps doubly so since it’s so very far away from what I am known for despite being in the same general sub-genre. People looking for more WebMage aren’t going to find it in Lightbreaker. They’re going to find something really cool that happens to be nothing at all like my stuff and that I really enjoyed reading.

  10. Graeme Williams on #

    Oh, yes, I’m definitely given in marketing classes as an example of what not to say. My current fall-back cliche is “The maximum of effect with the minimum of apparent effort”. This bubbled to the surface when I was trying to think of something coherent to say about “The New Amsterdam” by Elizabeth Bear, which is, … errrr, wonderful, amazing, exceptional, outstanding … urrrrrrgh … rooly good?

  11. Electric Landlady on #

    However, in all seriousness I don’t think “dense, original, and smart” tells you much about a book. I can’t tell from that whether it’s crime, historical, YA, or a cookbook . . .

    True, but if I’m relying on the Blurb from Well-Known Author to tell me that, the book’s marketing department has failed in a major way. Don’t forget there is title, cover art, back cover copy, publisher’s imprint, writer’s prior track record and very likely a tagline to go on as well!

    But I think the final blurb is great. And I’ll definitely be looking for the book.

  12. Nathan on #

    I’m sorry to hear the publisher’s already chosen something. I was going to offer to write your blurb for you if you sent me the book to read. 🙂

    Keep that in mind for the future. Hey, I could make an excellent sideline out of ghostwriting blurbs for famous authors!

  13. 1000 Days on #

    Too bad you can’t just put a hyperlink blurb back to this post.

  14. JS Bangs on #

    However, in all seriousness I don’t think “dense, original, and smart” tells you much about a book. I can’t tell from that whether it’s crime, historical, YA, or a cookbook . . .

    Right, but in the bookstore I also have the shelving, the cover art, the title, and the author’s name to clue me in to those things. Mind you, I’m not the sort of person who pays any attention to blurbs anyway, so I’m probably the wrong person to ask.

  15. trudi on #

    I did a double take at first reading this post, because to me the blurb is the plot summary on the back, and the bit you’re calling the blurb is what I call the “endorsement quote”. Is this an Australian-US terminology difference?

    Whatever you call it, I think its purpose isn’t to tell you what’s in the book. It’s purely to say “this famous author really liked this book, so if you like her work you might like the book too!”.

    Like others I picked “dense, original and smart” as a great quote, but also “Sedia’s a gorgeous maker of sentences”. Still, I love the quote the publisher went with, too.

  16. Justine on #

    Trudi: Maybe. Shamefully even though I am Aussie I was first pub’d in the States so I know the US terminology much better than I know the Oz. I’ve never heard anyone in publishing use the term “endorsement quote” before. In the States they’re always called “blurbs”.

    Sigh. I is losing my Aussieness!

  17. Andrew Nicholson on #

    Ok, You sold me with “Alchemy of Stones is rooly good. Read it!”.Paperback pre-ordered w. Amazon. (July 4th) I promise to pass it onto a YA too.

  18. Justine on #

    Andrew Nicholson: It’s not YA, though. Is proper adult novel!

  19. Andrew Nicholson on #

    OK, I’ll find a mature YA. Every book I’ve decided to read from your recommendations has been good – thanks.

  20. cuileann on #

    I don’t know who Quentin Crisp is, but I’m going to find him and read him.

  21. claire on #

    you just need a template. here:


  22. mikey p on #

    “dense, original and smart.”

    = a perfect blurb. why say more? you just achieved perfect conciseness. or concision. or something!

  23. Alex on #

    I’m reading Margaret Anne Doody’s “The True Story of the Novel” (tracing the impact of ancient novels on their own time, through the Middle Ages and – when I get to it – on modern novels), and I came across this quote: “It may be salutary to realise that blurb-writing is practically as old as printing.” This was after a section describing a translation of a Greek novel into Latin in the Renaissance, which was accompanied by a letter from a Greek professor, which echoes the prefix from the first edition and then gets quoted itself in a later edition…. At any rate, I thought of you!

  24. hillary! on #

    Right now it is 48 degrees F in Sydney. Totally off topic, but the internet is AWESOME!

  25. Liset on #

    you’ve convinced me!
    This looks REALLY good!
    And I learned what steampunk is!

  26. Jen on #

    Actually, the term Steampunk can be a bit misleading. Some people refer to it with several other names, my personal favorite being Gaslamp Fantasy. The term Steampunk is actually coined from the term Cyberpunk, which uses the “punk” part of the name far better. Gaslamp Fantasies are more about gentlemen and ladies and adventures of all kinds, with perhaps a dash of anarchism. Nothing punk about it at all.

    Of course, my even mentioning the genre, I know I’m going to have to check out the book for myself. 😉

    I’m new here, I’ve been lurking around your blog for a couple months and just now decided to open my big mouth. I only just recently bought your Magic or Madness trilogy (as sort of a “thanks” for all things you have written to help writers such as myself) and devoured the first book in only three days. I immediately started on the second without so much as a bathroom break.

    Anyway, thanks for all your help, and taking the time out of your busy schedule to read my long and arduous comment (especially when you should be working on your novel 😛 )

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