Book reviews, new books, publishing news, book giveaways, and author interviews

When book cover quotes are the critical equivalent of youve had a haircut

I once had a copywriting job that involved writing promotional pieces for a group of chiropractors*. My brief said very clearly that I was not to promise any sort of positive results from visiting a chiropractor. Fair enough. A bit of bone crunching doesnt necessarily translate into someone being able to do backflips on command, after all.

But my brief went further than this. Not only was I not supposed to suggest that visiting a chiropractor would result in the miraculous healing of aches and pains and whatever else, but neither was I allowed to mention that it may do so. That there was even a possibility of all that subluxation stuff actually doing any good whatsoever.

The closest I was allowed to come to so much as hinting at any sort of reason that anyone might want to visit my client and give them some money was to suggest that a customer pick up a telephone.

The cynics among us (all of you, I hope) might read between the lines there and come to the conclusion that the act of picking up a telephone is probably about as useful as actually visiting a chiropractor.

All of that is a rather long way of saying that in general, promotional copy is utter bull. And readerly types will probably be all too aware of this.

The publishing industry has a very strange obsession with cover quotes. Perhaps because its cheaper to whack some text on to a book cover than to actually pay an artist to do a full-page design. Perhaps because things in quotation marks seem authoritative. (The people who think this clearly havent seen the Blog of Unnecessary Quotation Marks, a site that suggests that our notion of what is meant by anything enclosed in quote marks is shifting very quickly, very illiterately, and not as ironically as you might think.)

But whatever the case, its apparently taught in Cover Design 101 that a book simply must have a quote on it. This has led to publishers ferreting out whatever quotables they can find and applying the handy-dandy ellipsis with an abandon more usually seen among people tossing confetti at a wedding.

Its also led to poor put-upon friends-with-the-author semi-famous people making as much as possible of the wonderful ambiguity of the English language in order to pretend to say something nice about a book, when actually theyre just saying something about a book. Or sometimes just something, full stop.

Most book blurbs are the equivalent of someone saying to you, oh, youve had a haircut.

Some are sneaky and employ smoke and mirrors to seem as though theyre saying something nice when theyre saying something terribly mean. Being told that your haircut really brings out your features might be a nice thing, or, if you have an astonishingly large nose and a squinty eye, something more likely to issue from a mother-in-law.

The book blurb equivalents of these are things like an ambitious debut. Something that is ambitious is not necessarily a good thing. There are plenty of people who ambitiously set out to run a marathon. There are plenty of people who have ambitions of appearing on the front cover of Forbes. If I say that I have ambitions to be Australias first billionaire neurosurgeon, well, lets just say that you should employ a fact checker before you employ me.

In order to show just how prevalent these evasive and often hilarious book blurbs are, I took a random sampling of some of the books on my shelves.

This first one is from a book that has been sitting by the door ready to be donated (the book, that is, not the door). Its touted as an agreeable tale. Now, Im not sure about you, but Im not sure that a quote as lukewarm as this really needs to be on a book cover. After all, with the exceptions of politicians, lawyers and extremely spicy chilli dishes, most things by and large are quite agreeable.

IMG 0203 002 243x300 When book cover quotes are the critical equivalent of youve had a haircut

Or how about this one, on a book that apparently features a delightful heroine (assuming that the rating scale is out of ten, and not, say, out of a hundred). But what of the rest of the book? Is the protagonist the only thing about this book that will stop you from clawing out your eyes? Surely this is more of a warning than anything.

IMG 0215 001 300x152 When book cover quotes are the critical equivalent of youve had a haircut

This one proclaims that this book is for teenage readers who like romance, exciting battles and magic. Well, thats all fine and dandy, but tell me, will said teenagers actually like this book? Is this book any good? All this quote does is tell me the target demographic printed at the bottom of the press release. And how do we even know that its right in the first place? Im of half a mind to write a book of haiku about my cat (an imaginary cat, since I dont have one), and send it off to the Daily Telegraph with the same demographic information appended just to see what they say.

IMG 0213 001 300x69 When book cover quotes are the critical equivalent of youve had a haircut

Heres a curious comparison quote. As moving and tragic as it is refreshing and scurrilous. Nice enough, I suppose, until you start asking whether its at all refreshing and scurrilous in the first place. After all, I could say that last months television guide is as eloquent and poignant as it is thought-provoking and timely, and none of those things need be true.

Fortunately this ones saved by the outstanding at the endassuming that nothing was cleverly ellided either before or after that all-important word.

IMG 0207 001 300x225 When book cover quotes are the critical equivalent of youve had a haircut

This is perhaps one of the best that I came across in my quick search. Comic novels are difficult to writeit takes a real wit to manage 400 pages of mild, fragrant good humour, the Guardian (although who exactly from the Guardian we dont knowthe mail delivery person?) tells us.

Thank you for that fascinating bit of insight into the writing process, dear Guardian writer person. Let me guess, youve also complimented the author on having their hair cut.

IMG 0205 001 300x184 When book cover quotes are the critical equivalent of youve had a haircut

Another giggle-inducing one is this: merits comparison as a stylist with Bertrand Russell. Well, sure. But isnt that true of any type of written prose ever? Im sure a Finnish Dictionary could warrant the same. By the same argument, I warrant comparison with Mr Russell. Im sure hed be happy to plumb the philosophical depths of all of this with me.

IMG 0206 001 300x66 When book cover quotes are the critical equivalent of youve had a haircut

Speaking of quotes that say absolutely nothing about the quality of the book in question, we cant go past hotly anticipated. What a strange way to measure the value of something. My dinner every night is hotly anticipated, but that doesnt mean I can cook. (I cant.)

IMG 0204 001 300x225 When book cover quotes are the critical equivalent of youve had a haircut

Even poor Isabel Allende has fallen victim to the questionable praise of book jacket blurbs. How about this zinger? Never less than entertaining. And by extension, never more than that either?

IMG 0214 001 300x104 When book cover quotes are the critical equivalent of youve had a haircut

Of all the quotes I came across in my quick browse, however, I think that this one sums it all up quite well:

IMG 0208 001 300x120 When book cover quotes are the critical equivalent of youve had a haircut

Your turn: have you ever come across a ridiculous or evasive cover quote? Share them in the comments, and feel free to email any pictures of said quotes to readinasinglesitting AT A gallery of shame is definitely warranted.


  1. I just read a book that had 3.5 pages of quotes in the front of the book extolling the awesomeness of the authors previous novels.

    A fearsomely gifted writer. Independent, adorns the front cover. A perfect book. proclaims Corriere della Sera on the back cover, along with The sheer charm and freshness of Ammanitis writing.. will make you laugh, cringe and cry in as many paragraphs. Advertiser, and Ammaniti continues to cement his reputation as Italys best young writer. -Weekend Press.

    Admittedly, the novel was translated to English from Italian so I have no clue what the original is like, but the English version, You and Me, by Niccolo Ammaniti, translated by Kylee Doust, is egregious. Fortunately, it is a library book. I complain about all the puff in my forthcoming post.

    I never read books that have Kirkus quotes because arent those paid reviews? I can be swayed by TLS quotes, but yeah, all the puff needs to stop.

    BTW, I used to go to a chiropractor to have my back cracked because it was really painful? One day something went wrong and my back muscles spasmed and I could hardly move, let alone straighten up or walk. I had to get valium from the Dr next door to relax my muscles. Nightmare!

    • Stephanie /

      Perhaps fearsomely gifted means just that! Ive read Ammanitis Im Not Scared, but thats all, so I cant comment on this one. I do find that the pages and pages of quotes often feel a bit desperate, as though theyre compensating for something.

      Sorry to hear about your back! There was a big stink about chiropractors in the UK a while back. A science writer claimed there was no evidence behind the profession, and was sued. The case went on for ages and nearly bankrupted him.

  2. How delicious. My turn:

    On the back of Ian McEwans Solar Dazzlingprofound and urgent Observer. What does that even mean?

    On the back of Junot Diazs This is how you lose her Writing this good comes along, if were lucky, once or twice in a generation. Observer. Not so much a criticism of Diazs writing but Im stunned by The Observers silly prediction.

    On the inside of Peter Temples Truth Utterly unforgivingutterly convincingmore please! Irish Times. Really? More please???

    • Stephanie /

      Those are great, Sonia! Ive only ever seen the more please thing in really trashy glossy magazines. How strange to see it in this context!

  3. LOl I have never given the quotes much thought I must admit but I will be sure to pay attention from now on

  4. Firstly, that last quote was quite funny. Secondly, I agree that many blurbs are merely obvious statements that give no real sentiment to the nature of the book or the readers take on the book. There are a few authors I trust to blurb, but most blurbs just make me laugh. And thirdly, Id like to point out that I was both agreeable and am a lawyer. Mostly Im agreeable in fact, never more so then when Im disagreeing with someone as it is perhaps my favorite thing to do. ;)

    • Stephanie /

      Ive definitely been burnt before. I once bought a book purely because Charles de Lint had blurbed it, and so assumed that it would be a bit like de Lints books. And good. In fact, it was nothing like his books and it was terrible to boot!

  5. One of my favourite ever cover quotes was for a really disappointing novel. (As in, it needed more time, the story was there but the quality wasnt, and it needed a truckload more editing, IMHO)
    An astounding, life-affirming, mind-blowing story.
    After I read the book I broke the quote down to mean:
    Astounding It was astounding this unready book was released
    Life-affirming Im so glad I can write better than this
    Mind-blowing story the story idea is good, the execution not so much.

    I keep adding this book to a pile I should donate to the opp-shop, and yet I cant seem to throw it away. Ive googled the author and shes vanished. Smart woman. Shes probably writing much better stuff under a new name.

    • Stephanie /

      Oh, thats hilarious, Ebony. Im imagining the poor person who wrote that blurb sweating and twitching as they tried to write it!

      Ah, authorial makeovers. Not many other creative sorts have that avenue open to them, so there are benefits to being largely invisible!