July 16, 2008, 03:27 PM ET
Truth in Publishing: Curb Those Blurbs and Syrupy Acknowledgments
Proposed here is the Truth In Blurbing and Author’s Acknowledgment Act of 2008. Enactment and enforcement may encounter First Amendment considerations, but that’s what lawyers are for. If the Supreme Court says the militia reference in the Second Amendment has nothing to do with the right to pack heat, we’re bound to be okay with matters affecting only literary affairs.
On the backs of book jackets, I’ve blurbed and been blurbed many times. In either role, I used to draw guidance from Dr. Johnson’s assurance that “In lapidary inscriptions a man is not upon oath.” As the beneficiary of effusive blurbs— the only kind allowed — I figured that no one is fooled, and besides, blurbs might sell some books. When solicited for blurbs, I went along with the game, thinking that the accounts eventually even up. I blurb for you or your friend and you or your friend blurb for me, which leads to such plums as, “A ground-breaking work that’s ‘must’ reading for anyone directly concerned with this subject as well the ordinary citizen seeking to keep abreast of important developments.”
Now, the number of new books published every year in this country alone is awesome, with figures ranging from 185,000 to well over 200,000. Consider the immense backlog, and what a minuscule percentage one can read in a lifetime of serious attention to reading. Few new books get reviewed anyplace, and only a tiny part of the annual output gets even a mention in prominent review publications.
Huge numbers, however, end up in book stores, if only for a short spell, prior to the remainder tables or the shredder. It’s in the book stores where blurbing mainly does its mischief. A “Wow!” blurb, preferably by an illustrious figure, but not necessarily, can inspire a sale. But is the expressed sentiment authentic and defensible? We can’t be sure, for blurbs are never put to a public test.
That’s where Truth in Blurbing comes in. Random peer-reviews and public evaluations by recognized specialists could, for the first time, instill intellectual rigor into the rule-free blurbing business. Thus, danger would lurk for someone who endorses a shlock work as “a pioneering exploration that sets the standard for all future discussion of this topic.” An annual public list of the most indefensible blurbs and blurbers would attract some notice. The risk of exposure could strengthen the resolve of reluctant blurb candidates hounded by authors and publishers.
The ultimate beneficiaries would be the reading public.
As for author’s acknowledgments of indispensable assistance, guidance, love, and patience, these, too, are often specious, though they can be authentic. Reader confidence would be strengthened if candid exceptions occurred, but they never do. Truth in Acknowledgments would serve the public by establishing benchmarks of utter candor at the outset of a book, where the acknowledgments customarily appear.
For example, “To my spouse, without whose persistent hectoring this work would have been completed far earlier and would have been far better.” Or, “A note concerning my department chair, whose ignorance of the subject matter of this book was no impediment to his frequent interference and unrestrained demands for inclusion of irrelevant and erroneous material from his own published works.” Or, “To my editor, whose rudimentary grasp of the basic principles of composition is a testimonial to employment opportunities in America.”