The Power of the Puff

There’s a multitude of tools in the publicist’s kit these days – advertising, social media, reviews, bookshop events, literary festivals all spring to mind – but what about those puffs that adorn book jackets, so often full of promise with seductive famous names attached to them. We all know about quotes full of ellipses where what’s taken out was not exactly flattering leaving just a few words whose irony is lost in the translation. Slate has quite a funny piece on the way that movie blurbs are constructed with a fine example of this. However, cynical as I am about it all, I can’t help falling for promising puffs, The Quick particularly when I’m not at all sure about a book. The Hilary Mantel and Kate Atkinson comments adorning its forthcoming paperback edition spurred me on through the slow start to Lauren Owen’s The Quick for instance.

Recently, however, I was pitched a novel that I’d already decided wasn’t for me. It’s from a publisher whose list is one of my favourites but the book’s described as ‘dystopian’, something which at the best of times doesn’t attract but given the events of this summer I think we’re all in need of cheering up rather than a dose of something even worse in prospect. Then I looked down the list of quotes praising the novel to the skies: Erin Morgenstern, author of the entrancing The Night Circus; Liza Kluassman whose Tiger in Red Weather I greatly enjoyed; ditto Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers; then there’s Jessie Burton, author of one of my favourite books of this year, The Miniaturist; and Emma Straub whose The Vacationers I’d liked. So I agreed to look at a copy. You’ll only read about it here if I enjoyed it but I’m hoping that it will live up to the promise all those starry names suggest. What about you – do you find yourself swayed by puffs? Or do you have other ways of deciding whether to read a book or not?

14 thoughts on “The Power of the Puff”

  1. I like to read the descriptions on the back of the book to see what it’s about, but I tend to ignore the glowing quotes as they always seem somewhat inflated. However, because I’m a miserablist at heart, they can be helpful to look back on for the choice of vocabulary if I’m reviewing a novel I’ve loved!

    1. I think I live in hope that the writers whose work I’ve admired will have something incisive to say, although truth be told one or two of them crop up a little too often for much thought to have gone into it. And you’re right, Anne, they can sound positively sycophantic!

  2. I do glance at the puff, but I find myself paying far more attention to the opinions of reviewers/bloggers whose judgement I trust. I’ve lost count of the number of books I’ve bought (and loved) as a result of bloggers’ reviews and tweets!

    1. I know, it’s an expensive business reading blogs and tweeting! But you’re right, a better source of opinion.

  3. This is the second discussion of this topic that I’ve encountered in as many days. I don’t take much notice of what is said, but I do tend to look at who has said it on the grounds that I assume an author wouldn’t allow their name to be associated with a book that they thought was awful for the sake of their own reputation.

    1. Someone on Twitter mentioned that Nathan Filer had written a piece about the same thing, Alex, although I haven’t yet tracked it down. I’d like to know what he said.

  4. I am all about the content. If the description of the book interests me, I’m up for it. Not much else seems to make an impact – I think I may be horribly cynical about publishing puffs and quotes and so on, which is not fair given that all the publishing peeps I’ve met lately have been lovely and seem quite genuinely ecstatic half the time! 🙂

    1. I know, I don’t know where they find the energy! But I do know what you mean, and my cynic antennae start twitching when the same names keep turning up.

  5. I’m with Victoria (Litlove). If the content/outline doesn’t attract me, then no matter who praises a book on the cover, I probably won’t read it – but of course I do glance at the puffs – and they may make me pick a book up. You can lead a horse to water….

  6. I’m with you, Susan. I’ve taken books from publicists on the back of a puff quote by someone I think has good judgement – Hilary Mantel led me to Michelle de Kretser (good call, Hilary), although there was then a spate of Mantel quotes – hmmm – and I took a short story collection on the back of quotes from Eimear McBride and Stuart Evers (I follow him on Twitter so know we have overlapping tastes) last week.

    I do read lots of reviews/tweeted recommendations too but sometimes it’s the puff quote that makes me say yes.

    1. I remember when Nick Hornby seemed to be endorsing just about every novel published – frequent use of an author definitely devalues the puff.

      1. And how his endorsements put me off these days!

        Sometimes they’re surprising though. I’ve read the odd literary novel recently endorsed by someone I consider to write very sentimental books. I don’t know why I’m surprised they have either a range of styles they like or prefer to read different books to those they write, but I am.

        1. Sometimes I think it’s because they’re published by the same publisher although not necessarily the same imprint. But I think your first point’s spot on – too much exposure!

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