I am in the process of getting my fourth book, this one is called The Fickle Finger, ready for its forthcoming publication in April and one of the (many) tasks this entails is producing some blurb. By this we mean a short piece, usually no more than a paragraph or so, designed to extol the merits of the book and entice potential purchasers to part with their hard-earned cash. But, why blurb and where did it come from?
An American scholar by the name of Brander Matthews, to whom some authorities have erroneously attributed the term, spilled the beans in an article on the subject, published by the New York Times on September 24, 1922. “Now and again”, he wrote, “in these columns I have had the occasion to employ the word “blurb”, a colourful and illuminating neologism which we owe to the verbal inventiveness of Mr Gelett Burgess”.
So, how and why?
Prior to the annual dinner of the American Booksellers’ Association in 1907, Burgess had published a book entitled Are You a Bromide? which was selling reasonably well. In conjunction with his publishers, B.W Huebsch, they hatched a plan to give each of the diners at the shindig a special edition of the tome, complete with a specially designed cover. For this Burgess took a picture of a young lady from a dental advert who was in the act of shouting. It was the custom at the time for covers of books to feature young women in an attempt to lure male readers. Burgess called his woman Miss Belinda Blurb and claimed that she had been photographed “in the act of blurbing”.
The jacket proclaimed, ”Yes, this is a “Blurb”! All the Other Publishers commit them. Why Shouldn’t We?” The copy then went on to extol the virtues of the book in terms that would make a modern-day publisher blanche. “We consider”, it went on, “that this man Burgess has got Henry James locked int o the coal-bin, telephoning for “Information”…it has gush and go to it, it has that Certain Something which makes you want to crawl through thirty miles of dense tropical jungle and bite somebody in the neck”. Readers exposed to other blurbs will recognise the superiority of this one, it boasts. After all, “this book is the Proud Purple Penultimate!”
Whilst Miss Belinda Blurb sank into obscurity, publishers, who were puffing the wonders of their latest offerings, gratefully took up Burgess’ word and it has never looked back since. Not content to let a good thing go, Burgess cemented its place in the jargon of the book publicist and with a wider audience by defining it in his Burgess Unabridged: A New Dictionary of Words You Have Always Needed, published in 1914. Blurb as a noun was defined as “a flamboyant advertisement; an inspired testimonial” with a secondary definition of “fulsome praise; a sound of a publisher”, while blurb as a verb was described as “to flatter from interested motives; to compliment oneself”.
Burgess wasn’t just content with introducing blurb to the unsuspecting world. Bromine was used at the time as a sedative but the noun a bromide, used in the title of his book, was an invention of his. Burgess defined it as someone “who does his thinking by syndicate and goes with the crowd”, ensuring that he is trite, banal, and arbitrary. The antonym to a bromine, he posited, was a Sulphite.
Bromides and Sulphites as descriptors for human traits didn’t make the same impression as blurb and have all but vanished. When I put the finishing touches to my book’s blurb, I will give thanks to Gelett Burgess.