The Art of the Blurb (or, Step Away from The Traitor Baru Cormorant, Max Gladstone)

People have weird ideas about what editors do. Most, I’ve found, imagine us as plumbers: we take apart the mechanism of a story, clear out gunk, replace worn elements, reroute, redirect, upgrade. We patch, we tighten, we improve flow. Then we put the damn thing back together and just pray it works better than it did before we got our hands on it. There’s truth in this analogy, but it’s not the complete truth. The job is so much more than, well, editing. In reality, editors at various times are advocates, diplomats, negotiators, interpreters, samurai, strategists, heralds, motivational speakers, therapists, bartenders—you get the idea.

But I didn’t really want to talk about all the different jobs an editor needs to be proficient at. Today I just want to tell you about one of our more peculiar responsibilities: collecting blurbs for the novels we acquire.

Ah, the blurb. Long before a book gets its first reviews, when a novel is still at manuscript stage, editors seek out peer endorsements for newly acquired books. We use these in catalogs, on bookseller web sites, and on book jackets to help generate interest. The process of obtaining blurbs can be fun; it’s a matter of matching up a manuscript to authors who we think will connect with a novel and actually want to endorse it. Editors get a lot of good quotes this way. Not always. Sometimes the folks we reach out to are just too busy, or they simply don’t click with the book. Happens all the time, and there are never any hard feelings when it does.

What happens less often is when an author becomes so enthusiastic about a manuscript that they give an editor too many options to choose from.

Case in point: Max Gladstone was the first author with whom I shared Seth Dickinson’s debut novel, The Traitor Baru Cormorant. Not because I’m Max’s editor and he’s a cool guy and we’ve become good friends—all of that is true, but I don’t ask every author I work with to send me a quote for every book I edit. Like I said, when it comes to obtaining blurbs, I try to match the writer to the book. In this instance, knowing Max the way I do, I had a strong hunch he’d be as enthusiastic for Seth’s novel as I was.

Seldom have I underestimated anyone so spectacularly.

This is the blurb Max wrote that appears on the back cover of The Traitor Baru Cormorant:

“Dickinson has written a poet’s Dune, a brutal tale of empire, rebellion, fealty, and high finance that moves like a rocket and burns twice as hot. The Traitor Baru Cormorant is a mic drop for epic fantasy.”

—Max Gladstone, author of the Craft Sequence

Pretty awesome, right? Any SF/F novelist will tell you they’d give a kidney for an endorsement like that. A poet’s Dune? Moves like a rocket and burns twice as hot? A mic drop for epic fantasy? Heck, most debut novelists would cut out the kidney themselves to have any one of those descriptions on their book jacket. But all three in the same blurb? That’s gold.

Here’s the thing, though. That was the Gladstone blurb I chose for Seth’s jacket. Max gave me others, and each one was more insane than the last.

“In the first chapter of this book, Seth Dickinson turns a colonial analogue of the revolutionary fascists from V for Vendetta loose on LeGuin’s Earthsea. You want to see what he does next.”

Okay, that one’s pretty cool too. Great comparisons, awesome juxtaposition, and a promise that these merely scratch the surface of the novel. But then Max wrote this:

“This is the part where you tell me you don’t want to read a fantasy novel about an accountant, of all things, who doesn’t even do any swordfighting, and I’ll break your nose with this book, strap you into that creepy forced-viewing chair from A Clockwork Orange, and save you from a horrible mistake. You might as well spare yourself the trouble. I’m no good at setting noses.”

Now I’m wondering, what’s going on here? From the threat of violence and the reprogramming imagery, I can only assume Max has taken the Incrastic philosophy described in Seth’s novel to heart, and he will use these same methods when negotiating his next book contract. But I digress. Let’s continue:

The Traitor Baru Cormorant breaks fantasy open: a brilliantly written gauntlet thrown to ossified visions of the genre’s possibilities. If face-huggers infected George R. R. Martin, Howard Zinn, and James C. Scott, producing glistening murderous offspring which then mated somehow…this is the book the single surviving spawn of that horrid union’s brood clutch would write. Read it.”

At this point, I’m terrified. But I’m also perversely intrigued. If I hadn’t already read The Traitor Baru Cormorant, this might well make me pick it up. And that’s what a blurb is supposed to do, after all. But my slightly depraved sensibilities aren’t the issue. As the editor, I have to think outside myself, imagine what will work best across the largest number of people.

But then there’s my personal favorite, which appeared simply as the subject of the email Max sent me containing all those other quotes:

“Can my blurb just be, ‘Jesus fucking Christ, Marco, where did you find this guy?’”

Ah, to live in a world where that could be a cover quote!

As you’ve no doubt surmised by now, blurbing a book is more art than science. But that sweet spot in between is where the fun is, where the magic happens, where the cool shit goes down. It may fall under an editor’s more odd responsibilities, but it’s also one of the most exhilarating.

Marco Palmieri is a senior editor at Tor Books. Seth Dickinson’s The Traitor Baru Cormorant (titled The Traitor in the UK) and Max Gladstone’s latest novel, Last First Snow, are available now.

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