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The birth of the blurb

The birth of the blurb

Everyone knows that you don’t judge a book by its cover. You pick it up, flip it over, and judge it by the blurb instead. 

Sometimes snappy, other times breathless, and usually including some zealous combo of the words ‘haunting’, ‘thrilling’ and ‘un-put-downable’, a blurb is a publisher’s one-chance sales pitch to snare the attention of a browsing book buyer.

Along with a hackneyed paragraph or two that attempt to convince you that the book you’re holding is the most original, breathtaking or heart-rending book you’ll ever read, the blurb usually includes a few celebrity quotes of praise, from gushing screeds to the concise yet effective, ‘Brilliant.’ 

But this promotional tool wasn’t always wielded by publishers. The first blurb ever is thought to be found on the spine of the second edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, one of the American writer's most famous poetry collections that was published in 1956. 

Essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson had read a first edition of the book and sent Whitman a letter in response that included the flattering phrase, ‘I greet you at the beginning of a great career.’

As the second edition of Leaves of Grass headed to press, an enterprising publisher took the quote and printed it – in gold leaf, no less – on the spine of the book. Voila. The blurb was born – but not yet baptised with a name.

That honour fell to American humourist Gelett Burgess in 1907.

To promote his book Are You a Bromide?, Burgess printed 500 copies and handed them out at the American Booksellers Association Banquet. 

At this point in time it was standard to have a few promotional quotes printed on the dust jacket of a new book. According to Burgess's publisher, the quotes were usually accompanied by an image of a ‘languishing, heroic, or coquettish’ damsel.

In parody of this practise, Burgess and his publisher borrowed an image of a model from a dental magazine, posed as if she was shouting praise, and printed it on the back of the book under the text, ‘YES! This is a “BLURB”!' 

They called the admiring damsel Miss Belinda Blurb.

Publishers and booksellers loved it, and the term for promotional text on the jacket of a book became irrevocably known as a ‘blurb’. Gelett himself defined the word as 'a flamboyant advertisement', or, more to the point, 'to sound like a publisher'. 

So next time a well-written paragraph on the back of a book or a particularly persuasive celebrity quote sends you straight to the counter of the book store, say a little thanks to Gelett Burgess and his fictional purveyor of plaudits, Miss Belinda Blurb.