Sunday, 15 May 2011

This is the most exciting book ever written

There is a new academic activity I have recently become engaged in: writing blurbs for people's books. It has always been a mystery to me. I understand that a paperback edition can carry quotes from positive reviews on the back cover. But when some for me totally unknown professor This and That from Such and Such obscure university is quoted stating that it is the most amazing book on the subject, I feel skeptical. Has this professor actually read the book? Did the publisher pay them to read the manuscript or is it just a friendly gesture?

The practice seems to get more and more common, as I have been asked to write blurbs for several books during the past few months. First, no, the publishers don't pay you for this; at best, you will get a free copy of the book when it is published. Let's say that an average academic book costs £30, and it takes me four to five hours to read an average academic book if I read it quickly (if I read it properly, it takes four to five days), the hourly rate is rather low. In some cases, I had read the book at manuscript stage and was presumably familiar with it. It is, however, a huge difference between writing a critical review of a manuscript, aimed at helping the author to improve it, and writing a blurb that will entice readers to purchase it. You cannot go into technicalities in a blurb. Above all, you cannot be critical. So how much is it worth? I don't have to read the whole book in ordet to write some casual words about its merits. Amazing! Outstanding! Innovative! The rest you just infer from the table on contents.

As in all academic games, this is a matter between you and your conscience. Personally, I cannot endorse a book that I haven't read, even if I know the author's earlier work well. It is possible to tell the publisher: "This book is a pile of s-t, and I cannot say anything positive about it, but don't tell the author". Still, when you agree to write a blurb for a book you haven't read, you assume that you will be able to write something positive, but what if it is seriously bad? Isn't it safer to decide once and for all that you will never, ever write blurbs?

However, it is so easy to be seduced. After all, it is flattering to be asked. It is more than a free copy of the book. You are also advertising yourself, so that someone reading the book wonders: "And who the h-l is this professor saying all this s-t about this lousy book?" Advertising space is valuable in academic games. Another consideration is, as with many other things, mutual gain. Today I endorse your book, tomorrow you will support my grant application. But also, frankly, it is a pleasure to praise a good book.

Yet even when the book is excellent, writing a blurb is not particularly exciting. This is why I am blogging rather than reading this wonderful, fabulous, extraordinary, outstanding, ground-breaking, cutting edge book.  

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