Cover Quotes – Credible Praise or Irredeemable Corruption?

By David Corbett

First, some business to square away – I’m teaching a couple of courses I’d like everyone to know about. If you or someone you know would like to register, follow the links I provide below.

The first is an in-person weekend class and workshop at Book Passage in Corte Madera on December 1st & 2nd. The class is titled Character Spines and Story Lines, and will focus on how to integrate character with story to create focused, compelling, character-driven plots.

The second is a ten-week online course, beginning January 16th, offered through the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program. It’s titled The Outer Limits of Inner Life: Building Consistent but Surprising Characters, and covers the art of characterization from conception of the character through development and execution on the page.

Also, Open Road Media and Mysterious Press have re-issued my third and fourth novels — Blood of Paradise and Do They Know I’m Running, respectively — in ebook format with, imho, killer new covers:



They’ve also created a swift little video for the rollout, in which I characteristically talk far too quickly about nothing much:

Follow the links to purchase the titles, and remember there are two days left of the special November promotion in which The Devil’s Redhead (and 99 other stellar titles) are all available for $3.99 or less (TDR is a lean, mean $2.99).

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Now, to our regularly schedule programming:

I had a lot to be grateful for this Thanksgiving. I got to meet my girlfriend Mette’s parents for the first time – they spend much of the year abroad, living for several months in Bergen, Norway, another several in Izmir, Turkey – and spent several restful days at a lakeside cottage in the Putnam Valley (not far from Sleepy Hollow), eating sumptuous meals, hiking in the woods, and listening to vinyl on our host’s knockout stereo (his record collection ranged from Bowie to Herbie Hancock to Fela to Sonny Boy Williamson to, well, you get the picture).

I also received from my editor at Penguin, Tara Singh, a jpeg for the finalized cover up my upcoming book, The Art of Character:

Oops. My apologies. I tried to post the cover, but I only have a pdf file,

and apparently I need a jpeg or similar file. I’m going to try something here — let’s see if it works. If not, sorry.


The cover was completed after I was able to scrabble together some blurbs from assorted friends, colleagues, comrades in arms. Given the rather ragged path to publication this poor little book has endured – I’m on my third editor, for example – I was given a very narrow time window (two weeks) to gather these quotes, which all but guaranteed that we’d come up short-handed.

All the writers I know are super-busy, and asking for a quote in such a short time frame was almost embarrassing. Many of the writers I asked simply couldn’t oblige, but luckily there were a significant, generous few who were able to take the time and respond.

As you know, this past year there was a rather heated debate over the use of “sock puppets” to praise one’s own work and, in extreme cases, attack the work of others. Alexandra and Martyn both posted blogs here on the topic. And the resulting discussion all around the web brought into high relief the entire issue of garnering favorable opinion for one’s work – whether in the form of friends writing Amazon reviews, writing reviews oneself under pseudonyms, or good old-fashioned, genuine third-party praise.

Barry Eisler, in addressing the sock puppet phenomenon, put it in the context of acquiring blurbs, a system he considers “irredeemably corrupt.” I’m not quite as jaundiced as Barry, but I’m no fool. I realize that many cover quotes are written as personal favors or as a kind of quid pro quo for kindnesses or acts of generosity provided elsewhere. I also know they don’t always reflect a genuine knowledge of the work. As Robert B. Parker famously remarked: “I’ll blurb the book or read it, not both.” (I’m paraphrasing.)

I think most people understand all this. Readers don’t take cover quotes as gospel any more than they read Yelp reviews without a certain reasonable skepticism. Ultimately, we evaluate several reviews and/or blurbs, “weigh the source,” glimpse at the book ourselves, and form our own opinion.

That said, I was absolutely overwhelmed with the generosity, kindness, and respect my fellow writers showed my humble little book. My editor was frankly stunned – and ecstatic. Here’s a sample:

“David Corbett has written a wise, inspiring love letter to all the imaginary creatures inside our minds—so we might conjure them whole on the page. I predict that massively underscored copies of The Art of Character will rest close at hand on writers’ desks for many years to come.”  —Cheryl Strayed, Best Selling Author of Wild

“I once made the mistake of writing a story with David Corbett. The man smoked me. He can delineate the character and personality of an accordion in three strokes. I didn’t even know accordions had character. This act of generosity and wisdom from a very good writer will help anyone who is staring at a blank page, any day, any time. Highly recommended.”  —Luis Alberto Urrea, Pulitzer Finalist and Bestselling Author of The Hummingbird’s Daughter

“Corbett’s The Art of Character is no “how to” book or “writing by numbers” manual.  It is a writer’s bible that will lead to your character’s soul.”  —Elizabeth Brundage, Best Selling Author of A Stranger Like You

Indispensable. Few are the writer’s guides that are written as beautifully, cogently, and intelligently as a well-wrought novel. This is one of those books.”  —Megan Abbott, Edgar-Winning author of The End of Everything

“David Corbett’s The Art of Character belongs on every writer’s shelf beside Elizabeth George’s Write Away and Stephen King’s On Writing. An invaluable resource for both the novice and the experienced hand, it’s as much fun to read as a great novel.”  —Deborah Crombie, New York Times best-selling author of Water Like a Stone

“The topic of character development begins and ends with David Corbett’s The Art of Character. This is the book on the subject, destined to stand among the writings of John Gardner, Joseph Campbell, and the others of that select few whose work is fundamental to understanding the craft of storytelling.”  —Craig Clevenger, author of The Contortionist’s Handbook and Dermaphoria

“David Corbett’s The Art of Character offers a deep inquiry into the creation of character for the novice writer, with valuable nuggets of wisdom for the seasoned storyteller. If you are a writer, it should be on your desk.”  —Jacqueline Winspear, National Best Selling Author of A Lesson in Secrets

“Clear-headed and confident, David Corbett takes us through the steps of characterization in a manner that resists formula while at the same time demystifying a process that has likely daunted every writer since Homer. “  —Robin Hemley, Award-Winning Author of Turning Life into Fiction

“David Corbett has combined his unique talents as a gifted writer and an extraordinary teacher to create a superb resource on character development. Deftly crafted and impeccably researched, The Art of Character is a thoughtful and insightful book that is immensely readable and practical.”  —Sheldon Siegel. New York Times Best Selling Author of Perfect Alibi

 “It is rare to find the deep philosophical questions of literature (and life) met with such straight-forward and inspiring instruction. But David Corbett is that writer, and The Art of Character is that book.”  -—Robert Mailer Anderson, author “Boonville”

“This fine book is about as thorough an examination of character and what it means in all sorts of imaginative writing as you’re likely to find anywhere.”  —Robert Bausch, Prize-Winning Author of Out of Season

Yes, they all could be lying, or exaggerating, or simply doing me a good turn. But I think, when readers look inside the cover, they’ll be able to determine for themselves whether the praise was warranted or not. In the meantime, I’m basking in the glow – and feeling very fortunate indeed.

So, Muderateros – how do you appraise the value of cover quotes on a book you’re thinking of buying? Do you agree with Barry Eisler that the system is so ridden with underhandedness as to be worthless? Or does the opinion of a writer you admire still carry weight?

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Jukebox Hero of the Week: I mentioned that I got to listen to Fela this weekend at my lakeside hideaway. For those of you unacquainted with this African megastar-hero’s work, this is an excellent introduction – “Zombie,” from 1976:


22 thoughts on “Cover Quotes – Credible Praise or Irredeemable Corruption?

  1. Gordon Harries

    It depends on the source. If it’s someone like George Pelecanos –who I admire immensely as a writer, which adds his opinion a certain weight, of course.– who seems to blurb relatively few books, then that might well argue for the book to be taken slightly more seriously. If on the other hand it’s an Ellroy quote who, certainly in times past, has described himself as a “Blurb whore”, well I have so many books with blurbs from him on them as to render the blurb redundant.

    I’m not sure I consider the system as it stands to be worthless. But you don’t need to be very savvy to see there’s likely to be some variation of quid pro quo going on. I guess the question for me is whether the blurb in question seems sensitive and informed about the boor/author or just a crass marketing ploy.

    By the way, not sure if it’s just me but the JPG for the final cover of ‘character’ isn’t working (it is for everything else) revisited the site a couple of times, but still no good.


  2. Sarah W

    First, I like your new video, especially the comment about making mistakes. As our family says, it's not the mistake, it's the mistakes one makes to correct that first mistake that get you (we usually use it in terms of explaining how we managed to throw a pot of soup all over the kitchen or wrench our backs taking a nap, but the creators of Columbo used this principle for better things).

    Second, while I use cover quotes to suss out more about the book and I usually check to see if I recognize anyone, I'm more likely to pay full attention to recommendations like the one from Luis Alberto Urrea–it's professional with a personal touch, and a bit humorous, too. He knows you, he's clearly read your work–if not this work–and he likes it. Plus, I'm curious about the accordion.

  3. Pari Noskin

    Like Gordon and Sarah, I tend to look at the blurb's source. If it's someone I know and respect, I pay attention a little more than I might otherwise. That's about it.

    And, btw, congrats on all that praise, David. I'm looking forward to reading the book.

  4. Allison Davis

    Sheldon used more adjectives in your blurb than in his last book. The lore of blurbs is one of those luxuries I haven't delved into yet, still watching from the sidelines. As a reader, I don't look so much for the truth of the quote as the willingness to associate. An author wouldn't agree to be on the cover of a book they hated or a writer they thought was crap (at least that would be my assumption).

    Nice list there in two weeks time. I couldn't get the cover either. Maybe you can re-post?

  5. Gordon Harries

    Sadly, I've had some experience (not direct experience, friends of mine) where an author sought to charge a pretty hefty figure for a blurb. I can imagine some doing it for money, if there's gold in them thar hills.

  6. David Corbett

    First, my apologies to everyone about the cover for THE ART OF CHARACTER. I have a pdf file, and apparently Squarespace needs a jpeg or similar file. I've tried to copy a "snapshot" but it appears to be too large, so I'll have to see if I can wrangle a jpeg from the publisher. More on that later.

    Gordon: Yes, there are definitely blurb sources that are more reliable than others, but the idea of paying for a blurb astonishes me. Truly. And as everyone else points out, any sensible reader puts the quotes in context, and uses them judiciously, not as gospel. Agreed on that point as well.

    Sarah: Thanks for the nice words on the video, though Jesus I really should have stuck to decaf that day. For more on the accordion, go to Best American Mystery Stories 2011. Luis and I wrote a story together for Lone Star Noir titled "Who Stole My Monkey" that was included in that collection. (And your comment on mistakes is duly noted. Yeah, as they say in sports, it's always the retaliation, not the original infraction, that gets penalized.

    Allison: You should pass your observation directly on to Sheldon. Made me chuckle.

    Pari: Thanks, hon. I too consider the source, and I hope people do that with these as well. I agree with Sarah, Luis's blurb stands out because it's so obviously personal, and it's possibly my favorite for that reason. I look to that quality as well in a cover quote.

    Now, let's see if I can fix that cover pic.

  7. Gar Haywood

    You don't want to get me started on this blurb business. I'm on record as saying it stinks to high heaven, both from the perspective of the author being blurbed and the author doing the blurbing. That said, however, it's fairly obvious you've got some legit ones here, and they're all highly credible. Big ups to you, David.

  8. David Corbett

    Actually, Gar, I'd love to get you started. That's kinda why I wrote the piece. There's a clubbiness in the blurb world I think is pretty obvious. And I have no idea how "legit" some of my blurbs are. I know I'm grateful — and thus secretly don't want to scratch beneath the surface too much to ask just how sincere they might be, or how much of the book they actually read. That may well "stink to high heaven," and I probably should be a bit ashamed. And yet what I found in many of these blurbs was a quality that I trusted. They got the book, got what I'd tried to do. Those I'm truly grateful for.

  9. Gordon Harries

    Another vote for Gar to get started. I'm not around tonight (as it is in the UK) but it's an issue I'm really interested in.

  10. Thomas Burchfield

    There's definitely an ethical murkiness in this topic. (Full disclosure: David provided an excellent blurb for my novel DRAGON'S ARK). Part of me cringes asking anyone for anything, even directions to a lifeboat on a sinking ship. So I was cringing like bacon when I set out to collect mine.

    Did they help with sales? Honestly, I can't tell, thankful as I am to the blurbers. They may well have contributed to my book's winning three awards this year . . . but the three awards haven't led to a significant bounce in sales, even after a significant outlay in advertising and promotion.

    And I will blush with shame and insecurity when I start trying to collect blurbs for my next book BUTCHERTOWN. We simply have to let the world know that we're here, whatever it takes, no matter how poor we are, how lonely and insignificant we may feel.

    But now that brings me to the opposite dilemma: What happens when I'm asked to be the blurber? I have yet to be asked and, frankly, my reaction will depend on the circumstances. What happens if I turn out to not like the book? ("Oh my GOD! Le Carre's written a piece of crap!") Whatever I do, I hope it's the right thing.

  11. David Corbett

    Tom: My blurb of DRAGON'S ARK was freely given and justly deserved. There have been occasions when I've been asked to provide a quote and I couldn't do so in good conscience. I begged off, but the relationship with the author suffered. There have been a few occasions when I was asked and couldn't because of time constraints, then came back to the book and wished I'd been able to — Johnny Shaw's DOVE SEASON, for example. All manner of things come up, and you deal with them. I have a feeling you'll be able to handle it.

    And yes, as to whether blurbs actually aid sales — like so much in publishing: No one seems to know…

    It's reasonable to assume, however, that they don't hurt sales. I think. Unless Brad Thor got a cover quote from President Obama.

  12. Gar Haywood

    I really don't have much to add to what David said here:

    "There have been occasions when I've been asked to provide a quote and I couldn't do so in good conscience. I begged off, but the relationship with the author suffered. There have been a few occasions when I was asked and couldn't because of time constraints. . ."

    I won't give anyone a milquetoast blurb. "No one writes crime quite like David Corbett." Yeah, not hard to read between the lines of that one, is it? So I only blurb when I can offer a rave, and frankly, I don't often find a book that exciting. This is why I've had to say no more often than yes, and why I always take it personally when the shoe is on the other foot. When an author I admire greatly fails to respond to a request to blurb something of mine with either silence or a lame-ass "Haywood is the real deal," I can't help but assume it means they don't find my work anywhere near as impressive as I find theirs, and yes, goddamnit, that hurts. It hurts me right HERE.

    I never question the authenticity of a blurb that is effusive in its praise, because nobody would bother to go that far to recommend a book if all they were doing was doing somebody a favor. But the ones that simply say, "You can't go wrong with Corbett" are so transparently false, they make my teeth hurt.

    Oh, and do blurbs sell books? I can only say that I never used to think so, until I posed the question to a convention panel audience once — "How many of you pay attention to cover blurbs?" — and damn near everyone in the room raised their hand. Go figure.

  13. Zoë Sharp

    Hi David

    Firstly, congratulations on your new publications. They look wonderful and I hope they sell like the proverbial scalding bakery items of confectionery.

    I'm sure the blurbs you received were all heartfelt. I find it more interesting to note who you didn't ask than who you did … 🙂

    And Gar. I've been extremely lucky to have had the support of a number of extremely fine authors who have given me blurbs – occasionally using some of the phrases you mention with such scorn. I hope they were not given with the same sentiment in mind. And yes, I have regularly been told by readers that they discovered my Charlie Fox series because of the endorsement given by a particular author on the cover.

    I honestly try to give blurbs when I'm asked, and if I genuinely enjoy the book, but this year has been so frantic I haven't been able to read half as much as I wanted to – something I feel very guilty about and will try to do better in the New Year. In my defence I can only say there's been a lot going on. Some good, some terrible, but that's the way the cookie crumbles sometimes and you just have to get on with it.

  14. Lisa Alber

    I consider cover blurbs part of the cover art, no more, no less. I don't pay much attention to them. HOWever, if I were a reader who knew nothing about our industry, I'm sure I'd take them into consideration. Let's face it: all advertising is a hoax.

    It's almost as if a cover doesn't look right anymore without the author-blurb decor, eh? Gotta have them.

    All that said: Congrats, David! I'm sure yours are legit. I'm looking forward to gleaning some wisdom from the book!

  15. David Corbett

    Gar: Yes, the conspicuously weak-hearted blurb is an interesting phenomenon, especially from a writer one admires. And yet I guess that's one of the many prices of admission in this weird little biz.

    I'm not sure I agree with this: "I never question the authenticity of a blurb that is effusive in its praise, because nobody would bother to go that far to recommend a book if all they were doing was doing somebody a favor." As I mentioned, there's a clubbiness to some circles of blurbing, and I can tell when someone's effusiveness is just as vaguely uninformative as a bland blandishment, as it were. It's sometimes good to know who is friends with whom before trusting a cover quote — and yet who else would you ask but a friend? For me, that's the great conundrum.

    I never provide a blurb unless I can think of something truly unique and descriptive of the actual book to say. Otherwise, yeah, the cliche blurb is almost worse than no blurb at all.

    Zoe: Thanks for the kind words. I didn't ask any of the Murderati authors, past or present, because that seemed a bit incestuous. Believe me, you weren't singled out on that front. And as I've said above, I really don't know how heartfelt the blurbs are, though I'm inclined to trust them until I hear whispers they were simply phoning it in.

    Lisa: Blurbs as art, not artifice — boy, now there's a concept. If only. 🙂

    I find it fascinating everyone's convinced my blurbs are legit, even though no one (except the blurbites) has actually seen the book. I'm comforted by the confidence, I suppose, but as I said, I don't know if even I trust the blurbs, and I wrote the damn book. But I'm exceedingly grateful for every single one, just as I'm grateful for your kind words.

  16. Larry Gasper

    I gave up paying attention to blurbs years ago when I bought a first novel that a large number of best-selling authors had blurbed to high heaven. I read it expecting the second coming of Raymond Chandler and instead got a merely okay first novel. It wasn't the first time blurbs had let me down, but it was the last. Now I look for reviews from people I trust and spend more time reading the first few pages.(I'm backwards from a lot of people, I research books on-line then buy them in the store instead of the other way around.)

  17. David Corbett


    I can only imagine indie booksellers around the world wish every reader was like you.

    You bring up a great point — you actually can rely on your own sense of the book, the writing, the voice, the story, rather than rely on someone else's. What a concept! It's right there at your fingertips in ways it never was before, due to the Internet. You've inspired me, frankly.

  18. Johnny Shaw


    First off, congrats on the reissues and the new book. They look gorgeous.

    Second, thanks for reading Dove Season. I didn't know that you had and seeing a note in the comments made me smile. I'm a fanboy at heart. And knowing authors that I admire have read my work is still a strange experience.

    Which brings me to the issue of blurbs. For me, there was a whole different aspect of the blurbing process. When my first novel came out, I saw it as an opportunity to introduce myself to the crime writing community. I reached out to the authors that I respected, only contacting writers whose work I had read and admired. I had no idea how inclusive and supportive that community was at the time.

    While it's fun to see them on the book and probably has more impact with a first or second book than a tenth book, I don't put much stock in blurbs myself. Although my new novel is very masculine and I made it a point to try to get a female author to blurb it. Thanks, Hilary Davidson!

    To me, it's a big favor to ask someone to read my book for a blurb. So if I've asked an author, I'm not going to ask them again. Whether they read or blurbed the book. Once is the limit. Also, because I'm interested in expanding my friendships in the community. So I'll ask new strangers for a giant favor and see what happens. Or I might not even bother with the next one.

    As I'm a newbie, I've only been asked to blurb other people's books a few times, and so far I haven't. I've read the books, but I've decided to set a standard. I want to only blurb books that I think are great. It's a personal choice. Regardless of friendships, I'm not going to endorse something I'm not passionate about. So if you see my name on a blurb, I meant it.

  19. PD Martin

    Hi David. What great blurbs. Can't wait to read the book 🙂

    I've got a couple of students who might be interested in the online course, but are there activities that take place in real time? That is, would they end up having to be up and at their computers at 3am Aussie time?


  20. David Corbett


    Trusting me, not blurbing DOVE SEASON made me feel like a real shmuck once I finally got a chance to read it. Wonderful book.

    Boy, I wish I had your restraint. I'm an utter pest hitting up the same people for blurbs. No wonder no one responds to my emails.

    And I think your standards are right what they should be. Did I mention how I admire your restraint?

    Best of luck with the new one.

  21. Kristi Belcamino

    I'm not surprised that so many people raced to give you blurbs. You are one of the most generous writers I know so it makes sense that people want to give back to you. I'm so excited that your book is close to coming out. I've been waiting since you first mentioned it and can't wait to get my hands on it. Best to you!

  22. David Corbett


    No, the UCLA online course requires no "real time" classroom presence. You can work at your own pace and your own hours. I'll check in and respond to queries and homework every day, hoping to keep up, and will have some regularly scheduled "office hours" for thos who want to check in with me with questions and such. Feel free to give your students my email address if they have any specific questions.


    Thank you for the kind words, though I don't think I'm any more generous than people have been to me in this business. It's definitely a what-goes-around-comes-around kind of situation, and I've been treated very well. I'd be a lout if I didn't return the many favors.

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