to blurb or not to blurb?

Have you ever been asked to write a blurb for a new poetry book or read one that turned you off? Here’s some light-hearted advice from Scottish poet Helena Nelson.

“Pile of Poetry” by Nichola Martin.
by Helena Nelson

This book is not bad.
A number of these poems feature the poet’s dog: George.
The author’s mother recommends this book.
Boris Johnson recommends this book.
Most of the poems are quite short.
Poetry is not for everybody.
These poems are accessible if reasonable adjustments are made.
Many of these poems were written while dusting.
The poet applied three times for funding to assist in the completion
of this book.
Please buy this book.
The poems in this book have universal resonance some of the time.
Includes five villanelles and three sestinas.
There is a glossary of difficult words for readers new to poetry.
The poet skillfully employs seven types of metonymy.
The main theme is death.

~ from Down with Poetry! (Glenrothes: HappenStance, 2016)


Blurbing new poetry books is a tricky business. Your task is to help sell the book, but how do you do justice to it without sounding too cliché or over the top?

I always read the blurbs on the back covers of new single poet collections and sometimes find them pretentious, intimidating, even unbelievable. I sometimes run away screaming. And I’m someone who actually likes poetry.

At the Scottish Poetry Library, Nelson said this about her poem:

In Issue 25 of The Dark Horse (2011), there was an article called ‘The Blurbonic Plague’ by the late, lamented Dennis O’Driscoll. It was about the awfulness of much of the text on back jackets of new poetry books. This struck a chord close to my heart, and also gave me the courage to form a deliberate policy for HappenStance Press, which ever since has been officially ‘anti-blurb’. When I issue books and pamphlets, the text on the back cover never includes words like ‘new and exciting’, and I don’t commission blurbs or, worse still, get poets to write their own. But then what do you write? The truth? Frequently that won’t do either. It’s easier to say what not to write, and have some fun with that. So I made a list, some of which turned into this poem.

I thoroughly enjoyed her list and her wry humor (some of the suggestions could also apply to things one should not include in a manuscript submission cover letter).

Truly, what could be more enticing (esp. to a potential non-poet reader) than a platter full of shop talk? We all eat metonymy, synecdoche, asyndeton and caesura for breakfast, right? 🙂

And they say poetry is a hard sell . . .

Actually, I think Nelson is definitely onto something with her “anti-blurb” stance. If a blurb can make you laugh, wouldn’t you be more apt to buy the book? Hold the mega hype, please.

Here is Nelson reciting the poem:

How do you feel about book blurbs? How seriously do you take them?


Helena Nelson (Nell Nelson) is the originator and editor of HappenStance Press as well as a poet in her own right. Her first Rialto collection Starlight on Water was a Jerwood/Aldeburgh First Collection winner. Her second was Plot and Counterplot from Shoestring Press. She also writes and publishes light verse – Down With Poetry! (HappenStance, 2016) and Branded (Red Squirrel Press, 2019). In 2016, she published a HappenStance best seller: How (Not) to Get Your Poetry Published, a book that collects the insights and useful ideas she has gathered over the last twelve years in poetry publishing.

She reviews widely, writes a publisher’s blog regularly, and also curates the pamphlet review site Sphinx Review.


The lovely and talented Tanita S. Davis is hosting the Roundup at {fiction, instead of lies}. Waltz on over to check out the full menu of poetic goodness being shared around the blogosphere this week. Happy March!

*Copyright © 2023 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.

32 thoughts on “to blurb or not to blurb?

  1. Poetry is definitely a hard sell. I remember once buying a poetry book for a friend. She is very kind, but I could tell by her expression that she didn’t, as they used to say in the dark ages, “dig it”! I agree that blurbs don’t sell it, but how about a beautiful cover? I am ashamed to say, that I often judge a book by its cover! Have a nice weekend, everyone!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Covers are very important marketing tools!! I admit to passing on certain books because the covers are just so-so. After all, there are so many books clamoring for our attention. With the case of poetry, both covers and blurbs have an especially challenging job of convincing reluctant readers. It doesn’t happen with children’s books, but with adult poetry I often find the blurbs too “lofty.” My intent with sharing poetry here has always been to feature that which is accessible and unintimidating to win more converts. 🙂


  2. So many thanks for sharing Helena’s sense of humor! I’m annoyed by all blurbs, frankly. Especially when the book doesn’t live up to the blurb! And yet one of my most treasured authordom memories is the blurb Richard Peck gave for my first novel for kids Leaving Gee’s Bend. It was so validating! Did it help sell books? I don’t know. But it sure has meant a lot to me to share my first children’s book cover with Richard Peck. xo

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree; it’s frustrating when the book doesn’t live up to the blurb hype. So very cool to have a Richard Peck blurb for your first children’s book!! How many authors can claim that? 🙂


  3. I’ve never been asked to blurb poetry – fortunately – and have found it difficult enough to blurb prose. Especially in children’s lit I don’t think they’re a necessity, and I think the author letter that Katherine Tegen Books and other publishers include with advanced readers copies ought to replace book blurbs altogether. Because they are motivated from a sincere desire from one person to speak well of another, I will read blurbs. But I don’t let them sway me. (Although if one counted BoJo amongst those enthused about their publication, I might be the tiniest bit inclined to gently set that book down and Back Away…)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. LOL. Poor Boris. I agree they’re not really necessary for children’s books. I’ve only done a few blurbs here and there, and they’re not easy. How honest can one be if you know the purpose of being asked in the first place is to say something positive (even if you didn’t really love the book)?


  4. You mean “includes five villanelles and three sestinas” is not a selling point? Guess I’d better read How (Not) To Get Your Poetry Published. Thanks for the fun post!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Well, Jama, I’m new to even reading and writing poetry and have no experience publishing poetry, so I have never given this idea a thought. Helena’s list made me laugh. “Many of these poems were written while dusting.”

    I just bought some poetry books at the library book sale, so I just went to read the blurbs, and they may have broken some of her rules!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Blurbs can be fascinating to read actually. I’m often impressed by the ones that are written so eloquently (and poetic in themselves) — whether or not they accurately describe the book itself is a matter of opinion. Maybe it’s just envy on my part.


  6. Just for fun, I pulled BRAIDED CREEK off the shelf beside my desk. (It’s next up for daily reading after I finish POETRY UNBOUND, which has multiple “celebrity” blurbs.) The last sentence reads, “This book is an assertion in favor of poetry and against credentials.” It was not a selling point at my point of purchase, but I rather like the boldness.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Oh, my gosh…I’m laughing at that blurb. How refreshing. How wonderful. This is a poet and publisher I want to get to know. Wry humor? I am there! Thank you, Jama. You always bring something I didn’t know I needed to Poetry Friday–especially this week.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Do take a look at the HappenStance Press site. I like discovering new-to-me poets. I’m currently making my way through (and savoring) Nell’s book, How (Not) to Get Your Poetry Published. 🙂


  8. Ha, I love this! It’s sometimes hard to not be cynical about blurbs (and other things) in the book biz, especially after one learns what a bit of logrolling blurbing is. My editor and I decided on no blurbs for my last two books. (One sold abysmally and one is selling pretty well, so no matter?) Like you, I do love a beautiful cover! Cover art can definitely sway me one way or another. Loved listening to Nelson recite this delightful poem!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Another gem of a post, Jama. The part of Nelson’s blurb that WOULD get me to fork over my money is:
    “A number of these poems feature the poet’s dog: George.”
    I’m a sucker for books that feature a dog.
    For me as a poet, a publisher, and a reader, brevity and humor are key to blurbs. Does that translate to sales? I don’t know, but I always gravitate to short and funny things…which brings me back to (my) dog! The circle of life. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

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