The noun blurb denotes a brief descriptive paragraph or note of the contents or character of a book, printed as a commendatory advertisement, on the jacket or wrapper of a newly published book.
This word was coined in 1907 by the American humorist and illustrator Gelett Burgess (1866-1951); for a limited edition of his book Are You a Bromide? sent to the guests of the annual dinner of the American Booksellers’ Association, he devised a jacket showing a pulchritudinous young lady whom he facetiously dubbed Miss Belinda Blurb. This illustration was a parody of the sort of women often featured on the covers of contemporary novels.
The earliest instance of blurb that I have found is from The New York Times (New York, N.Y.) of 16th May 1907, which gave an account of the dinner in question:
IT’S A “BLURB” NOW TO PUFF NEW BOOK
Gelett Burgess Coins Odd Term for the Booksellers’ Annual Dinner.
Bromides, sulphites, and those who live by the “blurb” to the number of 350 sat down to dinner last night at the Aldine Club, 111 Fifth Avenue. It was the annual dinner of the American Booksellers’ Association, and Gelett Burgess, author of “Are You a Bromide?” sent to every guest a copy of his work. Moreover, he had printed on the cover an example of the publisher’s puff, which he dignified by the name of “blurb.” This was it:
“Say! Ain’t this book a 90 horse power 6-cylinder seller? If we do say it as shouldn’t. We consider that this man Burgess has got Henry James locked into the coal bin telephoning for ‘Information.’”
In his speech he went further and defined a “blurb” as a “sound like a publisher,” and declared it was invented by the publisher who wrote across a copy of the magazine named after him, “I consider this number the best ever written.”
He added that it was not the literary editors of the world’s greatest newspapers who made the book, but the little girl with the pigtail braid and the box of caramels who looked over the pages to see how much conversation was in it.
“I’d rather go into the public library of an Iowa town,” he said, “and find written on my book, ‘This is a good book,’ than have it written up in the most famous journals. It’s the little girl who pays our royalties and your profits. And if she ever does grow up and finds life isn’t all Richard Harding Davis¹, and love isn’t all Robert Chambers², and death isn’t all Hall Caine³, we may perhaps hope for an American literature which would make even Shakespeare say,‘You give me “Measure for Measure.”’”
¹ Richard Harding Davis (1864-1916), American journalist and writer of fiction and drama
² Robert William Chambers (1865-1933), American artist and fiction writer
³ Thomas Henry Hall Caine (1853-1931), British novelist, dramatist, short story writer, poet and critic
jacket of Are You a Bromide?, by Gelett Burgess
(source: Library of Congress)
YES, this is a “BLURB”!
All the Other Publishers commit them. Why Shouldn’t We?
MISS BELINDA BLURB IN THE ACT OF BLURBING
ARE YOU A BROMIDE? BY GELETT BURGESS
Say! Ain’t this book a 90-H. P., six-cylinder Seller? If WE do say it as shouldn’t, WE consider that this man Burgess has got Henry James locked into the coal-bin, telephoning for “Information”
WE expect to sell 350 copies of this great, grand book. It has gush and go to it, it has that Certain Something which makes you want to crawl through thirty miles of dense tropical jungle and bite somebody in the neck. No hero no heroine, nothing like that for OURS, but when you’ve READ this masterpiece, you’ll know what a BOOK is, and you’ll sic [sic] it onto your mother-in-law, your dentist and the pale youth who dips hot-air into Little Marjorie until 4 Q.M. in the front parlour. This book has 42-carat THRILLS in it. It fairly BURBLES. Ask the man at the counter what HE thinks of it! He’s seen Janice Meredith faded to a mauve magenta. He’s seen BLURBS before, and he’s dead wise. He’ll say:
This Book is the Proud Purple Penultimate!!
HOW TO READ A BOOK
LIE on your back, on a table or smooth surface. Place your feet on the chandelier, then, holding the Book in one hand, look it over with the other. Begin at the Back, cursing the pictures gently. This should be done two or three times. Never buy a book when you can look it over and suck its blood from the bookstalls, or get it from the library. It is liable to make the Author and the Book-Seller too conceited and Affluent.