In book-publishing news this week: Kirkus Reviews is closing up shop.
If you’re not in the book business, you’ve probably never seen Kirkus. It’s one of the industry publications (like Publishers Weekly and Library Journal) that reviews books before the release date for the benefit of booksellers and librarians.
This is generally being seen as a sign of the shift from print publication to online publication, and from expert review to reader review. Kirkus, says the Washington Post, is the latest casualty of “the Internet and user-generated content”:
Kirkus and other print-based book-review products were once the only places to turn for book reviews. In the past decade, however, online user-generated reviews have proliferated on Web sites including Amazon.com, where book buyers are increasingly seeking out the crowd’s wisdom over a single reviewer’s recommendations.
The reaction to this is probably best summed up by the Seattle Public Library’s Shelf Talk:
Today it was announced that KIRKUS Reviews will be closing its doors, to the dismay of librarians (and the secret delight of authors) around the world.
I feel for the librarians, who have one less central place to go for succinct should-we-buy-this-or-not reviews. But as an author, I’m less than devastated. Not because Kirkus was known for snarkiness (although it was), but because Kirkus, to me, was alway irrelevant.
So far as I can tell, my books sell almost entirely by word of mouth. For years I’ve been flying under the book-review radar. I’ve published three (soon to be four) major titles with W. W. Norton, one with Princeton University Press, a handful with other publishers, and to my knowledge Kirkus has never reviewed a single book of mine. I’ve done a little better with Library Journal (which has reviewed four of my titles) and Publishers Weekly (two), but I’m not one of those authors who gets marquee treatment.
Which used to bother me tremendously, and still annoys me some. (How do those newbies get splashed all across review pages with their first book? Particularly when the first book doesn’t sell all that many copies? I see it all the time and it just plain puzzles me.)
But it annoys me a little less now. My book The Art of the Public Grovel got far more attention from traditional media than anything I’ve ever done. Kirkus and PW didn’t review it (sigh), but Library Journal did, and it got splashed across a whole range of print publications: Washington Post, the Chronicle Review, Harpers, Financial Times.
Guess how many copies it sold?
OK, I’m not actually going to tell you, and it sold a respectable number of copies, but compare its Amazon.com ranking with The History of the Ancient World (which was very efficiently ignored by almost every reviewer in the traditional media, bar PW and LJ) or The Well Trained Mind and you’ll see the difference. Even more telling, compare it with the Story of the World, which never got reviewed anywhere by any industry publication because I published it myself. I find it hard to get too worked up about the closure of a publication which seems to have less and less to do with how books are actually sold.
Traditional media types disagree. Ron Charles, of the Washington Post, tweeted, “Everytime we lose a rare independent voice we grow more dependent on publicists, authors’ friends clogging blogs w/praise.”
That’s called “word of mouth,” Ron. Get used to it. (Hey, didn’t you just TWEET that?) Without word of mouth, the books I labor away on in my Virginia chicken shed, far away from the media centers of buzz and power, would be entirely invisible.