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.
[…] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Matthew Battles, DRSCB. DRSCB said: Kirkus closes, author yawns http://bit.ly/75q0k6 […]
Sounds to me like word of mouth is not such a bad thing. I heard about The Well Trained Mind and The Story of the World from friends and am ever thankful. I tell everyone who asks me what we use. I just hope TWTM helps them as much as it has helped our family.
I guess your attitude is the correct one if you think the only purpose of reviews is to sell books, but a lot of people probably disagree.
Er, Richard….what other purpose did Kirkus serve? These weren’t “review essays,” a form which is thought provoking, goes beyond the simple review, and also happens to be thriving online. These were capsule reviews: worth reading/not worth reading. If a book is judged worth reading, in a capsule review, you buy it. Or you borrow it from the library, in which case the library buys it. SOMEONE buys it. There’s a reason Kirkus was called an “industry” publication.
I was thinking the same thing at the end…the guy is using Twitter to complain about the situation?! Pretty funny.
I went through a stack of School and Library Journal a few weeks ago and found that there were few books of interest that I hadn’t already heard of elsewhere. In fact I found that in several cases I’d read better reviews in homeschool catalogs than in the snippets in the journal.
I think that it isn’t just that what is in a reviewing publication isn’t of that much interest to me but that the nature of magazine publishing makes much of it time late.
There is also quite a disconnect between the priorities of the industry as represented by S&LJ and my own priorities. One issue was agonizing over an award to author Orson Scott Card for lifetime science fiction writing because of his views on certain lifestyle choices.
I’m all for word of mouth — word of mouth is terrific — but it sounds like the only reason you’re fine with Kirkus folding is because it never reviewed you and you’re still bitter about it? Who else didn’t review you? Maybe we can wish for those venues to fold as well. (And why can’t someone be a proponent of traditional media AND use Twitter? Why the either/or fallacy? I realize you’re pointing it out because you think it’s ironic, but is it really ironic? I mean, really?)
You’ve completely missed the point.
“Kirkus, to me, was alway irrelevant.
So far as I can tell, my books sell almost entirely by word of mouth. For years Iâ€™ve been flying under the book-review radar.
The Art of the Public Grovel got far more attention from traditional media than anything Iâ€™ve ever done.
…but compare its Amazon.com ranking with The History of the Ancient World …or The Well Trained Mind and youâ€™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.” – SWB
Very interesting – what a huge difference!! And way to go on those amazon rankings for books-that-haven’t-been-widely-or-ever-been-reviewed-by-industry-publications! 😀
That revamped Virginia chicken shed sure is coming in handy (that comment had me howling with laughter). 😀
Word of mouth works – I talked a total stranger in Chapters bookstore into buying TWTM a couple of years ago – it didn’t take much effort after I explained the book – she marched over and bought it.
I guess I don’t understand the value of “the rare independent voice” over other ways to be exposed to new titles. If we are talking about Joe and Jane Book Reader, not the bookshop owners and catalog sellers, why would Kirkus be more valuable than a friend’s recommendation? And heaven forbid being able to sort through blogging hyperbole to figure out what book I want to buy.
And, wow….John. Kind of harsh, don’t you think?