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A blog wherein a literary agent will sometimes discuss his business, sometimes discuss the movies he sees, the tennis he watches, or the world around him. In which he will often wish he could say more, but will be obliged by business necessity and basic politeness and simple civility to hold his tongue. Rankings are done on a scale of one to five Slithy Toads, where a 0 is a complete waste of time, a 2 is a completely innocuous way to spend your time, and a 4 is intended as a geas compelling you to make the time.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Kirkus leaves the stage

So the news is announced today, not in any very exciting way so you can follow this link to Andy Wheeler's blog and other links from there (PW, NY Times etc. all have had little reports, Adweek was the first up maybe) that Kirkus Reviews is closing.

Kirkus was one of the major pre-publication review sources in the publishing trade for many years, along with Publishers Weekly, Library Journal and Booklist. Since it had a tendency to be snarky, a good review always made people very happy, a starred review exceptionally so, and a bad review could be ignored because after all weren't they all that way.

Even the Wikipedia page for Kirkus is terribly shallow, however, because nobody outside of the trade really cares. My recollection is that it had been family owned for many, many years. It was sold mostly to libraries and to publishers with very little circulation beyond. In a day when there were very few sources of broad coverage of books, it was a very important subscription for libraries to have. But then the internet comes along, and budgets for very expensive magazine subscriptions (for as little as Kirkus might pay for a review, they had to pay something and they reviewed many many books) tightened and the subscribers dwindle and it really is expensive. The family may have sold it several years ago to some other entrepeneur and I can't remember how it ended up in the hands of Nielsen. In recent years it tried to experiment with doing things like offering paid-for reviews but allegedly real reviews but still separate from the regular reviews for people who were self-publishing. I guess if I wanted to look for citations for some of these things I could update the Wiki page.

But bottom line is that it became more and more irrelevant, and while never a staunch supporter of sf/fantasy it became even less so in recent days. So as Andy Wheeler says, it's hard to get too upset that it's gone.

But here's why it's worth commenting upon. While not known to the general public it did have some resonance still in the trade and in libraries. There aren't many places like that, especially as newspaper reviews have become fewer and fewer. And you can certainly say of PW what one will say of Kirkus. All of these are under deep attack in the internet era, and none of them are crucial to anyone. But if we are left with none of them at all, if all we have are the dozens of internet review sites which are important to very few but without meaning to the world at large, it's going to become harder and harder to get a book known and heard about, to build buzz and get things to rise above the crowd. Even in its last days, telling people in-house that you have a good review from Kirkus does more than telling them it has a good review from [insert your favorite internet review site here].

And that's not a path I'm thrilled to be travelling.


Eric said...

Frankly, I don't know who Kirkus is, I've read books for the last 28 years of my life without knowing who they are. I consume at least one book a month (and have been reading Robert Jordan since I was 13!) Social Media makes it MUCH more easy to read a novel, it's much more about getting a great recommendation. Once I get introduced to an author I like, an referral from that author to another author means WAY more than a review site. Point in case, I hadn't read Brandon Sanderson, but once he got elected to write WoT I've bought and read most of his books and love his work. With a system like Amazon Kindle which charges $9.99 to a consumer (me) and 35% gets created to the author (self published) I would be more than happy to support recommendations of authors I enjoy - without the need for some completely blah (ie no relationship to me) generic review site.

Silent said...

I think what's forgotten in your post is me, the consumer. For me a book review is about customer service. Is book X worth spending not only my money on, but also is it worth my time.

According to your post it seems to me that the reviews were more important to the publishing industry or "in house" people. That means about as much to me as who was awarded Employee of the Month. It's kind of like a waitress that provides great service to the kitchen staff, but forgets about the patrons at her table. In short, they went out of business because they forgot who their customers were. When that happened they became obsolete, and their customers went elsewhere, and never came back.

And what about all the buzz that Kirkus provided? If the publishing industry truly needs a business like Kirkus to build buzz and sell books, then rest assured, the market place will provide one. If theres a dollar to be made then there will be someone who'll step up and provide the service. Except this time it will need to provide better service to it's customers

Unknown said...

A very thorough review, Mr. Bilmes. Thanks for the insight on all that.

All I'd ever understood about Kirkus was that they tended to insult books, so if they gave yours a good review, it was well-earned. But then I've always felt that was the case with most critics. In the end, I'm more concerned about knowing what kind of content a book has as opposed to what someone else thinks of it. After all, if I just went by the critical reviews, I'd never pick up any Dan Brown books, and he has actually written some good stuff.

Again, thanks for the insight.

Unknown said...

On the contrary, I think what's forgotten in the shift in reviewing is we, the authors. Kirkus reviews may have been famously tough, but I would prefer famously tough with a broad sense of context and novel structure to so many internet reviews, which tend to be maddeningly subjective. Comments such as "I wanted to like it, but I didn't" and "I think I wouldn't get along with that character in real life" tell us nothing about the work under discussion. Subjective taste is important, but so is the ability to explain, clearly and to a general audience, what a book's real strengths and weaknesses are, and whether it is worth including in a library.