As was announced yesterday, Kirkus Reviews (and Editor & Publisher) is shutting down. Which kind of has people a bit worked up. It’s not every day that you see such a palpable sign of your industry’s troubles as when one of the few pure trade publications just ceases to be.
When I was at Dalkey, a Kirkus review was a time to bitch and moan about how reviewers never understood our books, and how irritating the phrase “not for everyone” really can be. Some of the meanest reviews I’ve read in my life came from Kirkus. Their anonymous reviewers could pile on a book like no one else. (Although miraculously, for whatever reason, they absolutely love Open Letter titles, giving us our first starred review, taking a look at all of our titles from the get go, etc.)
Along with Publishers Weekly and Library Journal, Kirkus has served as one of the most influential advance reviews around. Jerome Kramer does a great job summing this up and looking at some of the implications in his editorial for Publishing Perspectives:
I know the significant value Kirkus has in its brand equity, the decades of accumulated goodwill, or at least begrudging respect, for its often-accurate, frequently-prescient and sometimes perversely mean-spirited reviews. For decades, those reviews have been a critical piece of the tinder that publicists use to light a fire under a book—the real flame coming from the coverage in People or The New York Times or Oprah. The industry religion has held that those places, where coverage can actually move a lot of copies, look to the advance sources for guidance. [. . .]
So it may well be that the magazine’s end is entirely an unfortunate outcome of media company bean-counting. The intriguing question, though, is whether the industry still needs advance reviews the way it used to. Like it or not, they’re worth less every day in a world where everyone’s sister’s friend has a handle or a blog like Readermommy or Bookluvah (I tried to make up names that don’t exist, really I did, but it’s near impossible—sorry Readermommy and Bookluvah). The dynamics that used to drive book promotion and marketing have been radically altered over the past five to ten years, with the explosion of online equivalents to hand-selling and friend recommendations so incredibly prevalent all over the web. The decimation of conventional review outlets has been well documented and thoroughly lamented. But it may well be that the takeover of the real-estate formerly occupied by thoroughly-informed, well-read, smarty-pants professional reviewers by user-generated content and literary bloggers is inexorable.
The reality is that today’s generation of book marketers and publicists will figure out how to move ahead, with or without advance reviews, and the staffers at People and The New York Times and Oprah will have no shortage of sources coaxing them to this or that title. And yet, there remains the distinct sense that something will be missing, that some gap will be opened up. And what that means, of course, is an opportunity for someone to fill it. Good luck, someone.
Originally published in French in 2007, We’re Not Here to Disappear (On n’est pas là pour disparaître) won the Prix Wepler-Fondation La Poste and the Prix Pierre Simon Ethique et Réflexion. The work has been recently translated by Béatrice Mousli. . .
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