Editorial by Jerome Kramer
So that’s it for Kirkus Reviews, huh? Is this really necessary? Or a good idea?
Seventy-six years after Virginia Kirkus launched her ground-breaking advance-review publication with the mission of letting booksellers and libraries know which upcoming titles should be added to their collections, its conglomerate owner, Nielsen Business Media, is ceasing operations of the brand. Kirkus appears (probably) to be done for, along with one of its sister titles, also linked to the dusty analog days of printed words on sheets of paper, Editor & Publisher. Business Media sold off a raft of sexier, presumably more valuable titles like AdWeek and The Hollywood Reporter to e5 Global Media Holdings, but the group apparently wasn’t interested in the grande dame of review pubs.
So it’s so long, pithy, anonymous reviews! No more “Starred Kirkus” for you, first-time author! And no more confounding attack on you, hard-working midlister. Here’s the thing, though: Is this another harbinger of the coming demise of “Publishing as We Know It?” Or is it, rather, roadkill on the media highway?
For several years, as managing director of then-owner VNU’s U.S. Literary Group, I oversaw Kirkus as well as its spinoffs: Kirkus Discoveries, a paid-review service; Kirkus Reports, sponsored emails covering several different genres; and Kirkus Specials, category-specific inserts that introduced advertising into the magazine 72 years after its inception. 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 what does Kirkus’s termination mean, if in fact an almost-rumored, hoped-for, eleventh-hour rescue can’t be effected? (The title’s UK-based higher-ups have said in the past they wouldn’t let Kirkus die, but severance packages are apparently sitting on HR desks awaiting distribution.)
It’s not like the demise is entirely unpredictable. In fact, one might say the surprise is that the boutique survived as long as it did as a holding in a series of hungry, growth-insistent conglomerates. Just imagine a trigger-happy exec holding the balance sheet of a Nielsen rating service company next to the significantly thinner, lighter one for Kirkus: “Where the hell are the other zeroes?” And yet, by my quick estimate, (which could very well be wildly wrong), Kirkus and its spin-offs are probably generating a decent little bit of revenue for its owners, in cash terms if not in comparative ones. And that’s why the problem that led to yesterday’s announcement probably does lie somewhere in the comparatively modest return on the company’s investment, and in the unlikely chance of major growth at the brand year to year.
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.
Jerome Kramer, an independent publishing consultant, is developing the Museum of American Literature.
CONTACT: Jerome Kramer directly.
BONUS: Are prepub reviews irrelevant?