Friday, December 11, 2009

The Value of Prepub Reviews, or Why We're Going to Miss Kirkus

There was some wailing, and some gloating, at the news announced today that Nielsen, parent company of Kirkus Reviews, was closing the publication. Kirkus was one of the four sources of "advance," or prepublication, book reviews (along with Library Journal, Booklist, and Publishers Weekly). Those who gloated, like ICM agent Esther Newberg, noted that Kirkus was the prepub review most likely to be negative: in fact it was often kind and sometimes effusive, but it's true that the other three prepubs were less willing to slam a book.

Ironically, consumers at large often think that Kirkus or its kin are puff machines, simply because the only time the "reader in the street" sees a quote from Kirkus or PW, it's on a book jacket. All the prepubs are capable of a stern critique, but of course when Kirkus says a novel is "jejeune" or your bio is "boring," you don't see that on the back cover.

The truth is, it's precisely because they are sometimes negative that the prepubs have value. With thousands of titles being published every year, book editors, news producers, movie scouts--anyone trying to make sense of the tsunami of books--are desperate for anything that can help them weed through it.  Chip McGrath of the New York Times said, almost plaintively,
"At the very time that we're inundated with stuff, that's the moment when you also need some gatekeepers, tastemakers, guides. Not that any of these are foolproof, but without them, it's just sort of chaos. How do you get your head around it at all?" Booksellers and others commenting on the web and Twitter today had similar sentiments.

The former managing director of Kirkus wonders "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."

It seems to me that is exactly the point. Because there is such a cacophony of voices out there, where it could be the author's "sister's friend" touting a book, we need more services like Kirkus, not fewer. Especially because so many other trusted venues, such as newspaper and magazine book reviews, have also disappeared. I published a book--an excellent one, if I say so myself--this year that received only one single review. Yes, it was from Kirkus.

I'm honestly a bit surprised that, in this age of information overload, a viable business model can't be found for a service that provides quick, pithy, trusted reviews of forthcoming books. We keep hearing that the skill of "curation" and "filtering" is what is most in demand in a limitless marketplace. That's what the prepubs do. Kirkus may have been idiosyncratic or even unkind from time to time, but how is that different from any other reviewer?

I suspect that even those who have shed no tears for Kirkus Reviews may find they miss it when it's gone.

(Illustration: Hokusai, The Great Wave of Kanagawa)