What Kirkus closing means for the average reader

You might have already seen today’s big publishing news: Kirkus Reviews is closing, according to Publishers Weekly and the ever-informative A Fuse #8. Kirkus, which has been publishing book reviews since 1933, is a print review journal mainly used by librarians and booksellers when they make their purchasing decisions. While other review journals like School Library Journal only come out monthly, Kirkus is (well, was) published every other week, so it reviewed a great many published books, and gained something of a reputation for Telling It Like It Is.

This is sad news, and not just for people who work in the book industry. The fact is, when a major review journal like this closes, everybody’s reading is affected.  For the average reader–i.e., someone who walks into a bookstore or a library looking for a book–sometimes it’s hard to remember that the books in front of us have already gone through rounds and rounds of culling/gatekeeping/decisions, and every book that ends up on the shelf is taking the place of several others that never make it.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There are lots of books published every year, and there’s a finite amount of space, readers, and attention. But every time a review journal closes, the pool of people making those gatekeeping decisions gets smaller, and which books are bought and which are passed over rests on the power of fewer opinions.

Maybe I’m being a little doom-and-gloom here. What about blogs, you say? Aren’t they making the review process more democratic, because anybody can review a book? That’s true, but even so there’s still another downside to Kirkus closing. Kirkus reviews a lot of books, not all of them by big publishers with big marketing budgets. A review in Kirkus might be nearly the only publicity that some books get, and the only way for a large number of librarians and booksellers to find them. Without Kirkus and other review journals you’d still have bloggers, but you’d have to send a lot more books out to reach the same number of readers. At least right now. Getting rid of print review journals won’t make much of a difference for, say, Twilight. But it will make the small books by debut authors and independent publishers harder to find–and, consequently, harder to make.

That’s why when a review journal like Kirkus goes down, it affects not only librarians and booksellers but anybody who cares about books. Kirkus may have made some enemies in their 76 years of brutally honest reviewing, but we’ll miss them!

EDIT: Kirkus was bought and didn’t close after all!

4 thoughts on “What Kirkus closing means for the average reader”

  1. A drawback to blog reviews is that people who do them often refuse to do “negative” reviews. Kirkus didn’t have that hang up and had a lot of credibility for intellectual honesty as a result. You knew that if KR praised a book, it was probably really good.

  2. So, let me see if I understand correctly. You’re bemoaning the fact that people may actually have the opportunity to decide for themselves which books are worth reading instead of having several layers of other people dictate what they SHOULD read?

    News flash: the only people who will care that Kirkus is gone is the staff and those in the publishing industry who used the reviews it contained as a time saver. The only impact the major review journals have on general readers is the narrowing of what they are likely to find available in those libraries and bookstores because of previous winnowing out of the “undesirables.”

    1. Elizabeth, I disagree. How do people pick which books are worth reading for themselves? They start with the selection at their local bookstore, which is influenced by the review journals. They start with the selection at their local library, which is influenced by the review journals. They start online, at blogs or Amazon… and how do blogs get books? From publishers, or because they read about them on other blogs… or because they found them at their local bookstore or library. And a good bookstore or library knows the needs of its customers and patrons, and bears that in mind when choosing which books to order. With fewer review sources, they have less information on which to base those decisions. And the need to make those decisions; no physical store or library has room for every new book. And yes, Amazon does; but how many books get space on the front page? Or in the “people interested in this item also liked…” sections? Not very many.

      Reviews aren’t about dictating or narrowing the field, they’re about helping the really excellent books rise to the top of the stack.

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