Friday, February 11, 2005

The Denver Post
book beat

Paid reviews bound to hurt Kirkus' reputation
By David Milofsky
Special to The Denver Post

Sunday, February 06, 2005 - The news that Kirkus Reviews, one of the oldest and most distinguished review outlets, has decided to take payments from publishers in return for reviews in a new online service known as Kirkus Discoveries has generated a predictable uproar in the publishing industry. Publishers or authors who want their books to be noticed will pay Kirkus $350 for a review or $95 for a selected lifestyle title in a listing.

It’s a little like hearing that Consumer Reports has begun taking money from manufacturers for reporting on their tires, refrigerators and microwaves.

Founded in 1933 by Virginia Kirkus, a children’s books publisher, as a private service for bookstores, Kirkus now serves as a resource for libraries and journalists. In the beginning, Virginia Kirkus mailed a bimonthly review to subscribers and reviewed all the books herself, sometimes as many as 700 a year. She was rumored to be accurate in her predictions 85 percent of the time, though “accurate” in this case probably referred largely to commercial popularity. She was also legendary for her ability to pick “sleepers” among the books that cascaded across her desk, a talent of special value to smaller booksellers with limited purchasing budgets.

In later years, the anonymous Kirkus reviewers who became known for their high (some would say unfair) standards, established Kirkus as the gold standard among review services that provide advance information on books. Although Kirkus’ circulation of 3,000 is dwarfed by competitors like Publishers Weekly and Library Journal, which also publish reviews in advance of publication, Kirkus does not accept advertising in its print version and its reviews are generally considered to be more influential. Perhaps because of its reputation for being tough, a Kirkus review can have a disproportionate influence if the reviewer likes a book. Sally Kramer of the Cincinnati Public Library, for example, was quoted recently as saying if a book got a favorable review in Kirkus, “We’re very likely to purchase it just because of that.”

All of which makes the idea of Kirkus offering reviews for sale more egregious to traditionalists. Kirkus executives, predictably, are spinning their new venture as an opportunity. "Kirkus Discoveries," they say, "is a paid review service that allows authors and publishers of overlooked titles to receive authoritative careful assessment of their books."

Cynics might wonder how much authority $350 can buy these days, but Jerome Kramer, managing director of Kirkus' parent company is untroubled by this. "We want to see Kirkus become more visible across the board, and we want to serve a wider spectrum of the publishing community," Kramer says.

No argument there, but the wider spectrum in this case likely will not include small press or university publishers, but rather those with pockets deep enough to pay for what amounts to advertisements masquerading as reviews.

Even more troubling: Kirkus apparently will withhold negative commissioned reviews at the publisher's request. While not acknowledging directly that this would be the case, Kramer says, "If someone is desperately unhappy with the review and wanted it to be removed from, I imagine we would do that."

In a way, it makes sense. After all, if the publisher is paying for the review, why shouldn't they be satisfied with it? And writers who've complained for years about Kirkus' reputation as the killer among reviewers will receive only sweetheart notices in the future, as long as they pay for the privilege.

To be fair, the commissioned reviews will run only online, and Kirkus still will publish its print version free of advertisements. But the distinction between the two outlets is likely to escape many readers. It's fine to say that Kirkus' well-earned reputation for toughness and objectivity will survive in the magazine, but in matters like this, one fears a slippery slope.

Of course Kirkus is not alone in its concern for the bottom line. Publisher's Weekly, which enjoyed a virtual monopoly in the book business for decades, recently fired its longtime editor in the wake of a 10 percent drop in circulation. According to The New York Times, PW, which also was known for running no-nonsense anonymous reviews of most significant books, now plans to run feature articles and become more of a general service magazine.

While there are many possible explanations for PW's drop in readership, including a shrinking market and the conglomeratization of publishing, it's obvious more readers are looking to the Internet as a more immediate alternative to magazines for information about books. Publisher's Marketplace, for example, reports receiving 25,000 hits a day on its website and as noted in this space last month, new literary weblogs are appearing daily and demonstrate energy and growing sophistication about publishing.

Sara Nelson, PW's new editor, naturally disagrees with this interpretation. "I do think there is a good size civilian population that is fascinated by books and the book business," she says. "Find a group of three people, and two of them want to be writers or have a book idea. Everyone I know belongs to a book club."

Membership in a book club or the desire to write a novel does not necessarily translate into a fascination with the ins and outs of publishing. At least one alternative explanation would be that the literary audience has become less passive and more active, that people, especially young people perhaps, are more interested in joining the literary conversation than in watching or reading about famous authors or big book deals in New York or Los Angeles.

Yet even those who might regret PW's descent into mainstream publishing would agree that it's a stretch to compare that with Kirkus selling review space. Traditionally, reviewers have received a token payment for their work and sometimes, but not always, the book. What's going on at Kirkus is plainly a radical departure and not just because the publication's integrity is being compromised.

As a former Kirkus reviewer, I can only say it's deeply disappointing to hear rationalizations from a corporate spokesman of a practice that seems not only wrong but plainly unethical. Readers of reviews have certain rights, including the right to open the review section with the expectation of an honest, unbiased judgment, whether they agree with the reviewer's opinion or not.

David Milofsky is a novelist and professor of English at Colorado State University. - Book Beat

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