An Installment in the Saga of DRAWER NO MORE!
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I suspect I’m not the only one who has mixed feelings about Kirkus Reviews. Specifically, their practice of charging independent authors $425 for a “book review” of 400 words or less. Many have suggested that such services are not only overpriced but also pointless for the majority of authors whose readership couldn’t care less about endorsements (or lack thereof) from an 80-year-old magazine. But I write literary fiction, which means my readers tend to count themselves among the discerning crowd, rightly or wrongly, and here Kirkus enjoys a good deal of prestige.
Besides, I thought, Our Orbit is not only the culmination of many years’ work on my part. It really is a good novel! It deserves the attention of a professional. Kirkus states that their commentaries are thoughtfully penned by “librarians, business executives, journalists from national publications, PhDs in religion and literature…[and] other professional reviewers.”
What’s more, they followed me wherever I went! Not PhDs and professionals (unfortunately) but Kirkus Reviews. Their banner ads pop up at Salon.com, Poets & Writers, The NYT—every bookish site I frequent. You would almost think they were targeting me (lol—I know they were), claiming that they’d consider my book for some major award if only I bought a review. Long story just a bit shorter, I succumbed to seduction. Guess they somehow knew it’s been my lifelong dream to sell books beyond the circle of my personal acquaintance.
And surely a national-level review could only help.
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I knew that Kirkus is notorious for producing harsh reviews. But the “kill clause” put me at ease: If they panned my book, at least they offered the option of keeping it in the dark. So long as I opted not to quote any portion of the review on my website, back cover, or any public place, the review as a whole would remain unpublished forever. Of course, I would be down $425, but my book would not suffer. And since I felt confident that Our Orbit could withstand even a snarky reviewer, I chose to gamble.
So began the proverbial crap-shoot, like so many of the services on offer for writers today, which might or might not help sell a single book.
Some five weeks later, with quaking fingertips, I eagerly downloaded my very own review from Kirkus, the venerable authority. One minute later, dismay set in. That’s how long it took to read the 348 words my reviewer saw fit to devote to my novel. But wait! 89 of those were actually my words, quoted from my own book! Unnecessarily, it seemed to me: Quoted like a freshman English student dutifully includes a citation in a book report. So my review came in at just 263 original words. About a buck-80 per word.
What did they say, those precious bon mots?
Typically, for Kirkus, there was a 2-line plot summation, followed by a paragraph of more detailed plot summary. Perhaps readers look for this, but it wasn’t useful to me since I had, naturally, already created my own synopsis. Next came another brief paragraph, heavy on the above-mentioned quotations, giving yet more details on the characters
The review closed with one brief sentence—9 words—that might be worth quoting on my book cover or elsewhere. But in order to use those few words, I would have to agree for them to publish the entire review on their website, if they chose, as per the Kirkus policy.
And there’s the rub.
Because in that second paragraph detailing my characters, the reviewer decided to drop a major spoiler. If this were part of a serious discussion, I might decide the revelation was worthwhile. But instead, it was tossed off in passing, making no real point. To use any part of the review I paid for, I would have to consent to unknown numbers of potential readers encountering a spoiler that does nothing to enhance the commentary on my book.
Thanks for nothing, Kirkus!
To Kirkus or not to Kikus? Part 2
In fairness to Kirkus Reviews, I’ll readily admit that they have some fine employees. When I wrote to express my disappointment with the review I’d purchased of my novel, Our Orbit, I was surprised to encounter a very helpful young man. I assume he was young since he was working as a first-line responder to email inquiries like mine. I’ll call him Thad.
Among Thad’s helpful reminders was this: “Our reviews are required to meet a minimum word count of 250 words.” So at 348 words, my review was laden with gravy.
Point taken, Thad…although nearly 100 of those words were mine rather than the reviewer’s—quotations from Our Orbit padding the lukewarm remarks.
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Nonetheless, in spite of my jaundiced attitude, I was impressed when Thad stated that he would, “present your concerns to our editors.” After all, my primary complaint was that the review I’d bought so dearly contained a spoiler revealing a major plot point. I felt this made the whole thing unusable due to Kirkus’s policy requiring permission to publish the complete review if the buyer quotes so much as one phrase (which is, of course, the whole purpose in purchasing).
So I pricked up my ears when Thad suggested that senior editors might actually consider the issues I’d raised and offer some solution. Three weeks went by without further word. When I wrote again to ask Thad if I should expect a reply, his answer came the next day:
“The Indie Editors … have decided that we cannot alter the review. It is Kirkus Indie’s policy to only address those matters related to factual inaccuracies …
“Regarding the point about the [spoiler], very often our reviewers are not able to elaborate on each and every plot point found in a given work… However, they must inform a reader of certain points… We do understand your frustration and disappointment, but we have certain editorial guidelines that we follow.”
Do I detect a bit of circular reasoning? Kirkus reviewers cannot elaborate every plot point, but they must inform readers about certain points. And just because I withheld a plot twist until page 191, treating it as an elaborate family secret, that was apparently no reason for them to select some other point to elaborate for those demanding readers.
…Much ado about very little? Are spoilers such a serious thing?
Okay, okay. As friends have assured me, I’m making much ado about very little. Are spoilers such a serious thing? Goodreads.com accommodates spoiler alerts on reader reviews, but Amazon has discontinued that practice. Even if an author objects to revealing statements in a review, Amazon will do nothing to post an alert. (Guess how I know.)
Moreover, millions of people know how such books as To Kill A Mockingbird and The Great Gatsby turn out. Or Gone Girl or The Secret History or The Hunger Games. And that does nothing to keep new readers away. So, yes—I’m overreacting. I should be so lucky as to have fans clamoring over Our Orbit, discussing the plot twists and characters, accidentally spilling the beans about what happens on page 191.
Maybe I’ll go ahead and put that brief, mildly flattering, quote from my Kirkus review on the back cover of my book. Maybe I’ll even publish it here on my blog.
If Kirkus responds by putting up the full review, complete with spoiler, in some obscure corner of their website—so much the better. If one or two people stumble upon it and find the secret—don’t tell anybody, please?
And thank you, Thad, for making an effort to talk to those scrupulous “Indie Editors” on my behalf.
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In the end, I decided to both quote and publish my review in full. You can read it here along with a far more gratifying (and unpaid) commentary from The Midwest Book Review.
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