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Kirkus Reviews, the publication that booksellers, librarians, and mainstream reviewers used to determine what’s worth selling, buying, and reviewing again, is dead. In its obituary for the esteemed publication, the New York Observer points out that it wasn’t so esteemed at the time of its closing. In fact, some in the publishing industry downright loathed Kirkus for its codgerish tone and predilection for bad reviews.
But other people were really unhappy to see the mag go under. Who they are and why they care, after the jump.
If you guessed other book reviewers, congratulations! You win absolutely nothing, because this was the obvious answer.
Here’s Chip McGrath, a former editor of the New York Times Book Review, in that Observer article:
“I think people relied on it a lot….It was an early warning system. … 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?”
Seeing as the people reading the New York Times Book Review probably weren’t also reading trade pubs like Kirkus (or Editor & Publisher, which also closed), who was? People like McGrath. With Kirkus, critics reviewing books for a general audience knew what was worth reading (and thus reviewing in long purply prose), and what wasn’t. The last bit of value that Kirkus held, then, was as a source of information and income for other professional book reviewers.
Let’s meditate on the lunacy of this for a minute: Imagine that there was a magazine that reviewed telephones in 300 words, and its sole job was to tell other magazines that reviewed telephones which telephones were worth reviewing in 800 words.
The problem, as others in the Observer article point out, is that the Web is peopled with shit-talkers, and most of them do for free what Kirkus charged money for (bad reviews). That’s not to say it wasn’t helpful to have people like Mark Athitakis and Jonathan Taylor doing a cursory—and professional—sorting of the wheat and the chaff (the two have written about their respective experiences reviewing for Kirkus here and here), but that, as the closing of Kirkus demonstrates, nobody is willing to pay for the “service” of negative reviews if it’s going to hurt their ability to sell books.
The publication did serve some good for readers. Even though online booksellers like Amazon have such a wide reach that there’s probably a customer for every book, even the terrible ones, Kirkus was a check against the site’s near-unregulated comment policy. There is simply no way to know why someone gives a book a low rating on Amazon; sometimes the customer reviews are thoughtful, sometimes they’re trash, but there’s no getting around the fact that ulterior motivations can wildly alter a product’s rating, and there’s no way to discern what those motives are. (Caveat: Those same motives sometimes appear in edited publications like WaPo’s Book World, but when they do, there’s often a clarification.)
What might the future hold?
Music sites that are winning online are winning because the people who run them are writing—for the most part—about music that they like and that their readers like (and yes, some of them are getting bashed by the dinos for their niche stations, but whatever the fuck ever). Brooklyn Vegan isn’t obligated to review Some Orchestra’s umpteenth Stravinsky arrangement, Arts Desk isn’t obligated to review Toby Keith’s new album. We can, and sometimes do, review stuff we don’t like, but it’s not the same type of gate-keeping that Kirkus did for books. In other words, no one is not reviewing an album because we said it wasn’t worth the effort. In fact, I’d argue no one in the music-writing world gets paid for that service.
And let’s face it: Unless there are high hopes for a book and it somehow fails, (or, in the case of Dan Brown, is so wildly popular that not to review it is to appear out of touch with what the country is reading), most outlets only review stuff that their reviewers like. Without the dinos patrolling the gates, we’re going to see more of Eliot van Buskirk’s “reviewer as DJ” principle at work, which means more positive reviews of fewer books, fewer negative reviews of anything.