Kirkus Reviews is a publisher that has become synonymous with the gold standard of book review. But, in spite of its name, it doesn’t just do book reviews! It is actually a literary magazine headquartered in New York City that has been going since 1933, publishing not only book reviews, but also interviews, articles, and author, reader, and industry perspectives. Why is it so revered? Well, it is a big player. Massive. In fact, it is the global industry leader of book reviews. A glowing Kirkus book review can do wonders for your book – if you are graced with a good one, which, as I’ll explain, can be hard to come by.
Why are Kirkus reviews so popular?
They are popular because they are in high demand, prestigious, and rare. While notoriously unbiased, Kirkus reviews can also be notoriously harsh, so earning a positive review can be quite the feat for any author. If you get a really negative review (which I would expect that you would disagree with, otherwise you would never have submitted for review in the first place), you do have the option to hide it so that your author reputation isn’t publicly tarnished. In short, authors are desperate to have Kirkus review their books in a positive light, and with good reason. A glowing Kirkus review means that you’ve “made it” in the book review world.
What’s the catch?
I bet the question you’re screaming at me is: “Why on Earth would I put my book up for such forensic examination, dissection, and potential ridicule?” This is where things get even more spicy: good reviews aren’t traditionally earned. You (or your publisher) have to pay for the privilege. Yes, you read that correctly. Not only are Kirkus reviews prestigious, they are pricey. For a substantial fee, a professional reviewer will read your book and respond with a short, notoriously “impartial” review.
And now, for the tough to stomach bit: it costs $425 for a review in 7-9 weeks, or $575 for an expedited turnaround of 4-6 weeks. For that, you get a review of between 250 and 300 words, without any guarantee it will be positive. To put that in context, 250 to 300 words is nothing. It’s a paragraph. An email, at most. A dent in your work in progress. When it comes to bang for your buck, it’s not exactly what you’d call cheap, especially for struggling writers who may not have got the largest – or any – advance.
How is the review structured?
Kirkus reviews tend to be pretty heavy on the plot, and light on the analysis. Typically, the reviews start with a logline, followed by a paragraph of plot description (this happens, then this, then this), concluding in a one- or two-line verdict that summarizes the reviewer’s key takeaways from the book. This plot-heavy copy is not so much of a review, as a synopsis. And here’s the galling bit: reviews do not always fill up the 300 words; sometimes, they can be much shorter. Like, a sentence or two. For $425! Value for money? Perhaps not. But when you consider the fact that they are invariably written to be quoted, offering bites that can be extracted for book jackets – “A jolt for thriller junkies”, “Stunning”, “Unputdownable”, “A tour de force” and so on – perhaps word count doesn’t matter so much. Perhaps that single line, or word, can propel your book into the stratosphere. Suddenly, it doesn’t seem all that expensive after all.
What is a starred review?
Kirkus stars are like diamonds: extremely rare. A starred review is the top of the top, a prestigious, Holy Grail that highlights books of “exceptional merit”. A starred review represents outstanding writing. Books that gain a starred review are automatically eligible for the annual $50,000 Kirkus Prize. Suddenly, that $425 is not looking so bad, right? If you are lucky enough to be awarded with a starred review, it’s time to pop open the champagne: you’ve made it.
What’s the benefit of Kirkus reviews?
Kirkus is a credible, industry-renowned resource among authors, publishers, the media, libraries, booksellers, and readers. It is a trusted measure around the world. Its scale is huge, with over a million page views of its website every month, and a steady churn of titles reviewed by its army of reviewers, with a staggering 10,000 or more titles reviewed every year. Once your review is published on their website, it will also be considered for publication in the magazine Kirkus Reviews, and in the Kirkus newsletter, which goes out to thousands of readers. It affords you recognition from a household name. And, crucially, the quotable bit of it can serve as a book blurb – in particular if you are struggling to find big name authors to blurb your book. Kirkus can be that big name for you. It is undeniably a neat marketing tool, and can be used to promote your book on your author website, social media, on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, via a press release, splashed all over your book cover… the list goes on and on.
What does a Kirkus review not do?
Sell your book. While it can absolutely help with your promotion efforts, you still have to actively market it. And in no way does Kirkus promise to do anything active for you. Once it is up on their website, it’s up! You can’t just expect people to find your (hopefully positive) book review on the Kirkus website; you have to actively drive people to your page.
It also does not guarantee you a positive review. While the feeling of receiving praise is unbeatable, you could spend all that money only to be met with unusable criticism, which, by its nature, is subjective.
In short, a Kirkus Review is not a magic bullet for success. Yes, it’s very nice. Yes, it can act as a neat marketing tool. But it won’t make your book a better book, nor will it (necessarily) shift units, not will it increase your readership. Only you can control that. Kirkus reviews are important, but you, the author, are the most important player. If you don’t get a positive one? Meh. It’s not the end of the world. There are still plenty of things within your control that can guarantee that your book will be a success, not least: writing a brilliant book.