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ALLi Watchdog Giacomo Giammatteo provides a balanced and objective appraisal of Kirkus, the paid review service used by some indie authors who hope it will add credibility to their self-published books – but does it also bring sales?
While researching this post, I spoke to six authors on the phone and communicated with more than a dozen via email. In every case but one, the authors were happy with the review they received from Kirkus. One author paid for two reviews and felt the money was well spent.
The common ground for all authors was that each one felt the Kirkus review lent credibility, and every author I spoke to used the blurb in their marketing. One author even credited Kirkus with being responsible for a film option on his book.
But—and this is a big but—the majority of authors (16 out of 21) felt that the reviews were “not worth the money.”
Despite lending credibility. And despite using them as editorial reviews or as blurbs in their marketing efforts—most authors felt they wasted money. And all but three said they would not pay for another review from Kirkus. After hearing that, I felt it was…
Time To Dig Deeper
When questioned about why they felt the money was wasted, the answers were almost identical. (I paraphrased the responses.)
“The review didn’t produce sales.”
I reminded them that the review was never intended to produce sales, but that didn’t seem to matter. What mattered was that the author expected sales, and anytime that you expect something that doesn’t materialize, you’re going to be disappointed. The question to be asked is, if a Kirkus review doesn’t produce sales, what good is it?
Let’s Look at What Kirkus Does Do
Kirkus promises you a review in 7–9 weeks for $425. You can purchase an expedited review for $575, and they will deliver it in 4–6 weeks. They tell you the review will be 250–300 words. They never tell you that a review will boost sales.
In defense of the authors who expected that, it would be easy to make such an inference based on some of the well-placed testimonials on Kirkus’ site.
Benefits of a Kirkus Review
- Credibility—a Kirkus review is respected throughout the industry and by media and libraries
- Marketing tool—a good Kirkus review is a valuable marketing tool, great for a blurb on a press release, or to be placed on your site, or as an editorial review on retailer sites
- Personal gratification—every author I know feels great when their Kirkus review has good things to say
What Kirkus Doesn’t Do
What Kirkus doesn’t tell you is that, quite often, 200 or more of the promised 250–300 words of the review will be spent on rehashing your plot. I don’t know about you, but if I’m reading a review I don’t need to know the plot. I want to know how this story made you feel.
- Were the characters strong?
- Was the dialogue crisp?
- Did the plot have twists and turns, and was it full of surprises?
- Was the ending satisfying?
- Did it keep you up at night reading?
- Did you run and tell a friend about it?
That is what excites me about a review, and that is what persuades me to buy a book. Many authors I spoke with felt their Kirkus reviews weren’t all that good. They felt the reviews weren’t inspiring or well written. After hearing that, I went to Kirkus’s site and read through dozens and dozens of reviews. I have to agree with the other authors: not a single one inspired me to buy a book.
One of the authors I spoke with agreed to be quoted. Seeley James had this to say:
“Kirkus is a brand name that delivers marketing value for the author. However, I rated the value against other marketing options and came to the conclusion it was overpriced.”
I empathize with Seeley, and I understand his frustration. But then again, Seeley James is a tremendous reviewer. If you haven’t read any of his reviews, go to his site and do it. Be warned, you’ll probably end up buying a few books. He is one of the few reviewers who always inspires me to spend money.
I became a Seeley James fan after reading his review of my first book. Please go read it, because I’m sure you’ll buy it. He’s that good. Not to mention he’s a damn good author, so be sure to check out his books.
Another review stood out for its paucity of words. It was from a well-known author, and although the word count fell into Kirkus’ range (it was 281 words), the number of words dedicated to the review was 15! And one of those was the author’s name. Here is the meat of the review.
Coaxing the inevitable out of the improbable, (author name) is a bet you just can’t lose.
15 words! And that was a starred review.
And there was another review that caught my eye. It was a book I’d read, so I wanted to see what Kirkus had to say. The book was They Die Alone, by Christopher Bartley. Kirkus had praise sprinkled throughout the review, but it wasn’t a starred review, and they ended it with this less-than-flattering statement:
“A striking start to a series with solid action and arresting details but saddled with a bland hero.”
I read this book and I can tell you Ross Duncan is anything but a bland hero. (You can see my review here.) In fact, after reading Kirkus’ take on the book I’m convinced whoever reviewed it did not understand what they were reading. But don’t take my word for it. They Die Alone has 53 reviews on Amazon, with a 4.9 rating. Forty-nine of them are 5-star reviews. The other four are 4-star.
These aren’t Bartley’s friends writing reviews. I know Bartley; he doesn’t have that many friends.
All of this made me wonder how often Kirkus missed the mark. After reading through all 99 of their “Best Indie Books of 2013,” I was convinced Kirkus missed quite often—both ways.
Food For Thought
Kirkus has a respected name in the publishing business, but please make note—that’s the publishing business, not the consumer market. When I spoke to Kirkus representatives, they claimed to have an email newsletter with more than 30,000 “consumers” on the list. I would guess that a sizable chunk of those are probably authors, but even if we grant that all 30,000 are readers, how does that compare?
For grins, take a look at Bookbub. I believe their “consumer” list is now more than 2,000,000. If I spend $600 on a Bookbub ad, I can point to numbers. I can say, without question, that the money I spent sold an extra 4,000 books at 99c, and an additional 350 books at $5.99. I can calculate the royalties and tell you the ROI (Return on Investment). With a Kirkus review I can’t do that. In fact, nobody I spoke to could quantify results.
Credibility is nice to have, but I’ll take sales every time.
So What Should You Do With Your $500?
It depends on what you’re looking for.
- If you want sales—spend it on Bookbub, or ENT, or Kindle Books and Tips.
- If you want reviews—try BestsellersWorld, or Indie Reader, or Readers Favorite. (Or do the really hard work and write to bloggers, do giveaways, work Goodreads, etc.)
- If you want long-term results—get busy writing the next book
- If you want credibility and recognition from a trusted review source—spend it on Kirkus.
You might also consider investing in your book.
- Can you improve the cover?
- Is your editing up to par?
- Are you happy with the layout and formatting?
Those are investments that really will pay off.
As to Kirkus, this post was about reviews, but I’ll be doing another one in the future about a far more concerning issue, and that’s the company Kirkus keeps. By that I mean the companies that are selling Kirkus’s (very expensive) advertising and promotional campaigns. Companies like: Author Solutions, iUniverse, Xlibris, Lulu, and others.
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