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Watchdog: Is Kirkus Selling Dreams – Or Do They Deliver?

Watchdog: Is Kirkus Selling Dreams – or Do They Deliver?

Photo of Giacomo and his dog

Giacomo Giammatteo, ALLi Watchdog

ALLi Watchdog Giacomo Giammatteo continues his examination of the Kirkus book reviews service.

A lot of companies have jumped on the bandwagon and decided to ride the wave of independent publishing.

And why not? It’s an easy way to make money.

Indie authors, for the most part, are naive, and to make matters worse, they are often desperate to find ways to climb the bestseller list. A well-placed whisper in an indie author’s ear, and you can sell them anything. And that’s exactly what many companies count on. Last month we took a look at Kirkus’ reviews. Now let’s look at some of their other services.

History of Kirkus

Kirkus started writing book reviews in 1933. By late 2009, they announced plans to shut down, only to have Herb Simon, owner of the Indiana Pacers, buy them and name Marc Winkelman, a former B&N executive, as president In a recent statement announcing the new $50,000 literary prize (in 3 categories), Winkelman said:

“Since relaunching Kirkus Reviews in 2010, the company has enjoyed tremendous growth. Everyone at Kirkus feels a deep responsibility to our readers and the publishing industry; this prize is a symbol of that commitment.”

Being the cynical sort that I am, I have to wonder if this prize isn’t a big marketing push in order to lure authors into signing up for reviews. At the price Kirkus charges ($425 for a standard review and $575 for an express review), it only takes about 150 reviews to bring in enough money to pay for the prize. (Based on an estimate of what they pay reviewers.) But I’m not concerned about their reviews, I’m more interested in the advertising services Kirkus sells.

Kirkus Campaigns

Kirkus has three different levels of advertising campaigns, along with a selection of à-la-carte services. This is from Kirkus:

The unique distinction of our promotional advertising programs is that they give authors the power to promote their book not only to consumers but to industry influencers (librarians, publishers, agents, film executives, etc.) as well, focusing on both book sales and book rights. [1]

We have a-la-carte options for print and email that start at $500-$1500, as well as three all-inclusive packages that use the multiple channels that Kirkus has to achieve an even more effective goal and exposure that range from $1500, $2999 and $4999.

I focused my research on the high-end program, the $4999 one. I believe Kirkus calls it the Great Book Campaign. Let’s take a look at the testimonials from Kirkus’ site.

“I was astounded to see the change in sales rank today.” “Kirkus has given me everything I could have wanted in the way of marketing.” – Amy Billone, author of The Light Changes – Amazon.com ranking went from over 1,000,000 to 150,526 to 3,538 throughout her campaign (Great Book Campaign).

“I’m very glad I did it…I sold quite a few books during those two weeks…you have not seen the last of me.” – Rea Martin, author of Mystic Tea (Great Book Campaign garnered more than 1 million impressions and more than 8,000 clicks)

“Kirkus helped me draw additional attention to my books. In August, 2012, Identity Films, Hollywood, optioned The Gaia Wars series for film.” — Kenneth Bennett, self-publisher

Let’s Evaluate Some of These Statements

“Amazon.com ranking went from over 1,000,000 to 150,526 to 3,538 throughout her campaign.” To put this in perspective, a ranking of 3,000 on Amazon equates to approximately 30–50 books per day in sales. Rea Martin, author of Mystic Tea, seems pleased with her results. I couldn’t reach Rea, so I didn’t verify the statement, and I have no idea what the impressions or clicks meant to her in sales. Kenneth Bennett attributes his film deal to the Kirkus campaign. I’m not privy to the specifics of his deal, but no matter how you slice it, that’s a fantastic result, and I’m thrilled for Ken. I also spoke to 9 authors who used the Kirkus “Great Book Campaign.”

  • Two of them were “very disappointed” with their results.
  • One was disappointed with the results, but said he would use Kirkus in the future for reviews.
  • Three of them said the campaign did “nothing,” and said they would not use Kirkus again.
  • Two of the remaining three said the campaign didn’t produce the sales they hoped it would, but they were satisfied with the results.
  • And the other person “hoped for something better,” but she has purchased several more Kirkus reviews since then.

Those statistics don’t look great for Kirkus, but let’s look closer.

Getting the Facts Straight

I spoke to two people at Kirkus. One of them was Meg Kuehn, Chief Operating Officer of Kirkus Media. We spent almost one hour on the phone. I thought it would be good to clear up a few misconceptions I’d heard throughout the industry, mostly from indie authors.

Indie Authors Aren’t Treated the Same as Traditionally Published Authors

I have heard quite a few authors complain that traditionally published authors are reviewed for free and indies have to pay. That’s not entirely true. The way it works is that Kirkus sells subscription services to influencers in the publishing and entertainment industries. Agents, foreign rights agents, publishers, librarians, etc. The reviews Kirkus does are paid for from the money received for the subscription services.

As Meg explained…”that wouldn’t work for self-published authors because librarians, who make up a big portion of subscribers, seldom order self-published books.”

As to not being treated the same, I agree, but not in the way you might think. Kirkus has been known as an unbiased reviewer of books since 1933. I believe that, and I respect that. It’s what gives their reviews credibility. Indies, however, are treated with kid gloves in some sense. No, Kirkus doesn’t pull punches on the reviews, but…they do give indie authors the option to not have their review published. In other words, if you don’t like the review Kirkus gives you, you can opt to not have it published. Traditionally-published authors don’t have that option. If Kirkus trashes their book, the whole world gets to see it.

I Don’t Agree With This

There are two reasons.

  1. I don’t agree because this practice draws a line between self-published and traditionally-published authors.
  2. I believe the reason Kirkus offers this option is because they realize that too many self-published authors would not pay for a review if they thought it might be bad. In other words, I believe Kirkus only offers this to make money. (This is my opinion, and did not come from Kirkus.)

Author Expectations

Any time a sale is involved, there are expectations on both ends. Authors—especially self-published authors—seem to be naïve, and often, gullible. And that naïveté is never so apparent as when their precious book is involved. They want their books to be bestsellers, and so they hear what they want to hear. So when they see an ad like this one, the first thing many indies think is…Maybe my book could win that award.

I asked Kirkus about this, and Meg assured me that they do what they can to make authors aware of what to expect and not expect. She insisted they do not sell dreams. I spoke with another Kirkus representative to see what they had to say about their campaigns. This is the response I received.

While most authors do see a noticeable jump in their sales and/or Amazon.com ranking after running one of our two top-level campaigns, this is not always the case and does vary from campaign to campaign as any advertising will.

That is about as honest an answer as you can get. I love to stick up for author rights, and I usually give authors the benefit of the doubt. But this is not a statement that is selling dreams. If anyone interprets it that way, I have to lay the blame at their feet.

Are Kirkus Campaigns Worth the Money?

Now we come to the big question. Are the campaigns worth the money Kirkus charges? We talked about gullibility and naïveté earlier. There comes a time when authors have to realize this is a business. Once the book is done, it’s no longer about writing. It’s business.

Kirkus is a business also. They sell their services hard. Their ads are everywhere, and they have great copywriters who know every buzzword. They also understand how to push each button. As I said, they are a business. I don’t hold that against them.

As to weighing the return on investment…

Do You Like To Gamble?

Do you buy lottery tickets at the corner store? Bet on sports? Have the number of your favorite bookie memorized? If you answered yes, you might want to sign up for a Kirkus campaign.

Yes, this might be stretching it to make a point, but I believe a Kirkus campaign is a gamble, and even worse, a long shot. You might get lucky, like the guy who got a film option from his campaign. Or maybe you’ll be fortunate enough to land an agent.

But chances are you won’t. Chances are, you’ll sell a few more books, have a few more people recognize your name, and you’ll have a great time telling people about your “Great Book Campaign,” which I’m sure you’ll tweet several times a day, and share on Facebook and other social media.

But none of that will do any good. This book business is a gamble. No one knows which books will be winners and which will flop. No one has ever known. Not the big publishers. Not agents. Not retailers.

And not Kirkus.

So, the decision is yours. But if you don’t get the results you want, don’t blame Kirkus.

Final Note

I was very pleased with my conversation with Kirkus, and I felt Meg Kuehn was honest, open, and fair. I didn’t agree with her on many points, but that didn’t matter. I felt that she believed in what they were doing. I did have one point of contention that I felt strongly about, and that is the relationship with Author Solutions and their companies. I’m also tossing Lulu into the mix, although they aren’t part of ASI.

What am I talking about?

ASI and others resell Kirkus’ services. Often those services are bundled in an attempt to hide the costs, but they’re simple enough to break down. Here’s an example from Author House’s website.

The Trifecta Review — $3,249
Kirkus Indie Standard Review, Clarion Review-for-Fee (ForeWord Magazine), and Blueink Basic Review.

If you were to purchase these three reviews on your own, directly from the websites, you’d pay $395 for Blueink, $425 for Kirkus, and $499 for Clarion. That’s a total of $1,319. I’ll let you do the math and see how much Author House takes.

BTW, Lulu charges $3,899 for the same reviews.

So What?

Kirkus takes the position that this is out of their hands. I feel fairly confident that if ASI and Lulu and the other companies weren’t sending a lot of business Kirkus’ way, they would not feel the same.

The more I thought about this, the stronger I felt that Kirkus should distance themselves from these practices. I know that if a retailer were selling my ebooks for $18.00 (3x the list price), I would scream bloody murder. And I’d make sure that they were taken down from the site.

Come on, Kirkus. How about you do the same?

If you enjoyed this post, please share.

  1. I found this odd because when I spoke to Meg Kuehn, she implied librarians seldom order self-published books.  ↩

Author: Giacomo Giammatteo

Giacomo Giammatteo is the author of gritty crime dramas about murder, mystery, and family. He also writes non-fiction books including the "No Mistakes" Careers series.
He lives in Texas where he and his wife have an animal sanctuary with 45 loving “friends.” His website is at www.giacomogiammatteo.com.


This Post Has 17 Comments
  1. What are your thoughts on their distribution model for the reviews? I had a decent review from them, was given a star, and indie-author-of-the-month, but I’m not sure, even with those accolades, whether I’m targeting the right audience for my book (fantasy adventure) if I purchase advertising for them. It seems like their publication targets booksellers and librarians, and while a print version of my book is available through Barnes & Noble’s print-on-demand setup, I’m not sure librarians and publishers are necessarily a useful audience for selling my self-published fiction.

    I still desperately need more readers and reviews though, and Kirkus has at least provided a marketable bit of praise that I hope will help me establish the necessary veneer of legitimacy a new author requires. Whether it’s $425 worth of praise or not, I’m not sure yet.

  2. Hello,
    I wish that i had done more research about kirkus before I gave them my money. I had them review my first published novel. The review started out well then toward the end I was told that my characters were weak and that I had extra spaces in my book. I was annoyed that most of the review was mostly a rehash of the story. And out of all the fact finding that they could have done on the historical facts they chose to mention that America women first shaved their legs in the 1940s so German women probably didnt in the 1950s. I know for a fact that they didnt in the 1950s eventhough my book’s setting was 1948 in Germany. I thought this was absurd. And I felt that the reviewer didnt even read the entire book.

    They are over-priced for what you receive. My book was fiction not non-fiction , but i still had my facts correct. Was not helpful over-all.

    1. SELF-PUBLISHED WRITERS BEWARE: KIRKUS INDIE IS IN FACT UNABLE TO REALISTICALLY GUARANTEE AN UNBIASED REVIEW. CONSUMERS’ COMPLAINTS TO CONSUMER AFFAIRS DEPARTMENTS AND GROUPS HAVE LIKELY BEEN FORMALLY SUBMITTED IN DROVES. KIRKUS OVERALL TENDS TO REVIEW SELF-PUBLISHED BOOKS SOMEWHAT DIFFERENTLY TO TRADITIONALLY PUBLISHED BOOKS. KIRKUS INDIE IS INUNDATED WITH SELF-PUBLISHED BOOKS AT MORE THAN $425 PER BOOK ON AVERAGE, RELIES THEREFORE ON INCREASINGLY OBSCURELY SOURCED REVIEWERS WHO ARE NO MORE PRESTIGIOUS OR RELIABLE THAN THOSE AT SAN FRANCISCO BOOK REVIEW, AND HEAVILY FAVOURS BOOKS THAT HAVE ORDINARY NARRATIVES AND SIMPLISTIC WRITING STYLES. PUBLISHERS AND AGENTS TEND TO DISFAVOUR SIGNING AUTHORS WHO HAVE HAD PUBLISHED REVIEWS FROM KIRKUS INDIE, AS THE PUBLISHERS AND AGENTS GREATLY PREFER TO SUBMIT THEIR OWN BOOKS TO KIRKUS (FOR PUBLICITY REASONS). USE CLARION REVIEWS INSTEAD–IF IT’S A CHOICE BETWEEN KIRKUS AND CLARION, CLARION IS WHAT AGENTS AND PUBLISHERS SURELY PREFER OF SELF-PUBLISHED AUTHORS WHO SUBMIT WORK TO THEM. As ever so many authors essentially say, Kirkus staff use the excuse of subjectivity on a regular basis with self-published authors who complain to them. But the Kirkus staff are unable to pretend in the same way with well-known authors, whose readerships would laugh at the seeming dishonesty of the reviews in question. If a conservative-styled, intelligent famous writer such as Alan Furst were a self-published author reviewed by Kirkus Indie, Kirkus Indie almost certainly would deliver him negative reviews mostly regardless, as Furst’s sophistication of writing style would upset the Kirkus Indie reviewers (they do favour simplistic writing styles) and Furst as an unknown writer would have little or no chance of recourse after the negative reviews. An independent official audit of Kirkus would likely uncover plenty of interesting facts, leading to some very intriguing questions such as: (1) Is the political culture that predominates among Kirkus staff of a particular bent, and is that bent left-wing? Yes. (2) Are Kirkus Indie review turnaround times often irreconcilable with the limited number of Kirkus Indie reviewers, suggesting that skimming of books must be unavoidable in the reviewing practices? Yes. (3) Does offering two prices (each with a different turnaround time) for a Kirkus Indie review mean that those reviewers receiving the lesser payment for service will be more likely to give a negative review? Yes. (4) Do Kirkus staff deliberately rely on the subjectivity excuse when dealing with complaints from authors, while objectively common sense dictates the obviousness of the fact that such subjectivity is often a false front for reviewer (and editorial) bias (such as pretending that writing style preferences are technical errors in writing)? Yes. (5) Does the predominating political culture (rather than due work process) at Kirkus often interfere with reviewer services before the reviews reach authors, by acting as a filter against certain politically-aligned content of reviews being published? Yes. (6) Is there evidence in the published lists of Kirkus reviews that indicates that by far the majority of positive reviews are those given to writings that have ordinary narratives and simplistic styles? Yes. (7) Should Kirkus be legally purged, in the conclusion that insufficient regulatory and legal oversight of Kirkus work practices (in an industry that by its very nature is liable to predation for monetary gain, and its excuses to complainants are dubious at best) has allowed an unacceptably large number of complainants to remain unsatisfied? Yes. (8) Should Kirkus be legally forced, at the very least, to claim in its promotions that, as with any reviewing service, its reviews are subject to reviewer subjectivity, which means that personal bias of reviewers may influence the reviews no matter the best intentions of the reviewers? Absolutely, yes. Kirkus makes millions of dollars each year, with unjustifiably massive profit margins, and with little independent quality-control of its services affecting huge numbers of people in the hands of such a small group whose culture would appear to be a major impediment. And the Kirkus reputation of evidentially erroneous, implausible excuses to rightly unsatisfied complainants is inexcusable… US government consumer watchdogs must investigate this misrepresentative monopoly euphemistically called ‘Kirkus’. Kirkus reeks.

  3. Thanks Giacomo:

    Paid reviews firms are gambles. It’s a business. The vital point is the quality and content of the Indie Author’s book. I have a short personal presentation at the front of my books, add links to my e-mail and website, and request that the reader write a review and post it at the site they where they purchased the book. We must wear Four Hats: Author, Editor, Publisher and Marketer. A book ready to present to readers is the 1st step of the project. Launching a DIY e-book without a Marketing Plan in place well ahead of the release date is courting a disaster. The I-Net has numerous sites and helpful Groups that can and will teach and help Indie Authors how to market, free. We are not alone.

    Stay well…


  4. I’d be very curious to know exactly what your $4,999 buys in their Great Book Campaign, and what elements of it are obtainable independently, at a cheaper cost.

    I’ve read plenty of Kirkus reviews of indie books, and with few exceptions, I’ve not been impressed with the review or the book. Consequently, in my mind, Kirkus’ vaunted “credibility” is not so high.

    The diminished credibility is further magnified by their business relationship with ASI and Author House, which to me are the closest thing to organized crime in publishing today.

    1. Pete: Kirkus spells out what you get for the money on their Great Book Campaign, but finding out what each component costs is more difficult.

      As to the reviews–I’ve read plenty where both the review and the book were good, and I’ve read even more that struck me the opposite way. The thing I’m not fond of is how they structure their reviews, spending the majority of the page time on plot. I asked Kirkus about this and they said it is their ‘signature’ and that is what their customers like. But here again, I believe Kirkus’ customers fall more on the commercial side, not the reader side. (which makes me question the value of the campaigns)

      thanks for the comment,

  5. Excellent observations. I got a Kirkus Review for my latest book, and I believe (one never really knows) it helped get the book into libraries and book stores, so I figure it paid for itself, at the very least. I also see it as icing on the cake in terms of reader purchase decisions. But I also know authors who did not get very good Kirkus reviews, and some who chose not to have their reviews published. I see it as a calculated gamble, as you say, and I believe I did it with eyes open.

    The best sales tool is word of mouth, and that has held true for me — readers recommending my book to others, either through their own reviews (Amazon, Goodreads, etc.) or posting on Facebook and Twitter. I would never recommend those expensive review packages or advertising programs, especially from third-parties, such as ASI, Lulu, or any other publishing service. My only advertising has been the $60 insertion in the Ingram catalog (via Lightning Source), and I figure that was worth it.

    I am fortunate in that my book sold well coming out of the gate, and Amazon took it from there, fueling the sales. I think the best thing an author can do, besides having a good product, is starting an online/social media marketing campaign well in advance of publication so the book catapults off the launching pad. If that is achieved, the Amazon Machine will pour more fuel on the fire.

    1. Larry, I’m glad you had a great experience with Kirkus. Many people do, and it does validate the book in many peoples’ eyes. I think as long as an author’s expectations are on target, it’s all good.

  6. Informative article and just as I thought. As an indie author I’ve found unsolicited reviews from readers are not only an honest look at my work, they provide what works to build readership – word of mouth. Indies should also be aware of the IRS requiring a show of profit, isn’t it 3 out of 5 years? With costs like Kirkus Reviews – we need to make sure we show some profit if we pay for such a service.

    ~Nancy Jill Thames
    3.7 stars out of 138 reviews from 2010 – 2014 for first book “Murder in Half Moon Bay.”

    1. Nancy, I agree. It’s nice to have some editorial reviews, but often those can come from an established blogging/review site as well. And the reader reviews are what really matter.

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