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 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. 
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.
- I don’t agree because this practice draws a line between self-published and traditionally-published authors.
- 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.)
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.
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.
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?
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- I found this odd because when I spoke to Meg Kuehn, she implied librarians seldom order self-published books. ↩