Anesa Miller

To Kirkus or not to Kirkus?

An Installment in the Saga of DRAWER NO MORE!
>> View all posts in this series.

Part 1

I suspect I’m not the only one who has mixed feelings about Kirkus Reviews. Specifically, their practice of charging independent authors $425 for a “book review” of 400 words or less. Many have suggested that such services are not only overpriced but also pointless for the majority of authors whose readership couldn’t care less about endorsements (or lack thereof) from an 80-year-old magazine. But I write literary fiction, which means my readers tend to count themselves among the discerning crowd, rightly or wrongly, and here Kirkus enjoys a good deal of prestige.

The fully redesigned cover the Booktrope edition of OUR ORBIT features a photograph of a young girl, from the shoulders down, seated on a bare wooden porch step, hands clasped between her knees. She wears a red-and-black checked shirt, old jeans, and oversized lace-up boots.
Cover design by Renee Garcia

Besides, I thought, Our Orbit is not only the culmination of many years’ work on my part. It really is a good novel! It deserves the attention of a professional. Kirkus states that their commentaries are thoughtfully penned by “librarians, business executives, journalists from national publications, PhDs in religion and literature…[and] other professional reviewers.”

What’s more, they followed me wherever I went! Not PhDs and professionals (unfortunately) but Kirkus Reviews. Their banner ads pop up at, Poets & Writers, The NYT—every bookish site I frequent. You would almost think they were targeting me (lol—I know they were), claiming that they’d consider my book for some major award if only I bought a review. Long story just a bit shorter, I succumbed to seduction. Guess they somehow knew it’s been my lifelong dream to sell books beyond the circle of my personal acquaintance.

And surely a national-level review could only help.

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Through 4th of July, 2015 – Join a great GIVEAWAY to celebrate my new novel! Many prizes – gift cards, crafts & a signed copy of OUR ORBIT, finalist for “Best Regional Fiction” Click here to join !

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I knew that Kirkus is notorious for producing harsh reviews. But the “kill clause” put me at ease: If they panned my book, at least they offered the option of keeping it in the dark. So long as I opted not to quote any portion of the review on my website, back cover, or any public place, the review as a whole would remain unpublished forever. Of course, I would be down $425, but my book would not suffer. And since I felt confident that Our Orbit could withstand even a snarky reviewer, I chose to gamble.

So began the proverbial crap-shoot, like so many of the services on offer for writers today, which might or might not help sell a single book.

Some five weeks later, with quaking fingertips, I eagerly downloaded my very own review from Kirkus, the venerable authority. One minute later, dismay set in. That’s how long it took to read the 348 words my reviewer saw fit to devote to my novel. But wait! 89 of those were actually my words, quoted from my own book! Unnecessarily, it seemed to me: Quoted like a freshman English student dutifully includes a citation in a book report. So my review came in at just 263 original words. About a buck-80 per word.

What did they say, those precious bon mots?

Typically, for Kirkus, there was a 2-line plot summation, followed by a paragraph of more detailed plot summary. Perhaps readers look for this, but it wasn’t useful to me since I had, naturally, already created my own synopsis. Next came another brief paragraph, heavy on the above-mentioned quotations, giving yet more details on the characters

The review closed with one brief sentence—9 words—that might be worth quoting on my book cover or elsewhere. But in order to use those few words, I would have to agree for them to publish the entire review on their website, if they chose, as per the Kirkus policy.

And there’s the rub.

Because in that second paragraph detailing my characters, the reviewer decided to drop a major spoiler. If this were part of a serious discussion, I might decide the revelation was worthwhile. But instead, it was tossed off in passing, making no real point. To use any part of the review I paid for, I would have to consent to unknown numbers of potential readers encountering a spoiler that does nothing to enhance the commentary on my book.

Thanks for nothing, Kirkus!

To Kirkus or not to Kikus? Part 2

In fairness to Kirkus Reviews, I’ll readily admit that they have some fine employees. When I wrote to express my disappointment with the review I’d purchased of my novel, Our Orbit, I was surprised to encounter a very helpful young man. I assume he was young since he was working as a first-line responder to email inquiries like mine. I’ll call him Thad.

Among Thad’s helpful reminders was this: “Our reviews are required to meet a minimum word count of 250 words.” So at 348 words, my review was laden with gravy.

Point taken, Thad…although nearly 100 of those words were mine rather than the reviewer’s—quotations from Our Orbit padding the lukewarm remarks.

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Through 4th of July, 2015 – Join a great GIVEAWAY to celebrate my new novel! Many prizes – gift cards, crafts & a signed copy of OUR ORBIT, finalist for “Best Regional Fiction” Click here to join !

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Nonetheless, in spite of my jaundiced attitude, I was impressed when Thad stated that he would, “present your concerns to our editors.” After all, my primary complaint was that the review I’d bought so dearly contained a spoiler revealing a major plot point. I felt this made the whole thing unusable due to Kirkus’s policy requiring permission to publish the complete review if the buyer quotes so much as one phrase (which is, of course, the whole purpose in purchasing).

So I pricked up my ears when Thad suggested that senior editors might actually consider the issues I’d raised and offer some solution. Three weeks went by without further word. When I wrote again to ask Thad if I should expect a reply, his answer came the next day:

“The Indie Editors … have decided that we cannot alter the review. It is Kirkus Indie’s policy to only address those matters related to factual inaccuracies …

“Regarding the point about the [spoiler], very often our reviewers are not able to elaborate on each and every plot point found in a given work… However, they must inform a reader of certain points… We do understand your frustration and disappointment, but we have certain editorial guidelines that we follow.”

Do I detect a bit of circular reasoning? Kirkus reviewers cannot elaborate every plot point, but they must inform readers about certain points. And just because I withheld a plot twist until page 191, treating it as an elaborate family secret, that was apparently no reason for them to select some other point to elaborate for those demanding readers.


…Much ado about very little? Are spoilers such a serious thing?

Okay, okay. As friends have assured me, I’m making much ado about very little. Are spoilers such a serious thing? accommodates spoiler alerts on reader reviews, but Amazon has discontinued that practice. Even if an author objects to revealing statements in a review, Amazon will do nothing to post an alert. (Guess how I know.)

Moreover, millions of people know how such books as To Kill A Mockingbird and The Great Gatsby turn out. Or Gone Girl or The Secret History or The Hunger Games. And that does nothing to keep new readers away. So, yes—I’m overreacting. I should be so lucky as to have fans clamoring over Our Orbit, discussing the plot twists and characters, accidentally spilling the beans about what happens on page 191.

Maybe I’ll go ahead and put that brief, mildly flattering, quote from my Kirkus review on the back cover of my book. Maybe I’ll even publish it here on my blog.

If Kirkus responds by putting up the full review, complete with spoiler, in some obscure corner of their website—so much the better. If one or two people stumble upon it and find the secret—don’t tell anybody, please?

And thank you, Thad, for making an effort to talk to those scrupulous “Indie Editors” on my behalf.

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In the end, I decided to both quote and publish my review in full. You can read it here along with a far more gratifying (and unpaid) commentary from The Midwest Book Review.

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Through 4th of July, 2015 – Join a great GIVEAWAY to celebrate my new novel! Many prizes – gift cards, crafts & a signed copy of OUR ORBIT, finalist for “Best Regional Fiction” ! ! ! Click here to join !

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27 thoughts on “To Kirkus or not to Kirkus?”

  1. I decided against a Kirkus review and instead spent that money on a Netgalley listing. Netgalley also has its serious flaws, but at least you end up with the semblance of an aggregate review instead of one anonymous reviewer who may or may not even like your genre or have read your book.

    $425 is really too much, especially with how sketchily Kirkus operates and how little name recognition it actually has with the average reader. I also thought Netgalley was not worth the money.

    So far in my pre-launch stage, the thing I’ve been most happy with is a blog tour I purchased for $240. 14 amazon/goodreads reviews from real, accessible, socially active bloggers for $240 is (in my opinion) considerably better than one mysterious dead-end review for $425.

    If I had my pre-launch process to do over, I would spend all my money on multiple well-run blog tours.

    1. I really appreciate you stopping by and weighing in, Sean. Thanks especially for your perspective on Netgalley and blog tours. I too have heard that the latter can be very worthwhile and hope it pans out well for you. So far, I haven’t come across anyone who organizes tours for lit fic, which is definitely a minority presence among indie titles.

      Maybe someone else has info on this?

      Thanks again. And, Sean, feel free to leave another comment with your link and book title.

  2. For that amount of money, I should be able to write my own review and make Kirkus post it!

    I’ll insist upon a price list—a sliding scale for five, four, and three star reviews…as to make it look legit.

    Hmm. *covertly contacts Kirkus* 🙂

  3. My publisher paid for Kirkus and Publisher’s Weekly to review my book. While Publisher’s Weekly called it “raw and compelling” Kirkus called it “lackluster.” I’ve since heard that it’s not worth it for a number of reasons. One being that Publisher’s Weekly and Kirkus almost always disagree with one another on purpose. That sends up a red flag for me. Plus tastes are so subjective and I don’t want one person – who may or may not even bother to read the entire book because their workload is too heavy – carry too much weight over whether or not someone buys my books. I say put that money toward marketing.

    1. Wow. That’s an interesting perspective. Am I totally naive or is it really quite shocking that PW and Kirkus appear to coordinate their reviews? Maybe “collusion” is actually the word I’m after. It sounds like they have a good-cop bad-cop routine going on! I would love to hear from others who have dealt with both of these organizations.

      Thanks very much for visiting DRAWER NO MORE! I hope you’ll return and give us more benefit of your experience.

  4. My MT contracts have taken over my life…I have two new clients, and the VA clients are on hold and looking for funding for my services, but at least I don’t have to suffer the indignities you have. So sorry.

    1. You are so kind, Jane. Thank you for weighing in. More MT clients is probably a good thing, and just maybe so is learning to deal with Kirkus! At least I can hope so.

  5. Anesa,

    I read ‘To Kirkus or Not to Kirkus’ with great enjoyment.
    If you will allow me to say; that’s a great piece of creative writing and a fine example of that style known in the USA as ‘The Sportive Essay’ or in France as the ‘Feuilleton’, and worthy of that scurrilous crowd of English and Irish writers who contributed to literary letters in that famous Grubb Street coffee house at about the time of David Garrick, the famous London Shakespearean actor in the mid 18th century and why is a literary mag. not publishing it just as it is just to prove the point? (now that WAS a complicated sentence which just about held itself together after two glasses of Merlot).
    But to business! We owe it to ourselves to expose such naysayers and pedants for what they are. Exploiters and preyers upon the expectations of the intellectually and creatively advantaged. Let’s hope that when the independent publishing revolution comes along they’ll be the first against the wall!
    There, I’ve railed. But it does us no harm in the long run I’m sure you’ll agree and, looking at the other responses, my faith in light but seriously considered blog banter is not misplaced.
    My best regards to everyone.

    1. Fred! So delighted to hear from you again. You may be aware that Chekhov was also a noted feuilleton writer, so I am honored to be placed in the august company you mention.

      I do feel that writers with dreams can be easy prey for those who offer all sorts of services, from book reviews to tweeting, although in fairness to Kirkus, I believe they charge all publishers–traditional as well as indie. It’s just awfully steep for an individual without institutional backing.

      Thanks once again for gracing us with your erudite observations, Fred!

  6. Thanks, Anesa, for providing others like me an opportunity to weigh in with their experiences with Kirkus. I was encouraged to try their service by an article by one of their reviewer’s in Writers Digest. From the way she described the process, it seemed pretty fair and reasonable…except for the fee, of course.
    Unfortunately, they didn’t review my novel, Castaway Stones, at all. It was essentially a brief book report, but when I brought this up with them their only mention was that it wasn’t a bad review.
    I’ve concluded that Kirkus, like many other entities, is essentially preying on the hopes of writers who are hoping to obtain some sort of legitimate commentary on their work.
    We can only hope that this practice will eventually devalue Kirkus reputation in the literary market.

  7. Well, now I feel compelled to say a few kind words about Kirkus! Yes, it is expensive. And, yes, a portion of each review is a summary of the book (they tell you this in advance, in the FAQs). And I do agree that spoilers are not good. But in a time when it is hugely difficult to get any “legitimate” editorial reviews, it does offer authors an option. And how kind that you can, if you wish, choose to bury the whole thing.

    My warm fuzzy feelings are no doubt due to the fact that I was thrilled with their review of my novel (“Rules for the Perpetual Diet”)! We even chose to reprint the whole thing in the front matter of the book. I have used the tagline they wrote–which was brilliant–for a million little promotional purposes. It also attracted a film producer to my book (nothing came of this, as is the norm, but it was entertaining!). They also chose my book as one of their featured reads.

    No, I will probably never get back, in sales, the money I spent on the review, but then I never thought I would. It’s a little like gambling……you pays yer money, you takes yer chance…..

    1. Thanks so much, KSR, for stopping by and balancing my jaundiced view with your positive experience! You raise several good points, including the often bemoaned fact that they do, indeed, forewarn authors that the summary will take up a good portion of the space one is paying for. I think that was originally the prime function of the Kirkus service, although it conflicts with our assumptions when we hear of a book “review.”
      And of course you’ll make back the money eventually, especially as a BT author)))) !

  8. I have to add that in 2000 when my mysteries were published by St. Martin’s Press I got a Kirkus review with a snarky little critique embedded and the editor’s assistant in charge of wrangling reviews said they were very picky and just getting a review from them was useful (SMP aimed their books at libraries and some libraries would (then, probably not so much now) buy a book if it was reviewed by a couple of the biggies–Publishers Weekly, Booklist, Kirkus & Library Journal. The content of the review didn’t matter. Just being reviewed was worth it. Now that Kirkus is selling it on the street we know what it’s worth to them–$425. I tend to doubt whether that gains the purchaser the credibility that Kirkus suggests they are selling. I think the “quality lit community” is devaluing Kirkus reviews because they’re for sale. Just a guess.

  9. One other thing, Anesa, I wouldn’t be surprised if big publishers had some kind of reimbursement deal with Kirkus. I was surprised when I found out awhile back that they paid bookstores to stock their books, and paid more to stock likely sellers in prime spots. Someone explained to me even earlier than that, that big publishers have to pay taxes on their inventory and offer free returns to booksellers, so that non-bestselling books only stay in stores for a few months at best and then are cleared out of publishers’ warehouses within a year or so to avoid being taxed. When I began to grasp that, I realized how essential it was for authors to keep our backlist available and win readers over time. Since we’re spending our own money to do this, it’s useful to see where it’s worth it and where it’s a bad investment.

    1. Apparently Kirkus still claims that they do not accept payment from traditional publishers. Instead, they accept expensive subscription fees and advertising! Could indie authors band together for a subscription and get their books reviewed for “free” like the big houses? Seems unlikely — that would cut Kirkus’s revenue stream! Your point is well taken, Lynne, that it’s crucial to build our readership over time. The system is rigged against slow growth but we must buck it with all our strength. Many thanks for weighing in!

  10. I was foolish to pay Kirkus and got a sloppy elementary school book report summary that suggested the writer hadn’t read the book, or read it while watching TV, due to the many errors in the summary. There was no analysis of plot, character or writing style. I asked for a rewrite and Kirkus refused. I disputed the charge with my credit card company and finally got a credit. Beware!

    1. Great post. I’m down $2000 US after a review and their website advert. It’s a con. They come up with um, so called professional spiels about how a review can help sell your book, but at the same time write unnecessary criticisms (a paying author doesn’t want that). The website ad is even worse, the ad isn’t static but rotates around like a lucky wheel. You never get to see it, so neither would anyone else. They send an end of campaign on a word doc, easy to fabricate. I’m in West Australia, published by Adelaide Books, so couldn’t fly to New York during COVID (still can’t) Ive written a blog article as a RIPPED OFF, ROZ! warning Aussies & anyone else. They should be shut down! In Australia we can complain to a consumer watchdog, but I don’t know about the US.
      Cheers Helen

  11. Speaking purely as a reader, I loathe Kirkus Reviews. In one measly paragraph they will typically manage to not only miss the point, but also give away a major plot spoiler. The only value they have is that their archive of old reviews is easily accessible, and they sometimes have the only review available online for older, more obscure books going back to the ‘50s. But then they give away major plot points, (which has obviously been part of their “house style” for many, many years), so there you go.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Rod. That’s a helpful perspective, and I appreciate the commiseration )))))))

  12. The review I got from Kirkus says nothing of worth about the work, is of no critical value whatsoever, inspires neither like nor dislike, but only a sense that the work is utterly insipid and dull, which it is far from being, and the review does so because the review itself is insipid and dull, and is so because it didn’t know the work. The review makes it undeniable that not more than 10% of the work was even viewed, much less read. Furthermore, the Kirkus review noted no pertinent details, has no summary and no analysis. You get a sense that: “Kirkus got your money, Kirkus short changed you as it does everyone, Kirkus doesn’t give a damn, Kirkus is covered by a full proof customer agreement , So goodbye to you.”.

  13. Palmer Pickering

    I had the exact same experience with Kirkus. Very badly written eighth-grade-level book report instead of a professionally written review. It provided a stilted plot summary picking out the most inconsequential parts of the story, mostly from the preface, showing they had little to no interest in actually reading the book. MASSIVE spoilers, so bad on the second book that I will never publish that review. I contacted them and got a similar response of, “I’ll look into it,” then, “sorry, it meets our review policy.” Horrible. I will never use them again. Not only was it a waste of money, I consider their review “style” (if you can call it that) a detractor to any author’s career. I can’t believe they are still in business. Avoid Kirkus like the plague.

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