Kirkus Clarified: Guest Post by Karen Schechner

Karen Schechner
Karen Schechner
Senior Indie Editor, Kirkus Reviews

Guest post
by Karen Schechner
Senior Indie Editor
Kirkus Reviews

In early January of this year, I chatted with Laurie Boris about operations here at Kirkus Indie, where I’m the senior Indie editor. That conversation sparked a lively discussion in the comments section, which gave me an opportunity to answer many of the great questions posed by Indies Unlimited readers. (Anyone curious about Kirkus might want to check out the original article.) One of the commenters on that original article recently contributed a new Indies Unlimited post titled “Kirkus Reviews: A Disparity Apparent,” and I just wanted to respond and correct some of the points made in that post. For quick reference, I’ve broken the response into bullet points. Of course, if you still have questions about Indie, you can always reach us at indie@kirkus.com.

• Kirkus’ reach and influence in the industry are as healthy as ever. The American Library Association lists Kirkus Reviews as an important resource for librarians. The number of subscribers is about 5,400. Some additional facts:

o Advertising revenue in 2012 was 90% more than what it was in the final year Nielsen owned the company.

o In 2012 alone, Indie grew 188%.

Content increase:

o We published 8,022 reviews in 2012, a 77% increase over 2009 (the last year Nielsen owned Kirkus) and 21% more than 2011. We increased that number even more in 2013.

o We published 733 feature articles in 2012 (2-4 per day, 5 days/week), compared to fewer than 200 the entire year of 2009, before the acquisition. In 2013, we published more than 600 feature articles. Many were about indie authors, at no cost to those authors.

Audience expansion:

o Circulation of the print magazine has grown 217% since the acquisition. (It is still distributed almost exclusively to industry professionals including agents, book buyers, acquisitions editors, publishers, entertainment development executives—just more of them.)

o The new, consumer-facing website averages more than 1 million page views per month. (Kirkus had virtually no online presence and no consumer audience prior to the acquisition.)

o Kirkus’ email newsletter, which didn’t exist prior to the acquisition, has more than 60,000 subscribers (up from 14,000 in 2010). The subscriber base is a mix of industry professionals and consumers.

• Kirkus’ influence among booksellers also remains strong. Kirkus Indie was just invited by the American Booksellers Association to participate in its annual Winter Institute, a conference for independent booksellers.

• While many say that Kirkus’ critics are the toughest, our quality has never flagged; the Kirkus star remains a coveted, valued prize by authors. Our reviews have always offered a balance of summary and criticism to help readers make informed decisions. It’s this balance that has led the ALA to cite Kirkus Reviews as an essential resource for librarians. You can visit Kirkus.com to see the entire archive of reviews and interviews since 1933. Or, to get a sense of our Indie reviews, please visit the list of Best Indie Books of 2013.

• In 2009, Herb Simon and Marc Winkelman bought Kirkus. The entire editorial staff was maintained and the magazine’s format, content and editorial standards remained the same. Please find Kirkus’ history here.

• Beyond reviews, Kirkus also offer valuable insight into how the publishing industry—traditional and indie—works. As part of our Word on the Street series, we talk to agents, editors and booksellers about how they see the inner workings of the industry. For instance, in a soon-to-be-published feature, an acquisitions editor has some helpful advice: “For the authors seeking publishers out there, I’d like to point out that authors are welcome to contact most university presses (and most small literary presses) without an agent. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve surprised an author by saying that.”

• I mentioned this is in the comments section of the original article, but thought it could use reiterating here:

To fund reviewing self-pubbed books, Kirkus had to find a way to pay for the reviewers, editors, copy editors, fact checkers, other staff, as well as overhead, IT expenses, etc., since that revenue wasn’t coming from subscriptions or advertising. The solution was to offer reviews for a fee. I know many indie authors object to the fee, but it’s the only way the infrastructure of Kirkus can be supported. I see it this way: It’s an opportunity for indie authors to get featured in a nationally recognized publication. If an author doesn’t think they should/want to buy a review, I completely understand. And if they can get reviewed someplace else for free, that’s great. Kirkus is just one option among many.

Kirkus editors and reviewers are passionate about books. We hope that readers continue to read and support Kirkus, a publication dedicated to book culture.


Karen Schechner is the senior indie editor at Kirkus Reviews. Kirkus Indie curates self-published titles to help consumers and industry influencers (publishers, agents, film producers, librarians, booksellers) discover books they may otherwise never find. In her pre-Kirkus days, Schechner was the senior editor at the American Booksellers Association, where she worked with indie booksellers for nearly a decade.

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19 thoughts on “Kirkus Clarified: Guest Post by Karen Schechner”

  1. While I appreciate the information, I still see Kirkus separating Indies and traditionally published authors. Why make Indies pay so much for a review when you don’t request that from trad. publishers to review their authors’ work? Is it fair that all of your revenue comes from the outstanding fee you charge Indie writers for a review?

  2. I apologize if I missed the explanation in your article, but I’m not understanding why you have to charge indies to pay for the “reviewers, editors, copy editors, fact checkers, other staff, as well as overhead, IT expenses, etc.,” but you don’t have to charge traditional publishers to pay for that. Do you not use reviewers, editors, copy editors, and the like for traditionally published books?

    Clearly, you’re getting some advertising revenue that covers the cost of traditionally published reviews. Yet, you don’t say–and again, I apologize if I missed it–why you can’t use a portion of that revenue to review indie published titles (even if you make the choice to review only a limited number of them)? I was under the impression that Kirkus was selective about the traditionally published books it reviewed–electing to review some, not all of the submissions. Why not make the same leap for self-published books and not charge?

    1. Hi RJ,
      Thanks for reading Kirkus’ response and for your comments!

      One question that comes up a lot in the comments section is why self-pubbed authors pay for reviews when traditional publishers do not. I answered the question in a previous post (and I’ll post that answer below), but the follow-up question from self-pubbed authors is why don’t we distribute the resources that we do have among all publishers, both traditional and Indie.

      For starters, I’d like to say that Kirkus loves traditionally published and self-published books. Our business model that existed before we started publishing reviews of self-pubbed authors, however, met the specific requirements of our readers/subscribers, who wanted or needed information about traditionally published books. All resources were used entirely for that purpose. And our resources were funded by our users. The magazine, in fact, is designed for the ease of use of booksellers and librarians.

      When self-pubbed authors asked Kirkus to review their books, we had to find a way to fund that service. Our resources, of course, are limited. The option was we could charge self-pubbed authors and offer the service or we could not offer the service. By charging, we can review many self-pubbed books. And many authors are happy to be a part of a publication that is read by agents, editors, booksellers and book buyers. If you’d like to read more about Kirkus’ take on the state of self-publishing, please read this recent article. https://www.kirkusreviews.com/features/quantum-leap/

      Hope this was helpful!

      More on this topic from a previous post:
      Why do indie authors pay for reviews when traditional publishers do not?
      When Kirkus decided to offer review self-pubbed books in 2005, it was because indie authors asked us for that service. The magazine had always been supported by advertising dollars from traditional publishers, as well as subscribers. Our subscription base was mostly librarians and booksellers, who primarily buy traditionally published books (although more booksellers and librarians are interested in self-pubbed books, https://www.kirkusreviews.com/features/state-indie-publishing/). Kirkus worked toward providing our subscribers with the specific information they needed to make their purchasing decisions.
      To fund reviewing self-pubbed books, Kirkus had to find a way to pay for the reviewers, editors, copy editors, fact checkers, other staff, as well as overhead, IT expenses, etc., since that revenue wasn’t coming from subscriptions or advertising. The solution was to offer reviews for a fee. I know many indie authors object to the fee, but it’s the only way the infrastructure of Kirkus can be supported. I see it this way: It’s an opportunity for indie authors to get featured in a nationally recognized publication. If an author doesn’t think they should/want to buy a review, I completely understand. And if they can get reviewed someplace else for free, that’s great. Kirkus is just one option among many.

  3. One last comment if I may.
    Indie authors do everything on their own. We pay for our editing, marketing, formatting (in some cases) cover art, promotional materials, and the like. We don’t have the help of a big wheel publishing company to take a little of the burden off our shoulders.

    What I find extremely sad about Kirkus is that they are no different than the hundreds of other scammers out there all looking to make a quick buck on those authors who are desperate to get the word out about their books. Kirkus cannot state that they don’t fall into this category because the proof is in the fact that they make a HUGE difference between Indie authors and trad. pubbed authors.

    Indies are climbing the charts and making waves in the world of publishing – and 99% of them do this without the help of Kirkus. It’s a slow climb, but a steady one.

    Instead of taking advantage of them, why can’t Kirkus be a company that’s different? Why not HELP Indies? Why not believe in some of these authors (many who are just as talented, if not more talented, than many trad. pubbed authors) and make a statement that says “We are willing to change with the times! We don’t segregate authors, but support all of them equally!”

    If you charge a fair price for EVERYONE for reviews, I guarantee you’ll make more money than you do now AND you’ll have the support of Indie authors. Wouldn’t it be better to be thought of as a company that is fair and good instead of one that scams new writers and makes their living off their desperation?

    If you really want to be unique, step outside the box.

    1. Amen, Nickie. Calculating their 8022 reviews in 2012 made them over 3.2 million (at $400/review) off indies. Sounds to me like they probably pay their employees/reviewers probably well over minimum wage most people in the US don’t make, which includes us authors. I just can’t fathom why they have to charge indies, who aren’t making much off their writing after having to pay for editing, cover, promoting, etc., when they don’t charge the trad published? Yes, it needs to be equal, should be equal no matter what kind of writer you are. Period.

  4. I’m glad someone else saw the flaw in Ms. Schechner’s arguments here.

    Really, the number of feature articles, Kirkus’ own “growth”, the “desirability” of a shiny star, and whatnot is just irrelevant blather. Three libraries and four bookstores I talked to either never heard of your publication or had the barest inkling of what you do. To me, that says more than statistics.

    Ms. Schechner, once again you do NOT answer the single important question you raised in the comments of your original post: Why are independent and self-published book publishers laid upon to shoulder the cost for keeping their company in business? Why do the self-published and the independent published get charged for their reviews, and obviously overcharged by any stretch of the imagination, while traditional publishers get their reviews for free?

    Just your subscriptions should bring in a tad over $1,000,000 a year to Kirkus. Does this not cover your operating nut? Are your expenses so high and the need to show dividends so great … is that why indies are getting bilked? There’s no way you’d do the same thing to traditional publishers, is there?

    If I go over and buy a subscription right now, do I get a free review? Or do I need to by an ad? I’d be glad to; please send me your rate card, Ms. Schechner. Vigilante407@gmail.com. I’m always very interested in promoting my books.

  5. Thanks so much for coming and offering some clarification, Ms. Schechner. It’s nice to hear directly from you, and I appreciate the time you took to write this post and answer some questions. Like the ones commenting above me, this is where I get stuck: “To fund reviewing self-pubbed books, Kirkus had to find a way to pay for the reviewers, editors, copy editors, fact checkers, other staff, as well as overhead, IT expenses, etc., since that revenue wasn’t coming from subscriptions or advertising.”

    If you’re just saying the cost for running the business has to be broken up and evenly distributed among authors (whether self- or trad-pubbed), I can understand that. But is it fairly distributed? In other words, if you broke down the cost, would the Big 5 be paying $425 for each book they’ve had reviewed?

    I ask this with all sincerity. I don’t know the Kirkus process; maybe that’s an accurate breakdown of costs associated with having a Kirkus review.

  6. Ms. Schechner, I think Nicole’s second comment speaks to the heart of the matter. Your policy draws people’s ire because it’s not a uniform policy for everyone. It’s discrimination, and no one likes discrimination (especially the people being discriminated against.) Women don’t like it, religions don’t like it, ethnicities don’t like it and even a lot of people who benefit from it don’t like it (which is a key reason discrimination ends up ultimately failing).

    I like Nicole’s idea of charging everyone. If paying for reviews is a good thing, then everyone should pay. Though, I think your library customers would find your reviews less valuable if they realized it was a pay-to-play situation.

  7. I’ve been an avid reader all my life. I’ve belonged to book clubs and swapped reads with coworkers. Until I became an indie author, I’d never heard of Kirkus. I’m going to assume most readers have not heard of Kirkus and do not rely on their publications when it comes to choosing books to read. I’d guess many of the Kirkus page views are from indie authors who are pricing out your services, and not from the ‘average’ reader looking for a book. I doubt a Kirkus review makes any difference in sales, and since obtaining such a review is so expensive, in my opinion, it isn’t worth the cost.

    Furthermore, I’m suspicious of paid reviews. I don’t think it’s possible for a paid service to be impartial. Maybe I’m wrong.

  8. This policy is blatantly discriminatory in nature and a very questionable business ethic —treating authors, Indies and traditional publishers unequally.

    It seems, then, reviews by Kirkus may also be questionable because of that ‘paid service’. Impartiality is clearly an issue if discrimination is practiced, so why bother at that rate?

  9. Karen, thanks for coming back to us.

    I think the key point is here, in your description of the Kirkus audience: “It is still distributed almost exclusively to industry professionals including agents, book buyers, acquisitions editors, publishers, entertainment development executives….”

    In other words, Kirkus is aimed at the traditional publishing industry. This is the same industry that has continually conflated vanity publishers like Author Solutions with indie publishing. It’s the same industry that has made deals with Author Solutions to run “self-publishing” or “hybrid” platforms for them. And it’s the same industry that keeps on believing that every would-be author really, truly, in his/her heart of hearts, wants a traditional publishing contract, because otherwise he/she won’t be a legitimately published author.

    Please, if you would, let the upper management at Kirkus know that a whole lot of indie authors disagree. To us, the old system — agents, brick-and-mortar bookstore buyers, publishers and acquisitions editors — looks a whole lot like a vulture waiting to prey on us *after* we’ve already proven that we can make money with our work. Otherwise, why would agents and publishers be contacting authors like Hugh Howey to try to get a cut of what he’s already making on his own?

    As others here have said, Kirkus could be a force to break that paradigm by charging for *every* review. Indie publishing is an alternative to traditional publishing, not the new trad-publishing slush pile. Please consider treating us as equals. Thanks.

    1. You put that very well, Lynne, and I agree.
      BTW, where are Ms. Schechner’s replies? It almost makes one wonder if her sole purpose in this post was to insult us and run. If there was an award for evading questions, she would win hands down.

    1. Thanks, Stephen!

      I would love to answer every question. I’ve tried to do that in a previous post, and this particular post was really meant as a correction to some of the facts listed about Kirkus that weren’t quite right.

      At this point, I’ve spent hours answering questions, but unfortunately, I haven’t been able to get to all of them. I’m sorry, but I have to get back to editing and writing about self-publishing for Kirkus, as well as answering questions from other readers and publications. Please scroll through the previous Kirkus post, you may find your question answered there. https://www.indiesunlimited.com/2014/01/07/meet-karen-schechner-from-kirkus-reviews/

      Meanwhile, my favorite Indie book of the moment is Joe Cottonwood’s 99 Jobs: Blood, Sweat and Houses. Many thanks for your patience. If you still have questions, and you don’t mind giving me time to respond, email me at kschechner at kirkus dot com. I look forward to hearing from you. Thanks for reading.

  10. Like Melinda I’m stuck on “To fund reviewing self-pubbed books, Kirkus had to find a way to pay for the reviewers, editors, copy editors, fact checkers, other staff, as well as overhead, IT expenses, etc., If I presented a book to you for review, I can assure you it has seen a professional editor, copy editor, graphic artist etc. Can’t your reviewers handle this diddie on their own, or must your entire staff be compensated for back up?

  11. Translation: once we figured out that we could soak writers, our profits increased. And there are enough writers out there who think Kirkus and bookstore owners are important to them, that we’re doing very well indeed. Thank God we don’t have to just get by on retail sales like Consumer Reports or something.

  12. I hope Kirkus Indie hears the concerns of Indie Author voices, and is willing to evolve with the rapid changes in publishing world- Indie Authors can be a great asset in the near future to their business if they play fair.

  13. I don’t think anyone is listening. I don’t think anyone there will. The mere fact that there is “Kirkus” for the traditional publishers and “Kirkus Indies” for us should speak loads.

    I’m not quite sure what Ms. Schechner’s point was in this post, as it wasn’t much of rebuttal to anything that I originally said. Now, if her intent was to keep Kirkus in everyone’s mind and make sure we knew all the “hard” work and “major” expenses they incur to put out their magazine and newsletter, well she’s accomplished that in spades.

    I don’t know of a single person who would bother using Kirkus for any reason. Unless someone else was picking up that atrociously high tab, that is.

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