Genre Reviews and Commercial Reviewers

Kirkus Reviews

Kirkus Reviews


I normally just pay for one review from Indie Reader, who are the indie version of a Kirkus or Publishers Weekly-style institutional reviewer. These institutional reviews are typically paid for by the publisher, but because their reputation as unbiased reviewers is what keeps the review companies in business, they are valued as neutral reviewers, though there are hints of bias — one could speculate they shade their reviews to avoid crossing the Big 5 publishers, and so will tend to go easy on “big books” that a publisher intends to push hard. But any favoritism to heavy advertisers is light enough that you can be sure that a truly bad book won’t be recommended, and a recommended book will be at least competent.

If I’m a publisher of reviews, I have several goals that sometimes conflict. If I’m the New York Times Book Review, I know my reviews will be read for entertainment by a readership that skews high in literary education and income, so my reviews will tend to play to that audience, which is why genres like science fiction and romance have a hard time even getting reviewed there, and often starting with two strikes against the book. If I’m running a SF&F website, my audience is readers of the specific genre, and the review will assume familiarity with the conventions of the genre and compare the book with other similar works, rather than being based on how the average literary fiction reader would view them. And in narrower niches, like mil-SF or zombie fantasy, it is assumed the readers of the review start out liking this sort of story, with these sorts of characters.

So I was leery of spending my publisher’s money to get a Kirkus review done. The review was glowing, but without the coveted star that tends to get notice from other reviewers and purchasing agents. I was interested in how they had treated other genre books, so I did a quick survey.

It appears that in the past, Kirkus assigned reviewers who were less than sympathetic to the book’s genre and intended audience. This review made me laugh:

GHOST by John Ringo

Mindless, misogynistic military slaughterfest, a change of scene from the author’s usual military SF beat (When the Devil Dances, 2001, etc.).

A middle-aged ex-SEAL with creaky joints, a bad back and a wrecked marriage, Mike Harmon retired on 50% disability and opted to return to college. But when Mike—codename: Ghost—observes a young co-ed being expertly snatched off the street, he investigates, and discovers a warehouse from which Islamic terrorists are shipping kidnapped girls off to the Middle East. Mike frees two girls and kills many opponents. As another consignment of girls leaves, Mike hops into the plane’s wheel well and ends up inside a terrorist base in Syria, where the bad guys are preparing to rape, torture and kill the girls in front of a video camera on the theory that this will induce the U.S. to withdraw from the Middle East. Fortunately, Mike has a GPS phone, so he calls in. Decisive President Cliff orders a SEAL team to the rescue. But girls are already dying, so Mike goes in himself, kills bin Laden and what seems like half the Syrian army. Despite being shot full of holes, Mike hangs in until the SEALs arrive. For his bravery, he receives a monetary reward and later gets to indulge his sexual fetishes (bondage, dominance) with a couple of co-eds in Florida. In the Bahamas, he kills many terrorists, gets shot full of holes and receives much money. In Eastern Europe, he indulges his taste for rape, kills many terrorists, etc.

Disturbing and disgusting. An incentive to never read books again.

But other than that, how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln? This is Ringo. His books aren’t likely to be accidentally considered for reading by people like the reviewer, so the review is useless for deciding which violent testosterone-infused male fantasy adventure book to buy for people who enjoy that sort of thing.

One of the best writers of science fiction and fantasy, Lois McMasters Bujold, never got a starred review from Kirkus. Here’s the summary of their review of middle Miles Vorkosigan in Mirror Dance: “A well-conceived series, solidly plotted and organized, though heavy going in places and, finally, lacking that spark of genuine originality that would blazon it as truly special.” Kind of missing the point, no?

I was talking to my husband about this, and he commented that he discounted all science fiction movie reviews in major media until recently because most were so biased against the genre. The situation is changing as more younger reviewers who are steeped in genre get into reviewing positions, but it’s still hard to get respect for even the finest SF&F writing unless it comes with New York-style literary credentials.

5 comments

  1. I thought I had a calm, well-reasoned comment, until the profanity emerged.
    I’m reflecting upon the reasons that I find the Kirkus practices so irritating; it may be because I’m jealous, I suppose. They make money for their reviews, and I don’t. On the other hand, I don’t NEED to make money, having a comfortable (not luxurious!) retirement income.
    No, I think Brother Curtis has correctly pointed out the reason for my dissatisfaction: I love the genre, and they don’t.
    So, the fact that I give it away for free, and they charge for it, doesn’t NECESSARILY mean that they are prostitutes who hate their clients.

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    1. The Big 4 (if memory serves) institutional book reviewers were all supported by subscriptions and advertising. The changes in publishing, the Internet, budget issues at libraries that subscribed, etc., changed that. Kirkus went out of business briefly then was revived, with funding from publisher advertising packages. They only charge directly for indie reviews, but you can be sure that what is reviewed for free is influenced by publisher spend – “pay to play.” Some people do reviews because it’s a hobby for them, others acting as journalists and looking for support (in the form of clicks, advertising, free books, notoriety) in return. So only small hobbyist reviewers are “pure,” and even they have axes to grind.

      A big publication like the New York Times Book Review is largely ad-supported. But that kind of reviewer is in some sense parasitic — they are providing some of the content of nonfiction, especially, for free to readers who might not have time to read or know about the books covered. The book publishers benefit from the few who read the review then decide to buy the book, a happy tradeoff that benefits everyone. But publisher money (check most of the ads) supports the enterprise, so there is subtle influence that makes it especially unlikely they will review small press and self-pubbed books, and indeed they rarely do.

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