Saturday, December 12, 2009

Kirkus – The Value of Book Reviews in a Digital World?

The book trade sees yet another change, this time in the closure of the Kirkus Review. Many have not ever seen it, let alone read it and it is true to say that over time, its relevance and importance has diminished. Established in 1933 by Virginia Kirkus, the Review aimed to give the trade independent reviews and it produced some 5,000 reviews a year. These were subscribed to and read by book buyers and libraries and help them form a judgment on the suitability of new a title. Nielson Business Media , who own the Review, have announced the sale of its stable of titles and the death of Kirkus and its sister titles.

The world has moved on in many ways. We now have online access to new old and lost books in all shapes and sizes. We can view the jacket, read the marketing produced blurb, read more about the author or related titles, see a video about the book, hear the author on a podcast, read a sample of the book and also read readers views and recommendations and do all this at a click. We have newspaper reviews, which may be mere advertising dressed up as editorial but are freely available. We have sales charts dissecting every genre, price band and minutia of data. We have Google book search, Google Editions and the rest of Google world. The world now no longer craves the pithy, independent review but now seek instant, sound bite ad editorial and can get it online and for free. We had Oprah and Richard and Judy’s own celebrity review spin on a book club and TV couch reviews. We have the spawning of social book reading groups.

The problem was at the time Kirkus had a real asset, they didn’t understand its relevance to tomorrow and how the vast arsenal of information could be leveraged.

Unlike others, such as Muze in the music sector, they didn’t understand the changes that were happening, the impact of the Internet and the power of search, discovery and review. After all their management group have not a great track record of innovation, vision and often have been behind the curve playing catch up with others in the market.

The big question remains – what is the value of the review business? Is context a tangible asset in its own right or just a ‘door opener’ to content? My wife has a library of some 75,000 reviews which she has created to sell the thousands of titles she has stocked and sold in depth. The trick in her case is she knows her membership, she knows why the book will work and why she selected it and also she can communicate this succinctly within a review. She then importantly knows what worked and what didn’t and can continually hone the blurbs. Someone asked this week why she didn’t just download them from the publisher or the internet. Her answer was that she wanted words that sold books and that also reflected their content to the reader and that the books she was selling were often the ones that the publisher had failed get right in the first place. Given the miserly price once offered by Nielson for her review library, it’s hardly surprising they lost the plot.

The interesting question now is who will buy the Kirkus collection of reviews. Maybe a publisher could publish a collection of which reviews worked and which failed to spot a winner and slated a best seller. Maybe Google will just pick them up for chump change and add them to their book search. After all, if they and others are going to exploit those orphans and lost works there are probably many hidden pointers in the Review’s library. There is real value in these reviews but it’s not about historic record and archive. We are sure that someone will pick up the reviews at a bargain price and understand that the value in the right hands is neither about the brand, nor the legacy but often about being the only independent reference in town.

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