Why Reviews Matter: Kirkus Indie’s Karen Schechner Weighs In

Building buzz around a book is a long-term project, one built up gradually from many small efforts. Earning positive reviews for your work is a big step forward, but it’s not just about piling up five-star reviews from your biggest fans on Amazon or Goodreads. Research shows that positive reviews really begin to have an impact when the sources are seen as impartial and trustworthy. So how does a self-published author get a review like that?

Many authors turn to professional reviewing services like Kirkus Reviews. Kirkus is a big player in the book world—they’ve been in business since 1933. In exchange for a fee, Kirkus has a professional reviewer read the book and supply an unbiased review of 250–350 words. Reviews can be kept private or published to the Kirkus website and distributed to licensees including Google, Barnes & Noble, and Ingram. Over the years, Kirkus has established a reputation for independence and frankness. Earning a Kirkus star is a coup for any author, but the service isn’t cheap, and there’s no guarantee a review will be positive. Seeking a professional review, such as a Kirkus Indie book review, is a significant investment and your book needs to be ready to face the challenge.

We spoke to Karen Schechner, Senior Indie Editor for Kirkus, about what the company does and how self-publishers can best use their service.

Blurb: Kirkus Reviews is a long established name in the publishing industry. When did the company begin accepting self-published titles?
Karen Schechner: Kirkus’ Indie program started in 2005 when the editors wanted to expand their coverage to include the fastest growing segment in the book industry—self-publishing. To meet scale, selection and financing challenges, Kirkus created a review service for self-publishers called Kirkus Discoveries, now Kirkus Indie. Authors finance the indie book reviews themselves and guarantee selection for review, but the books are held to the same high standard as books published by the major houses. The program gives self-publishers the chance to earn honest critical acclaim.

Blurb: Many writers, especially those on a budget, may be hesitant to pay for a review. Why should self-published authors turn to Kirkus?
KS: Getting a positive review from Kirkus can help an author boost sales, find an agent and/or publisher, sell the foreign rights, or, in Darcie Chan’s case, reach New York Times and USA Todaybestsellerdom [Chan was an early self-publishing success story, selling hundreds of thousands of copies of her debut novel]. The author also gets thoughtful feedback on his or her book from a professional reviewer, which can then be used to garner more media attention.

Blurb: Indie authors generally don’t have the marketing resources of a large company, so a single review might have a big impact. What should authors expect?
KS: As with reviews of traditionally published books, so much depends on the book itself. When an author publishes a review (whether to publish the review is up to the author), the book review may be seen by agents, editors, booksellers, librarians, and book buyers. The Kirkus website gets more than 1.5 million page views monthly, so book reviews certainly get a lot of exposure. But it will also be incumbent on the author to enthusiastically market the book.

Blurb: How have you seen indie publishing evolve in recent years? Where are authors improving and where do they still need help?
KS: The percentage of well-written, polished, professionally edited titles, whether print or ebook, has gone up significantly, and booksellers and publishers have responded: Independent bookstores are continuing to develop their programs to work with self-published authors, and many agents are actively scouting indie authors. Also, the number of self-published titles continues to climb (422 percent since 2007, according to Bowker). Last year, Kirkus Indie reviewed more than 4,000 books. Some standouts have included Bulletin of Zombie Research: Volume 1, 99 Jobs: Blood, Sweat, and Houses, and Tales of a Country Doctor. We’re also seeing interesting titles that may not have the market to entice a “big five” publisher, but will make some readers very happy, like Sutro’s Glass Palace, which Kirkus called a “beautiful resource about a mysterious San Francisco landmark.”

Blurb: What are the most common triggers for a negative book review?
KS: The most common complaint from reviewers is probably that the book was poorly edited. Overly expository dialogue is another bugbear. Quick pacing can cover a multitude of sins; when the pace dawdles, reviewers tend to notice. And, while reviewers don’t generally comment on them, covers matter! Particularly to scouting agents.

Blurb: How can indie authors best leverage a positive review?
KS: The best way to answer that question is to download Kirkus’ free marketing guide  for independent authors.

Blurb: In your opinion, what are the three biggest hurdles indie authors need to tackle to make their book stand out and find readers?
KS: The biggest hurdles I see for authors are:

  • Quitting before the book is polished; we see a lot of GIPEs (good idea, poor execution). This includes finding and hiring an experienced editor.
  • Building a readership. It’s a long process, but a focused marketing campaign can make a difference.
  • Becoming daunted by the prospect of self-publishing. Guy Kawasaki’s comprehensive guide to self-publishing—APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur—can remedy that.

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 independent booksellers for nearly a decade. She also volunteers as a senior editor at the Lambda Literary Foundation.


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