The second coming of Kirkus Review

by |February 14, 2010

When Kirkus Reviews closed its doors in December the headline read like an article from The Onion. The venerable magazine which had built its prodigious reputation on its huge output of  prepublication reviews since 1933 was the latest victim of a belt-tightening crisis that has cut a swathe through US and UK media empires (and sadly, their often more profitable Australian publishing offshoots).

While Kirkus Reviews was not especially well known amongst the public, it was for decades the first stop for librarians and booksellers who daily have to make decisions about what to stock on the shelves. For small publishers, it was often the only place they could expect a write-up.

For authors, it was more of a mixed blessing. The prospect of a review from Kirkus was greeted with the same degree of trepidation as  having to front up for a random tax audit – followed by either elation or a sinking heart, according to the review.

“When I was a book publicist, the worst part of my job was having to read a Kirkus review over the phone to an author. 2 cigs before, 2 after,” recalled Laura Zigman, an author and former book publicist for Alfred A. Knopf, in a Twitter post back in December.

However, times change, and in more recent years, the position of this flagship journal had waned so much that its owner, Nielsen company, wanted out.

The New York Times put it this way.

In some ways it seemed that the passing of Kirkus was mourned much like the local deli that finally closes after a long battle with a landlord — missed as much in theory as because of its practical effect on the market.

“While I hate to see the closing of another major book review outlet, truth be told, it’s been a long time since a review there actually moved the needle in any meaningful way,” wrote Tim Duggan, executive editor at Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, in an e-mail message. “It has less to do with Kirkus than with the way the rest of the media marketplace has evolved.”

Well, mourn no longer.

Arguably the most august literary journal in Northern America was been snapped up on Friday by the  most unlikely of people – Herb Simon.

“I love books and have long subscribed to Kirkus,” said Simon, addressing his decision to buy the journal. “With the growth of e-books and e-reading devices, no one can really see the future of publishing. But turmoil like this creates opportunities. At a time when even the definition of a book is changing, my love of books makes me want to be part of the solution for the book-publishing industry.”

Herb Simon is  the owner of the Indiana Pacers of the N.B.A., and chairman emeritus of the shopping mall developer Simon Property Group. Go figure. It seems that his publishing and bookselling experience comes from his co-ownership of a bookshop in California. However, he won’t be going in completely blind. He is retaining Kirkus Review’s current editorial leadership, with Elaine Szewczyk as editor and Eric Liebetrau as managing editor.

Let’s not quibble about ownership. Just thank our lucky stars that the journal is staying open – at least until our book is subject to its unflinching gaze.

(The jacket images are three of Kirkus’ – and Booktopia Buzz’ – favourites from last year).

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