Insiders Guide to Good Reads and Good Writing

By Heidi Simmons

Hollywood producers have “Variety,” medical doctors have “JAMA” and book buyers have “Kirkus.” 

Since 1933, “Kirkus Reviews” has been providing honest criticism of fiction, nonfiction, teen and children’s books.  From Barnes and Noble to local Librarians, Kirkus is the go-to publication to inform those who purchase books to sell and to shelve.

Kirkus reviews over 7,000 books a year with 400 active reviewers.  Everyday, publishers deliver new books in galley form (pre-print copies) four to six months in advance for review.  Kirkus in turn provides a 300 to 350 word criticism two to three months before the publishing deadline.   

Find a good book and you’ll likely discover a short, italicized, quoted blurb on the back signed only as — Kirkus Reviews.  Kirkus critics remain anonymous.  But Kirkus is more than just reviews.  It is an industry insider print magazine published twice a month with author interviews, literary discussions and publishing information.  There is also an electronic magazine, newsletter and website.

Their best reviews result in the “Kirkus Star.”  Only nine percent of Kirkus reviewed books receive the honor.  In 2014, Kirkus initiated an annual prize — The Kirkus Prize — of $150,000 which is divided between three authors.

What you may not know is “Kirkus Reviews” also provides literary services.  They have an “Indie” department that covers self-publishing authors.  A Kirkus critic will review work at a cost of $425.  More if you want it faster.  But, be aware, there are no refunds if the criticism is negative.

Need your manuscript polished?  Kirkus has a book editing division, “Kirkus Editorial,” which offers professional copyediting from top publishing houses.  Proofreading to stylistic input, Kirkus delivers trusted critical recommendations.  They even have a marketing arm to help build a campaign and promote indie work.

Last week, I had the good fortune to sit down and talk with Claiborne “Clay”  Smith, the Editor in Chief of “Kirkus Reviews.”  Smith is a young man with an easy-going manner.  He is bright, curious and definitely loves books.

CVW:  What is your background and how did you come to be Editor in Chief of such a prestigious periodical?

Smith:  I was raised in Amarillo, Texas, and studied Latin at UT [University of Texas], Austin.  After I graduated, I asked if I could intern at the “Austin Chronicle” and they said “Yes.”  I became really interested in journalism.  I liked the idea of translating difficult ideas into something readable.  After graduate school at NYU (Smith’s degree is in Cultural Reporting and Criticism), I came back to Austin where I worked for the Texas Book Festival as their literary director.  I did that for eight years and then worked for the Sundance Film Festival writing about the filmmakers.  Kirkus has offices in New York and Texas, and I applied as a feature editor in Austin.

CVW:  How do you define Kirkus’ role and why is “Kirkus Reviews” important?

Smith:  Our role is to provide honest opinions.  We have been reviewing books for 84 years. Honesty matters more than ever.  When you visit your library, there are lots of choices, and it’s important that the librarian is able to recommend a book based on a truthful review.  Kirkus provides context, a shorthand and the basic low-down about books.

CVW:  What part does Kirkus play in publishing?

Smith:  We are like the checks and balances of the publishing industry because we are known as truth-tellers.  Our reviews provide a sounding board for publishers.  We forecast a book’s possible success.  We have helped indie books and self-publishers get recognized as well.

CVW: In your opinion, what does the future of publishing look like?

Smith:  I think it will become more niche.  It may be more topic related and specific where writers are framed to speak to a particular audience.  More typecasting — like gay, celebrity, news.  That’s not just the book publishing industry, but also films and music.  The good news is publishers are hungry, hungry, hungry for new voices who have something to say.

CVW:  What is your favorite part of the job as Editor in Chief?

Smith:  I get to interview whomever I want.  Kirkus celebs are literary celebrities like Toni Morrison and Don Delillo.

CVW: What’s your favorite book of all time and why?

Smith:  I read One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez in high school.  That book wasn’t like anything I had ever read.  It made me realize time can be a tool in fiction.  The narrative doesn’t have to be — This happens, then this happens, and then this happens.

CVW: What’s best about books?

Smith:  Books are like nothing else.  You get to experience an inner consciousness and the human condition.  You feel like you’ve entered someone else’s life.  It’s a wonderful and rare pleasure.  Not all are Noble Prize winners, but there is always something entertaining.

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