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A Literary & Poetry Column
By Carolyn Howard-Johnson

Carolyn Berates the Skunk-Like Odor Emanating from Paid-For Reviews

    Are you going to plunk down your $ for something tainted?

    There is an old saying: “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” I’m revising the adage to: “An old dog can go terribly awry when it tries a new trick.”

   Furthermore, by the time a dog is old, he should know better than to take on something that smacks of the word ‘trick’ and he should sure as heck know when to turn up his nose at something that smells like skunk!

    No, I’m not losing my mind. And, you may have guessed, I’m not talking about dogs here. I’m talking about the venerable Kirkus Reviews that has been respected by authors and librarians everywhere since 1933. It is published in print 24 times a year, and now has an online branch as well. It critiques some 5,000 titles--books of all kinds--in that period of time. It wields enormous power. A Kirkus review (or lack of one) can make or break a book by influencing the major book buyers in the country--both bookstores and libraries.

    I recently wrote to their editors taking them to task for not attaching the names of the reviewer to each of their reviews. Kirkus’ own site says “The reviews are reliable and authoritative, written by specialists selected for their knowledge and expertise in a particular field.” It doesn't say that these reviews are often (always?) unsigned. It seems to me that anyone with the kind of influence these critics wield over the welfare of a book should be willing--nay, required-- to attach her name to whatever praise or vitriol she dishes out and I told them so. That was only a couple of weeks ago and now this! THIS!!

   Here is what has ticked me off: Kirkus is offering a new service to self-publishers and POD authors (and, it has come to light more recently) big publishers who feel their books were passed over unjustly. This isn’t a new ploy. Fly-by-night reviewers have been preying on desperate authors in this way for some time but Kirkus should know better.

     Such Pay-for-Review works against authors two ways. First an entity like Kirkus knows that books it chooses not to review will be their most likely paying customers; this is not a situation that encourages a just, evenhanded selection process. Not that the method has ever been something that assured all worthy authors of consideration, but at least there was no reason for this journal--or any other-- not to attempt to choose the crème de la crème of submitted books, or at least the books that best fit their editorial needs.

   Second: There is no way that a reviewer who is being paid by the author or publisher of the same work under consideration can offer a fair review to her readers. After all, if the journal bashed 9 of 10 of these books, pretty soon no one would be paying them for a reviewing service! Further, no matter how fair the critique, it cannot be trusted any more than one trusts the press secretaries and spin doctors who work for this or any other president’s administration; when one is in the employ of another, one's attitude is forever changed, for better or worse.

    One of our industry's promotion gurus recently informed his newsletter subscribers of this new “perk” offered by Kirkus. It would naturally appeal to his readers, many of whom are independent or small publishers or emerging authors. He said, “Do I think this is a good deal? No, probably not.” He feels that because of Kirkus’ fine reputation, it might be worth the fee (some two to three hundred dollars!) for the value of being able to quote something positive from Kirkus.

   He isn’t exactly wrong. He’s looking at this like the great promoter he is--something I, with a book out like THE FRUGAL BOOK PROMOTER: HOW TO DO WHAT YOUR PUBLISHER WON'T am in total sympathy with. But he isn’t exactly right either. The “assets” that a publisher or author might reap from plunking down their hard-earned cash is going to be tainted--if not right now then later when people figure out that something here, truly stinks.

    I’m dating myself with this story, but in the old days, journalism schools had ethics classes and they still do. We were told not to take out-and-out bribes or to accept gifts and to be very careful to write careful, clean, unbiased copy. TV reared its inexperienced head and producers hadn't any training in journalism--or, obviously, ethics. The payola scandals emerged from the lush, rich land of TVland and everyone got squeaky clean because now (gasp!) the public had their number.

   Well, I’m here to tell you that this is akin to the payola scandals. We have here another cycle. This kind of thing undermines the public trust and that public includes book buyers and the wholesale level and book readers at the retail level. Thanks to a higher power who loves books we still have Library Journal and a few good newspapers but I worry. If Kirkus leads and makes a lot of money will the rest follow? Maybe so. And if so, our only hope will be to quit using their d---products so they'll die a well-deserved death! Let's hear it from the public. “Do not foul our free press! Leave our opinion pages and criticism unpolluted.”

    If you think I am over reacting consider: Our Democratic system is based on free speech and our free press is its watchdog. Speaking of dogs again, they tend to have good noses. Mine is lots less astute and even I can smell something rotten in the publishing world.

Tips and Tidbits

Each month in this box, Carolyn lists a writing or promotion tidbit that will help authors and a tip to help readers find a treasure among long-neglected books or a sapphire among the newly-published.

Writers' Tidbit: Here is where you can access a stylebook without running off to the library or getting a reporter friend to swipe one from her newspaper’s library? Go to It’s a free alert. Or for $55 you can invest in a guide of your own.

For promoting authors: Go to for leads to radio programs that might be looking for you as an expert. Also, check out www.StarPublish for my new book of nitty gritty promotion ideas.

Here is another site that may interest writers:

Kudos to the SPAN CONNECTION for providing some of these leads. It’s my favorite in-print newsletter. You can only get it by joining SPAN and it’s well worth the membership fee! You can get a trial copy, however, by sending an e-mail to Tell her I sent you.

Readers' Tip: Have you discovered Amazon’s “Listmanias?” Go to to check mine out. And get in the “Listmania” habit! It’s a great way to find out what other avid readers are reading and what they like.

2004 Past Columns

Carolyn Berates the Skunk-Like Odor Emanating from Paid-For Reviews

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