Old Discoveries in New Disguises

25 05 2007

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By Derek Beres

A few years ago a local NYC publicist started a new service, which entailed assigning band’s CDs to professional writers for “honest” reviews of their work. The service cost $20, half of which was kept the publicist, half to the writer. In a sense, the band makes out as they get a bit of criticism, and the publicist makes out as serving as a conduit between two parties. As usual, the only one to not really make out is the writer, who has to listen to a full CD a few times, then write a review, all for $10. After about two months it was exposed in a Brooklyn-based weekly for being a fledgling form of payola, and was promptly shut down. That’s one thing about the music industry – it’s quick to speak up when it sees forms of corruption, no matter how small or large a level it operates.

I could only think of the continual screwing of the writer reading about Kirkus Discoveries. The new companion site to the industry-standard Kirkus Reviews, it’s a new wing to help POD and self-published authors receive some sort of feedback from professional writers, “written in the same format and style as a traditional Kirkus Review.” Here’s my favorite part:

A review is commissioned ($350 per title ) from the Discoveries team, who assigns the book to one person within the Kirkus pool of professional reviewers, who in turn provides an honest, caveat-emptor evaluation, under the same impartial rubric as Kirkus Reviews .

Well thank heavens we have an impartial rubric to deal with! What’s happening in publishing, however, is the same process as what’s going on in music. “Industry standards” are being usurped by more local and independent media outlets. The entire premise of Print On Demand has changed how you can navigate about the industry. Given the way publishing behemoth Simon & Schuster recently tried to pull out their own scheme using this technology, they are trying to do what they only wish they could do if they had a governing entity like the RIAA: force their way into every available nook in the consumer market.

What matters in every industry is distribution, something POD currently lacks in the brick-and-mortar retail sense. Bookstores are not going to buy your book because there is a “no return” policy attached, and stores rarely hold onto titles for longer than that because of a tax law a few years ago which does not allow them to write off unsold books. But industry giants do not want to only control the reliable market; they want all of them, present and future. (Why else would Borders own B. Dalton, if not to have the top and bottom of the food chain?) Kirkus’ move is just another example of this.

Considering, according to their site, they receive 200-400 titles a day (!) and publish 5,000 reviews annually, they are certainly an important resource for the publishing industry. But here’s the catch: who of the younger generations is rifling through the graphically unattractive, library-formed guide they produce to find out about what to read? What publishing has lacked for some time is an image. Sure, the argument goes: it’s about the words, and the story. And in many ways, it is. But that’s like an independent musician selling burned CDRs on the street with his name and album title written in Sharpie, while the guy next to him has a fully finished product. “Come on man, it’s about the music!” Perhaps, but if you have not taken the time to make the surrounding product look and feel like what’s supposedly inside, then you’re wasting my time as well as yours.

Hence, Kirkus Discoveries, and their inane tagline: Has Your Book Been Overlooked? Do You Need Exposure? Do You Want To Be Discovered? Trifling, depressing and archaic. And, certainly, many authors will fall for it. They’re playing off an old authoring mentality that they hold the mirror to see your illusion within, when the bottom line is that they want your money. Any artist should never have to pay for a review of their work, whatever their medium. The supporting media structure has to find a way to support themselves, and their reviewers, through other means: advertising, promotions, parties, benefits – there’s a host of ways. To make the author pay is irresponsible, and but one more nail in the coffin they themselves are hammering.

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