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As an amateur writer who has just finished my first manuscript, I want a qualified, non-biased, and thorough opinion on whether what I've written is any good.

I recently heard about a service offered by Kirkus where I can pay about $400 or $500 to receive a "professional review" of my manuscript. Kirkus dangles the possibility that the review might be read by someone important, leading to publishing offers -- but for now, I'm just interested in getting the pro-caliber feedback than the long-shot at exposure.

So is it worth it for me -- a hopeful upstart with my first manuscript in hand -- to pay for a Kirkus review? Again, what I'm interested in is the feedback, not the potential exposure.

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Aside from the options mentioned below, I have to plug the Online Writing Workshop as the best critique group I've ever seen. –  JSBձոգչ Feb 7 '12 at 19:54
    
OP doesn't say what genre their writing fits in. Are there other similar options for works that don't fit in Sci Fi, Fantasy, and Horror? –  Joe Feb 9 '12 at 22:28

6 Answers 6

up vote 10 down vote accepted

It's really good that you're looking for professional critique - that's a really helpful thing to have! However, a Kirkus book review might well be the wrong address.

Kirkus Reviews

A Kirkus review exists to help people find books they want to read, or to choose whether or not to buy a particular book. What you're looking for is a critique - feedback highlighting both the faults and merits of your particular book. The two goals may be somewhat related, but for $400 and upwards, you can do a whole lot better than "somewhat related."

I've just browsed some of the Kirkus indie reviews. Look at those and see if that's the type of criticism that you think you'll find helpful. Notice that in general, the reviews are half a simple description of the book - not very important to you, but extremely important to people who want to know "what the book's about" - and half opinion as to what in the book works and why, mostly in general terms addressing the novel as a whole rather than going in-depth to characters, scenes, etc. That's not unhelpful. But it's not a whole lot, either.

In addition, a serious concern is how reliable the Kirkus indie reviews are. The ones which I've browsed often portray their books as a mixed bag, with some things done well and others serving as flaws - so this isn't a "buy a glowing review" scam. But even mixed reviews can be suspect. The tone, phrasing and generality of many of the partially-positive review makes me suspicious that "the good stuff" is simply "the least bad stuff," portrayed positively so that the reviews don't all come off as excessively negative.

This suspicion is acute because Kirkus is pitching to self-publishers here, not to readers. When your target audience is readers and book buyers, you succeed most if they come to trust your reviews. When your target audience is self-publishers, you succeed if they think they're getting good publicity for their books. Note how the Indie reviews are held seperate from the regular ones - they're aimed at two different segments. So, if you consider pursuing such a review for feedback purposes, then you really want to check out how reliable the reviews are. Maybe read a couple reviewed books yourself, and see if the reviews match; at very least look for unbiased reviews elsewhere.

Non-Kirkus Reviews

Those are all reasons Kirkus sounds to me like a poor option for feedback (for publicizing your book, that's a whole different story, which I won't get into here). Here's are two suggestion I think might be more appropriate.

Firstly, you started out asking for qualified, non-biased, and thorough feedback. How about two out of three? There are many venues for getting your work critiqued by fellow writing enthusiasts. I'm personally a big fan of the Critters workshop, which has a well-established track for getting novel critiques. If you've never been in a workshop or a critique circle before, you might be surprised how helpful they can be. Readers may not be "qualified" editors, but they read and love their genre - they're the type of reader you're writing for, so at very least, they can be a great guide to whether you're getting across what you'd like to, and what impressions random readers have from your work. And these aren't random readers - these are readers who write, and some of them know a little about it. Of course, if you get somebody whose criticism resonates with you, then you'll find that incredibly helpful, even if it's not professional-level. A lot of feedback from a hobbyist beats a few lines of feedback from a pro.

Similarly, you can probably find friends and acquaintances who can be a big help (if you haven't done so already). What's most important is that (A) they be somebody whose opinion you respect, and (B) they thoroughly understand that you prefer honest criticism, even if harsh. When soliciting feedback, what's most important isn't suggestions for improvement - most amateur suggestions will not be immediately helpful or beneficial. What's important is understanding what the reader's response to the book was. That's what they can report on unerringly; how you can improve your work to get better responses is an issue for later.

Again, these might not be qualified critiques, but they're extremely helpful in gauging where your writing stands. Jumping to a professional review without getting more modest, accessible feedback is a waste - because really, why not get both? And why not get the expensive feedback after you've made as many improvements as you can with the free stuff?

Secondly, consider hiring an editor. Editors and reviewers hire out same as everybody else; find somebody who can do the job you need, rather then the job Kirkus is offering. Offhand, two blogs I follow do review work for pay, Nancy Fulda and Mette Ivie Harrison. I'm not recommending these two specifically (one of them isn't even an option - Nancy Fulda only accepts new clients by reference), but they can give you an idea of what services to look for and what kind of prices to expect. If you go this route, WATCH OUT FOR SCAMS.

Any way you wind up choosing, best of luck, with this piece and with future ones!

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All very good points! If I was going to spend money on a newly finished manuscript, I think it would be better spent on an editor than a paid review service. Also, I would strongly hesitate before asking friends, relatives or acquaintance to review it. My experience is that they will seldom read the whole thing and always tell you it was great. These are people who care about you and are not going to want to hurt your feelings. –  Steven Drennon Feb 7 '12 at 14:47
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Thanks for this thorough answer! I checked out Critters and it seems like it could be a good source of just the type of feedback I had in mind. –  Shane F. Feb 8 '12 at 20:59
    
Just ran across this at Mysterious Matters: "Paid reviews don't matter and don't affect sales. They are a waste of time, a waste of money. Nobody takes them seriously. Most pay-for-review sites are taking advantage of those who take part in vanity publishing activities. Kirkus (shame on them, but heck--they DO have to pay the bills) now has a pay-for-review part of the magazine; nobody even looks at those reviews." –  Standback Mar 5 '12 at 19:42

Do not trust Kirkus Indie to provide a real review. I have had a very bad experience with them. I'll say it loud and clear: stay away!

I assumed that a company of their repute would, surely, give a full read of the manuscript. I paid $575 for a review (express service). The resulting review was ridiculous - it made such gross mistakes describing the plot, I can guarantee the reviewer never read the entire work. They did skim it enough to check correct spellings of character names right and pick out a few choice details, but I cannot believe they made any more effort than that. The so-called "problems" with the narrative simply did not exist. There was a major aberration of the story arc as a whole and therefore, the reviewer just summed it all up the way he/she wanted to see it.

My efforts to complain and to demand a refund were firmly rebuffed, though I am certain I could prove my case if they'd simply give me a chance to.

In conclusion, Kirkus Indie is a scam and should be avoided. They're certainly not a good address for seeking a helpful assessment of your work.

Please note:

O.K. with the edit--but I did present my "case" in a clear, logical manner--asking that the editor there ask the reviewer only a few brief, but pertinent questions (proving my assurance that she did not read major, crucial sections) and I asked that it be done in a live call. Not in an email. (as it would give time for the writer to go back to the manuscript to answer those questions). I suggested this as the Kirkus Indie CEO assured me that every reviewer assigned a book must read the entire work. This is something they are adamant about, she assured me. However, when it got down to the wire, both she and the editor ignored my request and responded with tepid, defensive statements from their reviewer--who was interrogated via email about anything but my questions. The attitude was: "Too bad." it's "her opinion". The problem is, she was factually and demonstratively incorrect. They clearly did not care to get to the truth of the matter. They only wanted to protect their position as the bottom line for them was to keep my money. That's another thing: they say "Well, if you don't like the review we'll make sure it never sees the light of day." They actually say this. And proudly. Like they're doing you a big favor.

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I rewrote this to serve less as a rant, and more directly address the question. At any rate, my condolences for the lousy experience, and thanks for warning us about it! –  Standback Jun 15 '12 at 10:46
    
@Standback, I did a little fine-tuning on your edit. If anyone doesn't like what I did, please feel free to revert my edit. –  Neil Fein Jun 15 '12 at 14:41
    
I wrote a comment here yesterday. I am wondering where that is. –  A Writer Jun 15 '12 at 18:02
    
In a way, I'm not surprised. The whole thing sounds very suspicious to me- an easy way to help part novices from their money. Caveat Emptor. –  Shantnu Tiwari Jun 16 '12 at 21:57

I have just been through the experience of having obtained a Kirkus Review. I paid for the expedited version. I feel violated. The review was worse than disappointing. The review gave an introductory somewhat inaccurate plot summary, and then added some comments that were so damaging that they would guarantee that no-one would want to read the book. The comments were distorted. For example, the book was a memoir and I describe a legendary London folk club where many famous singer-songwriter musicians were discovered. The reviewer states that the people that I met in this place were "increasingly notorious." I wrote to Kirkus to complain that this was very inaccurate and I got a response that it was the subjective view of their qualified reviewer. This changes the entire thrust of the book from a young girl finding mentors and role models to a young girl being corrupted by disreputable people. Basically, the review was a joke, and you could almost hear the staff at Kirkus laughing as they took my money and gave me a handful of beans in return. There should be laws against this. What I experienced was fraud. I would have understood if the review had been legitimately critical of real flaws -- but it was more along the lines of being insulted, and they refused to change the insulting wording, stating that it was in their contract that it was subjective. My view is this: if a company promises to help a writer get all kinds of amazing offers and they cannot deliver - they will invent a reason to pan the work.

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My standard response to a question like this is to go to Critique Circle and create an account. You will be able to find people who are looking for your particular genre who will read your manuscript and provide honest, constructive criticism. Most importantly, it's free!

Another option is to try to develop a group of beta readers who are willing to take the time to read your book and give you some feedback from a reader's perspective. I have been fortunate enough to find a few trusted souls who will read my books and give me their opinions without glossing over anything or trying to make me think it's better than it is. You need to make sure they will be truly honest in their feedback. It's better to have them reject you and offer suggestions on where/how to improve it.

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Kirkus Indie sounds like a good way to get publicity for your book, but here's how it actually works: Kirkus take $425 (or more) from the publisher/author, spends one hour skimming the text to select some problems (and only problems), then writes a terrible review which you will of course choose not to publish. Kirkus is into this for about less than $50 in labor costs and they don't have the expense of publishing a review. They pocket the difference and make a lot of money off the gullible public. Kirkus has no incentive to give you a good review, and every incentive to give you a bad one.

You will get nothing of value out of Kirkus Indie. Avoid them like the venomous snakes they are!

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Speaking of venomous, have you read your answer? Choice of approach aside, linking to supporting data could well improve the perception of your advice. –  Zayne S Halsall Jan 29 '13 at 20:24
    
Welcome to Writers.SE! I was wondering if you could update your answer to say more about how you know what you say -- have you used them (or do you know someone who did), for example? Thanks. –  Monica Cellio Feb 13 '13 at 2:30

I obtained a Kirkus review at the suggestion of my publisher. While the review was not bad, as far as my book was concerned, it instantly became apparent that this reviewer had no idea what he was doing and did not have a clear understanding of literary genres. (He reviewed a historical fiction novel as if it were a biography and a history book.) He missed major sections of the book and misstated facts in comparing it to other books on the same topic. I suspect my reviewer was a first or second year college student. Obviously, a writer can’t stop Kirkus from reviewing a book if they choose to do so, but I would say do not invite or request it. Based upon the skill level of the reviewer I have seen you would be far better off to have it reviewed by a literature professor or another person qualified to review it properly.

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