The book reviews that matter.

Arts, entertainment, and more.
Sept. 12 2003 3:28 PM

Book Report

How four magazines you've probably never read help determine what books you buy.

Look up a book on Amazon.com, and the first media review you see isn't from a well-known book review outlet such as the New York Times or Washington Post but from Publishers Weekly. Scroll down, and chances are you'll also find an opinion from Kirkus Reviews, Library Journal, or Booklist.

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You've probably never read these magazines, even if you've seen their names on book jackets. But they're helping determine what youread. Together, they make up the big four of book industry trade journals, aimed at publishing insiders: newspaper and magazine editors, bookstore and library book-buyers, literary agents, and film industry types scanning them for movie rights. Long important as behind-the-scenes power brokers, they became even more powerful in the 1990s, when online booksellers signed deals with them. (Barnes & Noble.com, like Amazon, has a deal with Publishers Weekly.) Their reviews—300 or so words of plot summary, context, and a quick verdict—influence which books get noticed, bought, and promoted in the media. What might you want to know about these magazines, then?

Publishers Weekly, or PW, is the biggie—it plays Coke to Kirkus' Pepsi. Sold on newsstands in New York as well as by subscription, PW packs a couple hundred reviews into each issue, covering everything from literary fiction and nonfiction to self-help, mystery, and children's books. It's also the place to go for industry news and gossip. PW's reviews are anonymous and are largely written by freelancers; over the course of a year, in the magazine and on its Web site, PW covers about 10,000 books. (The WashingtonPost, by contrast, weighs in on 1,000 to 1,500 books.) Although PW has only 26,000 * subscribers, compared to a million-plus people who get the New York Times Book Review every Sunday, it's read by everyone in publishing. Subscribers shell out about $214 a year for the privilege.

Kirkus isall reviews, no gossip. It's published biweekly on non-glossy paper with no photos or illustrations. The cover is adorned only with teasers for reviews inside. Approximately 5,000 people subscribe; the rate is about $450 a year. (For this fee, you can also access Kirkus' review archive, which dates back to 1933.) Like PW, Kirkus' reviews are anonymous and freelance-written, but the reviewers' identities are not as shrouded in secrecy: Each issue includes a list of contributors. As the scrappy runner-up to PW, Kirkus has long had a reputation for lively, unpredictable reviews that are sometimes outlandishly harsh. For example, take itsassessment of Dave Eggers' stunningly successful memoir *A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius: "It isn't," Kirkus said. Though the review allowed that the book "is better than most novel-like objects created by our younger writers," it nevertheless concluded: "Few readers will be satisfied … for their investment of time and good will."

Battered authors can still count on Booklist, which adheres to the golden rule of every creative-writing workshop: Find something positive to say, and proceed gently from there. "Satisfyingly dishy," it wrote of Candace Bushnell's Trading Up, which was savaged by Kirkus. Like Library Journal, Booklist is aimed at librarians. Published by the American Library Association, it's distributed biweekly during the school year and monthly over the summer. Though a glossy, a typical article is "Top 10 Biographies (Adult)." Its reviews are signed, and some 30 percent to 40 percent are written in-house, according to its editor. A subscription costs $79.95 a year.

Library Journal is a sister publication of PW. (Both are published by Reed Business Information, which puts out more than 100 trade magazines, from Variety to Broadband Week). Like PW, Library Journal is a glossy, with a section given to industry news and gossip. Its reviews, which are written by librarians, are signed, and the name of the library with which each reviewer is affiliated is listed. Annual subscriptions are $134.

While disgruntled authors may like to suggest that callow recent graduates make up the bulk of reviewers, trade editors insist otherwise. Mostly, editors say, reviewers are a mix of published authors, academics, schoolteachers, librarians (in the case of Library Journal, exclusively so), and recent grads. Most reviewers have gotten the gig by proving their knowledge of a subject area, like military history. Recent college graduates are actually a minority of reviewers—not because they're deemed too green to pass judgment on the brainchildren of their elders, but because ambitious twentysomethings tend to tire quickly of anonymity. The steady reviewers tend to be schoolteachers or retired schoolteachers, who churn out as many as 12 a month. (Surely none do it for the money, since the pay is typically $45 to $60 per review.)

But the four magazines' influence may finally be waning. While the Internet has increased the visibility of trade reviews, it has also made for easier communication among booksellers, and the journals' position as gatekeepers on advance buzz is not as secure. Today there are competing sources of early information, notably Book Sense 76, a monthly list of books recommended by independent book stores that is gaining influence among magazine editors, bookstore buyers, and film agents. (You can find it online here.)

Perhaps that's why PW's reviews have changed noticeably over the past few years. For most of its history, its "forecasts," as it terms them, tended to have more plot summary than bite. Now, under a new forecast editor and with its reviews reaching a wider audience through its licensing agreements with the online booksellers, they've generally become more spirited. (Some longtime reviewers have described them less charitably as sophomoric.) At the same time, Kirkus' have grown less acerbic. You can see why: Trade magazines aim to predict a book's fate in the real world. While they play a role in shaping that fate, a trade's plaudits can only influence, not determine, a book's reception—much as a movie can't be made into a hit with a marketing blitz. If a magazine were regularly to pan books that go on to sell well, as Kirkus did with Eggers' book, it would become far less useful to those who rely on them to spot winners. (A former trade editor said when such errors are made the magazine assigns that author's next book to a reviewer with a good track record of calling books right.)

The old regime isn't likely to be toppled any time soon; a "starred" review in PW still increases a book's chance of getting media coverage and showing up in your neighborhood bookstore. One author recently suggested that PW's negative review of her book had caused O magazine to pull an article about her. Worse, the author can't take the review off the book's page on Amazon, no matter how much she'd like to.

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