Perils With Book Reviews

Many writers consider professional reviews can help sales, by providing one with quotes to be included on an opening page. Several companies provide such, and I recently received a 5-star rating from Readers Favorites Book Reviews (yay!). However, these reviews vary in cost by the company, and they’re all subjective, so you never know what you’re getting.

The company that bills itself as the most well known and prestigious is Kirkus. Their reviews are also quite expensive. This would not be a problem if they consistently provided professional reviews, but it turns out there’s no guarantee of that. The review one receives could be no more than the gut reaction of a single person, just like one could receive from a random reader on Amazon. I’ll describe what I mean.

The same book the Readers Favorites reviewer liked got totally panned by a Kirkus reviewer. This could be fine, it’s all subjective. You can’t please everyone. However, the opinions reflected a bias that was hard to understand.

This historical novel (Ripple in the Sea, to be released August 15, 2020) is the story of a Japanese-American girl who infiltrates a World War II Japanese prisoner-of-war camp to free victims of medical experiments. (That’s the plan, anyway.) It was inspired by my father’s experiences in the Pacific Theater during the war, after which he suffered from PTSD. It’s been 75 years since the end of that war, and in all that time very little has been published regarding civilian life in wartime Japan, so addressing that subject seemed worthwhile.

As stated in notes at the end of the manuscript, this obviously required much research, and many beta readers to avoid inaccuracies or racial issues that weren’t reflective of the era. Racism and brutality reigned on both sides of the conflict, and I needed to balance them. I was even lucky enough to locate a Japanese-American beta-reader, born in Tokyo in 1938 and with memories of the end of the war, to verify acceptability.

Despite this, the Kirkus reviewer reacted to things they considered racially questionable or exploitative (no other readers saw such prurient aspects). The Kirkus reviewer even criticized the work for not “offer(ing) any groundbreaking insights into the dire situation that many Japanese Americans faced during World War II.” This, despite the fact the action takes place on the other side of the Pacific and the situation in the U.S. was unknown to the book’s characters, not to mention this issue being irrelevant to the story being told. In other words, the reviewer was not reacting to the story being presented, but instead criticizing the story for not being the one they wanted to read.

The reviewer even called the novel “tone-deaf,” an inappropriately disparaging remark that is quite out of line in a professional review.

On June 3, 2020, I sent a list of ten concerns to Kirkus, describing issues I had with their product. Kirkus replied the same day saying their response would take 9-12 business days, since “This process involves communicating with the Indie editors, reviewing your complaints, examining your book, and communicating with the reviewer.” In fact, multiple emails documented delays on their part, and I didn’t receive a response until July 20th, 47 days later.

The Kirkus response was brief to the point of being a back-of-the-hand they could have sent long before. Essentially, all they said was “This is subjective and directly related to the reviewer’s opinion.” They repeated the phrase over and over. They even used it as an excuse for the reviewer’s complaint that the story didn’t cover the situation back in the U.S., which was not only irrelevant to the story but which has already been addressed in other works.

Perhaps Kirkus management is loathe to make changes to any comments, however egregious, out of fear it would open the floodgates to others identifying problems and wanting corrections. Granted, refusing to make changes is consistent with their boiler-plate “customer agreement,” but that doesn’t make it a good business practice in all situations.

I would like to note that throughout the process from June 3 on, the person at Kirkus who handled my emails and passed my concerns to the appropriate parties was courteous and professional at all times. I just wish the company’s response to my comments could be better.

I conclude that the Kirkus training and management oversight is deficient. All reviews are subjective, and all writers get panned from time to time regardless of how much other readers may love a story. Nevertheless, the highest-priced reviews in the industry should be geared toward evaluating the quality of the story being told without injecting personal politics or pointlessly insulting remarks. Just my opinion, of course. Note also that Kirkus includes a muzzling clause in the customer agreement, telling writers they can’t say a thing about the review unless they agree to have Kirkus publish it. For those who don’t want to air a bad review, this is a way to silence complaints. I’ve therefore had to authorize publication of the review to make my case here. I hope other writers are willing to speak out, so that one day the review process at Kirkus (and perhaps elsewhere) can be improved. In the meantime, if you’re going to pay for a review, be advised.

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