In January 1933—the same month the Ford Motor Company laid off 100,000 workers and a record 242 U.S. banks failed—Virginia Kirkus started a business, the Virginia Kirkus Bookshop Service, that she was advised to file under “Pipe Dreams” by 24 of the 25 people she asked for advice. “If I had to sell the Service to regular bookstores by mail, I’d fast and pray for a few days (because I think it is a damn tough job),” one friend replied to her. “Virginia, selling gold bricks by mail would be much easier.”
For as long as she lived, Virginia Kirkus told everyone that the idea for the Virginia Kirkus Bookshop Service came to her in the middle of the night. There’s no reason not to believe her, but the epiphany had been a long time coming. It reached her, she said, fully formed, aboard a ship returning to New York from Germany, where she went for eight weeks in the summer of 1932 to visit her parents; her father was an Episcopal minister serving at the American Church in Munich. Just before she set sail for Germany, Kirkus was told by her bosses at Harper & Brothers (now HarperCollins) that in six months’ time, not only her job as the head of the Department of Books for Boys and Girls, but the entire department would be “laid upon the shelf,” as she put it, at least temporarily. “The ‘depression’ was making its impress on our sales,” she later reflected. “People were thinking that new books for children were unnecessary, while the old ones could serve.”
Nevertheless, Kirkus didn’t change her travel plans (except to downgrade to tourist class). On her second night of the return voyage to America, she dreamed “so vivid a dream that it seemed to be an outline written on a blackboard.” She jotted down the bare bones of what the Service would accomplish and how. She went back to sleep. “In the morning it still looked like a good idea,” she later wrote in the Vassar alumnae magazine, “so I took the remainder of the voyage to chart my procedure, to write letters sounding out key people, and to work out details.”
Although the idea for the Service blossomed that night on the ship, it had been bubbling in Kirkus’ mind for at least several years. When she directed the Department of Books for Boys and Girls, she would occasionally make trips around America visiting booksellers. “It struck me the booksellers were usually in the position of buying a pig in a poke,” she explained later in life. “They looked over all the publishers’ lists and ordered books with nothing but the publishers’ say-so to guide them in deciding which books they needed in quantity.”
What Kirkus’ article in the Vassar magazine doesn’t reveal, however, is her eye for dramatic publicity. Rather than wait until she returned home to New York to mail the 25 letters seeking the opinions of important booksellers and publishers, she decided to bring a little flair to the endeavor: When the ship was still 24 hours away from the New York harbor, she paid to have a small plane airlift the letters. Virginia Kirkus, who was 38 at the time, was never faulted for a lack of conviction in her own ideas.
Everything that Kirkus Reviews stands for—integrity, honesty and accessible reviews written with an insider’s eye—started with Virginia Kirkus. She was a persuasive, hard-charging businesswoman, a visionary who saw a need in publishing that no one before her had adequately addressed. The author of four books, she took more pride in having created Kirkus Reviews than in calling herself a published writer. In 1940, the New York Times reviewed her book A House for the Week Ends, describing her as a woman “of indomitable efficiency and zest.” “Neat, almost prim, in appearance,” Kirkus had “dark blue-gray eyes, softly bobbed gray hair, and she wears discreet little white button earrings,” one reporter wrote in 1943.
She was also a polished speaker who was sought out and represented by a lecture agent for paid engagements, a rarity for women at the time. She deeply loved the publishing industry, despite the tussles she engendered and endured to make the Service happen. She saw herself less as a literary critic and more as a soothsayer, a forecaster of which books would succeed and which wouldn’t. She said many years later that the Service wouldn’t have flourished “if it hadn’t been rooted in the heartbeat of America.” In other words, she didn’t write her reviews to admire the art of her own writing; she wrote them to give booksellers and librarians a leg up, to let them know whether a writer had succeeded in his or her endeavor and whether anyone would actually buy the book.
Nowadays, of course, galleys, the advance reading copies publishers create for booksellers and media, are bound like published books; that wasn’t the case in 1933. Kirkus wrote that the number of galleys publishers disbursed to booksellers and librarians pre-publication was “infinitesimal.” They were long scrolls that must have been bulky to read—particularly for someone like Kirkus, who bragged about reading 999 books in her first year of business and “reporting on” (as she described reviewing) all of them. Although other publishing industry magazines have longer histories than Kirkus Reviews, it was Kirkus that revolutionized the industry by fundamentally changing the relationship between publishers and the professionals who buy books. By giving booksellers, librarians and eventually the film industry an early, honest assessment of books, Kirkus gave buyers more control in the decision-making process, forever changing the balance of power and helping book buyers become more discerning.
At the time, books weren’t reviewed as close to publication date as they are now because many critics didn’t have access to early galleys. And when reviews did appear, it was evident that the craft of reviewing wasn’t exactly a high art. Professional book buyers at the time had to rely on “faith and hope,” Kirkus said, to inform their decisions. “These, plus a sixth sense that every bookseller and librarian worth her (or his) salt develops over the years—the ‘hunch’ that makes one sense what book will click and what one is predestined to flop.”
Kirkus’ comment hints at the seemingly counterintuitive underpinnings of her new venture: No one at the time had a more sharply honed, albeit unscientific hunch about books than she did, and yet she sold the idea of the Service based on the belief that it would, in a way, scientifically decrease the gambling and guesswork of publishing. “Advance book buying should be put on a more scientific basis,” she insisted, and booksellers—or dealers, as they were called then—“should have access to actual readers’ reports, unbiased, based on a study of the public taste and the dealers’ needs. There should be a middleman who could provide dealers with a service of prepublication information, not connected with any agency whose bread and butter depended on selling the actual books.”
That first year, she asked 20 publishers to send her galleys; all complied, and she sent her first bulletin in January 1933 to 10 subscribers (she called those early subscribers “optimists”), each of whom paid $10 a month. Why did publishers go along with her request for galleys when they weren’t accustomed to a reviewer telling the truth about a book pre-publication? It appears that most of them thought she couldn’t pull it off.
Three months after the first bulletin, the business was in the black. For the first six months, she worked alone, writing all the reviews and mailing the bulletin herself; then she hired an assistant. Two years later, librarians started subscribing to the Service, and 50 publishers were submitting their galleys. Twenty years after founding the Service, her subscribers were largely librarians rather than booksellers (1,400 libraries, to be exact).
During Virginia Kirkus’ years at the helm of her creation, she saw the publication grow tremendously. In July 1962, she decided to incorporate. She was still president of the Virginia Kirkus Service, Inc., but Alice Wolff, who had become a partner in the business in 1948, was named vice president and executive editor. “The Service has too long been an integral part of my life for me to step out of the picture,” she wrote in an article for Publishers Weekly in 1963. She had had “various” offers—it’s not known exactly how many—to buy her company, but “faced with the possible sacrifice of our identity,” she turned them all down. She retired in 1964, when she was 71, though she stayed on as a consultant to the business. It wasn’t easy for Kirkus to walk away from something she had fought so hard to create.
The publication underwent several name changes in the ’60s. It was called Virginia Kirkus’ Service beginning with the December 15, 1964, issue and Kirkus Service in 1967, but the January 1, 1969, issue was the first to broadcast the magazine’s definitive title: Kirkus Reviews. In 1970, the New York Review of Books bought Kirkus Reviews, though the editorial operations of the Review and Kirkus Reviews were kept separate. The company has had several owners since then, most recently the Nielsen Company, which decided to shut down operations in 2009.
A businessman named Herbert Simon subscribed to Kirkus Reviews at the time and read what was then considered the magazine’s final issue. On the face of it, he is perhaps the most unlikely reader of Kirkus Reviews in the magazine’s history: He is best known as the owner of the Indiana Pacers and the chairman emeritus of the shopping mall developer Simon Property Group. But he is also the co-owner, with his friend and business partner Marc Winkelman, of Tecolote Book Shop in Montecito, Calif., and a voracious reader. He called Winkelman, the owner of Calendar Holdings, a retailer of toys, calendars and games. Winkelman is a veteran of the publishing industry, having been an independent bookseller and an executive in the early roll-out of Barnes & Noble superstores. “Marc, we’ve got to save Kirkus,” Simon said. Since their acquisition of the company, the magazine’s circulation has grown 217 percent, and its website now averages more than one million page views per month.
When she decided to hand over the reins, Virginia Kirkus no longer needed to defend the idea of unbiased pre-publication reviews, but she was brooding over the future of the industry. Kirkus was wary of big publishing mergers in 1963. Everyone around her was merging, she said, and she worried that publishing, which had given her such a rewarding life, was becoming impersonal. Every book that the magazine covered was considered individually, she wrote in the article for Publishers Weekly. “What is the intent of the author? Of the publisher? What is the potential market and does the book meet that need? To what extent is the quality of the writing a factor?” Those are questions that “an IBM machine” could not answer, she wrote. Mergers might be all the rage, but she planned on keeping her creation personalized. “The integrity of the business will be sustained,” she wrote. “We are idealists. We love books. We still love to read.”
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The Kirkus Prize
The Kirkus Prize is among the richest literary awards in America, awarding $50,000 in three categories annually.
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