By Brian Feinblum, Chief Marketing Officer
In a recent Q&A with industry professional Clay Smith, who is the Editor in Chief of Kirkus Reviews, Smith reveals his path to his current position, the future of the book review magazine, how the publishing industry is affected by changes in technology, and more:
MEDIA CONNECT: Clay, what road did you take to rise to editor in chief of Kirkus?
Clay Smith: My first journalism job was at the Austin Chronicle, the alt weekly in Austin, and I immediately gravitated to the books department there. An alt weekly is a great place to start in journalism. I found the editors there really receptive to writing for them, even if I didn’t directly work for them. I eventually became a senior editor there, leaving in 2002 to attend NYU’s Cultural Reporting and Criticism graduate program. My timing was all off when I graduated, and I realized that I had only interviewed people who wanted to be interviewed by me: writers, musicians, filmmakers. So I did a six–month investigative journalism fellowship at the Dallas Observer and interviewed some people who didn’t really want me poking around. I’m very glad I did it, but I’d rather stick with covering writers. At the end of that fellowship, I began working seasonally for Sundance Film Festival, interviewing their filmmakers for their website, which is also when the Texas Book Festival called me, because their literary director position was open. I was the literary director of that festival from 2005-2012, doing freelance journalism when I could, and I joined Kirkus as features editor in November of 2012.
MC: What changes, if any, do you plan to make to the book review magazine?
CS: If you compare an issue of the magazine from as recently as December of 2010 to now, you will notice vast, vast changes in the ways we think about the magazine – the old design didn’t allow for any images whatsoever and there was less features coverage of writers. Now the magazine reads more vibrantly, while maintaining the integrity of our reviews. One change that will be immediately evident is that I will be interviewing a writer or writers in each issue of the magazine starting in 2014, but beyond that, I’m going to be most involved in maintaining and strengthening the magazine’s
voice. I’m biased, but I think our reviews, as short as they are, have a more informed voice, are more literary, thoughtful and have more of an iconoclastic verve to them than the reviews in other industry magazines. We don’t run dry book reports in Kirkus.
MC: Any authors tell me even when they get a positive review from Kirkus they feel there is a stinging criticism or two included. Would you agree?
CS: Our reviews may be honest and tough, but they aren’t needlessly spiteful. How many perfect books are published every year? Our critics have an obligation, first of all, to the truth. I think we actually have a good track record nowadays of giving praise where praise is due. Because we are more honest in our reviews, when we do give a star to a book, the star matters.
MC: How is Kirkus capitalizing on the ongoing technological changes in publishing today?
CS: The growth of ebook sales and the continuing increase of online book buying means a greater need for online book discovery. Book discovery has always been the heart of what we do, ever since Virginia Kirkus founded what she called the “Service” in 1933, so it’s a natural fit for Kirkus to fill this need online. The site the company launched in 2011 is a consumer-facing site rather than an insider, purely industry site (the site was redesigned in early 2013 to make it even more consumer friendly). We run quite a few reviews now of children’s book apps, we have a robust network of book bloggers who contribute daily to the site and we’ve seen our digital subscriptions grow as a result of those changes.
MC: Self-publishing’s growth outpaces that of traditional publishers. How
will this trend impact your coverage of books?
CS: Indie is our fastest-growing section. In 2012, we reviewed 172% more books than we did in 2011, so the trend affects us, because it’s broadened the scope of our coverage. It has also enhanced our value to publishers and other industry insiders looking for content to acquire. In response to authors receiving queries from agents and publishers after getting reviewed by Kirkus, we launched Pro Connect, a service for industry professionals to find new indie talent. Self-published writers create a profile on Pro Connect and editors and agents can scroll through those profiles in a number of ways: by genre, for example, or by targeting the writers our editors have tagged as “authors to watch.” Acquisitions editors and agents can correspond with those writers through the site, so Pro Connect serves a need the industry hadn’t found a way to address well before now.
MC: What do you love most about being in the publishing industry?
CS: That really nice feeling of connecting readers with a talented writer they may not have otherwise discovered.
MC: What advice do you have for struggling authors seeking to catch a break?
CS: If you’re having a hard time getting traction with a traditional publisher, consider publishing yourself. There are so many more options for self-published writers now. You have to do your homework and be honest with yourself about which parts of publishing your own book you aren’t going to be good at, but the opportunities for indie writers nowadays are refreshing.