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. In 1920, a writer named Burges Johnson joked about how books were assigned for review “in our average newspaper”:
“Give me a book,” says the sports writer to the head office boy, who is acting literary editor. “My wife’s sick and she wants something religious.”
“Sure,” says the literary editor. “Take anything off that pile. You can have it if you’ll review it.”
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. One of the library subscribers justified the $25 a year he paid for the subscription by telling the library’s board of directors, “If I could get a member of the staff who never answers back, is never underfoot, gave reliable information on over 4,000 books a year and cost 50 cents a week—would you think she was overpaid?”
From its inception, the Virginia Kirkus Bookshop Service was a high-wire act of diplomacy. To create the Service, publishers needed to trust Kirkus with their galleys (which she had to return after reading), but bookstores and librarians expected the unvarnished truth about a book’s quality and its potential to sell. There were bound to be dust-ups. In 1935, despite all of her careful negotiations with publishers, a letter Kirkus wrote led to 10 publishers wanting the Service to end.
Publishers Weekly referenced the fracas when they profiled her in 1943 on the Service’s 10th anniversary. If the letter were seen only in part, the article stated, “it was possible to think she had implied that publishers’ salesmen never read books and hence were not first-rate guides for buyers.” When Kirkus found out about the situation—part of her letter was circulating among publishers and being taken out of context—she immediately took charge. A sales manager warned her that some publishers wanted her to close shop but wouldn’t tell her which publishers were unhappy. Sales reps “were finding hurdles in their way if I had not recommended a book,” she later observed. At the time, 30 publishers sent her galleys, so she wrote all 30. Twenty of them told her they supported her and the Service. To the remaining 10 holdouts, she mailed the complete letter, which is when they set up appointments to meet with her to talk about their disagreements with the Service.
At the meetings, she reiterated that she needed complete editorial control over her reviews and still needed galleys from the publishers. She couldn’t do anything about negative reviews; she wrote it as she saw it. All but one of the 10 complaining publishers came back on board. The one “rebellion,” as she put it, was a publisher named Appleton-Century. “I’d feel differently about it if you were a man,” their president told her as a parting shot. “That’s something else about which I can do nothing!” she retorted.
The publisher Kirkus locked horns with most frequently was actually her former employer, Harper & Brothers, the house where she acquired the first of the Little House on the Prairie books, Little House in the Big Woods. As late as 1940, Kirkus was still standing up for the integrity of her reviews and defending the necessity of impartial pre-publication reviews. In May of that year, Kirkus was corresponding with the editor in chief of Harper, Eugene F. Saxton (a man John Tebbel calls “one of the best [editors] in trade history” in his authoritative A History of Book Publishing in the United States). The issue, Saxton wrote her, was “critical reviews in advance of publication—wherever they appear.” He would be happy, however, for her to publish “advance information” (presumably publication date, a summary of the book and maybe a book’s cost, for example).
Kirkus was quick to defend the industry’s need for honest reviews. “Your request that I give out only ‘advance information’ through the service about Harper books and not ‘critical comment’ can be answered in only one way: —No!” she wrote. “Any such stricture on the part of any publisher would cut at the very root of the purpose for which the service exists. For the protection of my subscribers and for the maintenance of my own integrity, no such agreement could for a moment be sanctioned.”
That wasn’t the end of it. Kirkus wrote some of her subscribers, asking them if they’d send a letter to Saxton expressing their confidence in the Service and their displeasure with his decision. It worked; Harper & Brothers continued sending galleys to the Service.
Twenty years after founding the Service, when her subscribers were largely librarians rather than booksellers (1,400 libraries, to be exact), Kirkus instigated one of the strangest episodes in the history of American publishing in the 20th century. At 2 a.m. on December 27, 1952, she was reading a galley from Little, Brown titled Position Unknown, by a new writer named Robert E. Preyer Jr. She realized that she knew what was going to happen next in the book before she read the actual words; she remembered the characters. She asked her husband, Frank, to come down to her office (their home was also the Service office) to help her find the book she was certain Position Unknown had been copied from, word for word. She had a “haunting sense of familiarity” reading the book, she wrote later that morning to Arthur Thornhill, the president of Little, Brown, and Harold Guinzburg, the co-founder of Viking Press.
Kirkus was a meticulous indexer and organizer of the books the Service had reviewed, so it didn’t take her and her husband very long to find Island in the Sky by Ernest K. Gann, published in 1944 by Viking. Position Unknown and Island in the Sky were, in fact, the same book: the story of a World War II pilot who, after his plane crashes in icy northern Canada, must keep his men alive. Preyer had merely changed the title and the name of the original author, conveniently, to his own.
Preyer had a lot of time to re-type Island in the Sky: He was serving 1-to-15 in the Ohio State Penitentiary for stealing a motorbike. A newspaper described the 24-year-old Preyer as a “surly, weasel-faced youth” (oh, for the bygone days of journalism!) who plagiarized Gann’s novel in the prison chaplain’s office. The Ohio State Penitentiary was apparently destined for literary infamy: O. Henry served time there for embezzlement.
Both Thornhill and Guinzburg sent Kirkus kind letters thanking her for discovering the fraud, Thornhill informing her that he had the presses stop printing the book. No letter from Little, Brown asking Kirkus to keep quiet about the plagiarism can be found, but Kirkus later said that the publisher asked her not to talk about the incident, which she agreed to do. The consummate insider, she saw an innocent mistake on the publisher’s part and was happy to keep quiet. The prison warden made no such promise, however, and leaked the story to the Associated Press.
“I certainly never dreamed the press would take the story so strenuously,” she wrote a friend who worked at Little, Brown. Behind the scenes, she was less than tranquil. She had heard from Viking that Preyer was a convict. She had recently read My Six Convicts, an account—later adapted for a film featuring a young Charles Bronson—by Fort Leavenworth prison psychologist Donald Powell Wilson of some of the prisoners he knew. On New Year’s Eve 1952, she had a nightmare in which Preyer had sent word to his underlings to “get” her. She wanted to honor her promise to Little, Brown, but she was scared about the consequences of keeping quiet. She told Frank about her dream on the way to work (she and her husband spent the weekends and holidays in Connecticut). But the minute she stepped into her office, her assistants told her that the AP had broken the story.
That’s when the woman who was famous in the publishing industry became a nationwide story. “Prison Inmate Pens Almost Novel Crime But Alert Book Reviewer Unmasks Him,” the New York Times headline read. “Publisher Cancels a Fine Book: ‘Author’ (He’s in Prison) Stole It,” read another paper’s article. Ernest Gann, who wrote the novel in the first place, couldn’t have been happier: Production on the film version of Island in the Sky, starring John Wayne, started in January 1953, so Kirkus’ sleuthing earned him a bunch of free PR.
During Virginia Kirkus’ remaining years at the helm of her creation, she saw the publication grow. 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.”
Claiborne Smith is the former editor in chief of Kirkus Reviews.