Months before book critics weigh in on what should be read and what should be shred, a quartet of industry magazines pass their imperial judgment behind the scenes. For librarians, bookstore buyers, and publishers, these "trade reviews" provide crucial direction amid a flood of more than 150,000 titles a year.
Kirkus, founded in 1933, is the most expensive of these trade journals (3,000 subscribers pay $450 a year), but its reputation for ferocious independence and brutal reviews makes it a valuable guide in a world of hype.
While Publishers Weekly and Library Journal might correctly predict the success of a novel, you can always count on Kirkus to draw blood.
Now, though, the reputation of this journal which won't even contaminate its pages with advertising, is on the line. VNU Business Publications, which owns Kirkus, has introduced two new e-newsletters that critics say blur the line between reviewing and marketing.
Kirkus Discoveries, rolling out later this year, will allow self-published authors, long ignored by the trade journals, to buy a Kirkus review for $350.
The second new product is Kirkus Reports, set to appear early next month. It highlights titles that the editors feel are the best lifestyle books (health, parenting, personal finance). But to be included in this free e-mail newsletter for magazine and newspaper journalists, publishers must pay $95 per title.
So far, the reviews of these two new services have been - in true Kirkus spirit - savage. "Who's going to take 'The Kirkus Bribe List' seriously?" asks Donna Seaman, associate editor at Booklist. "This absolutely compromises everything that reviewing holds dear. All of us are having financial problems, but we're not selling our souls."
Kirkus's struggle for survival is another symptom of the decline of serious reading in America noted by a recent study by the National Endowment for the Arts. Shrinking library budgets and book sections in newspapers cut directly into Kirkus's subscriber base, making the journal's need for more sources of revenue all the more urgent.
Teresa Weaver, the book editor at the Atlanta Journal Constitution, is the kind of person Kirkus claims will be interested in its new products, but she has strong reservations. "Charging publishers for reviews seems to cross a really important, indelible line. Will reviewers truly have the freedom to pan a book by a publisher who has paid $350? Or even $95? Money taints the process, no matter how sincere the motivation behind the plan."
"I can't stop anyone from taking a cynical view of this," said Jerome Kramer, managing director and editor in chief of the VNU US Literary Group., in a phone interview. "I subscribe completely to the point of view that opinions should be fair and honest. But I also know from talking to people in the industry that lots of authors don't get the attention they think they deserve."
Competitors were quick to say these new services bastardize the Kirkus name. Sarah Gold, senior nonfiction editor for Publishers Weekly and a former employee of Kirkus, says, "The notion that they're going to charge people $350 and then write honest reviews, well, it stretches [credibility]. Kirkus's strong suit has been their financial independence."
But Mr. Kramer insists, "If you want an honest review from us that uses the Kirkus model of reviewing, we will now provide it. I hope we can help bring about the discovery of some real gems. I'm keeping Kirkus Reviews absolutely pure."