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Kirkus Reviewed

The biweekly magazine Kirkus Reviews publishes pre-publication book reviews, offering professional opinions of approximately 5,000 titles per year. But the tables have turned on the 72-year-old publication as writers and publishers offer their own appraisals of its recent decision to charge money for some book reviews.

Kirkus Reviews announced last October that, for $350, a writer or publisher can commission a review of a book to appear in a new online publication called Kirkus Discoveries, available on the magazine’s Web site (www.kirkusreviews.com); for $95, a title that falls under one of five categories—Cookbooks & Entertaining, Health & Fitness, Home Improvement, Parenting, and Personal Finance—will be covered in one of five free e-mail newsletters called Kirkus Reports, which are sent to more than 1,000 publishers, editors, and journalists. Meanwhile, Kirkus Reviews will continue to review, for free, dozens of books in each of its print issues.

According to Jerome Kramer, the managing director of VNU U.S. Literary Group, the publisher of Kirkus Reviews, the new publications are a way to “address that gap between the 5,000 that we review and the 175,000 that are published each year.”

Some industry professionals worry that the move to charge for reviews undermines the overall credibility of Kirkus and will threaten the ability of the new publications to review books objectively. To compound that worry, Kirkus Discoveries gives paying customers the power to remove a review from the Web site if they don’t like it. Kramer says he wrestled with that provision, but decided that it was a matter of fairness: “If you get it and it makes you cry, and you really feel that the review is more damaging than you can handle, then you can request to have it taken down from the Web site.” Customers do not receive a refund if they remove their reviews.

Some advocates for writers think that the new publications capitalize on authors who are desperate to have their books reviewed. “The idea of taking advantage of writers irks the hell out of me,” says David Poindexter, the founder of MacAdam/Cage, a San Francisco–based publisher. “That’s clearly what they’re doing.” Kramer rejects that notion. “We’ve deliberately targeted the thing toward publishers rather than authors,” he says, “so I don’t think it’s a matter of exploiting poor, beleaguered authors.”

Although Kramer would not disclose how much revenue Kirkus hopes to generate through the new publications, he says that, since launching in late 2004, Kirkus has been approached by an average of three to four small publishers and/or writers per day seeking a review or inclusion in Kirkus Reports.

One segment of the industry will clearly benefit from the new publications: self-published authors. Kirkus Reviews has a policy against reviewing self-published or print-on-demand titles; Kirkus Discoveries does not, and that has at least one author singing its praises. “This way, the self-published people can get reviewed,” says Amy Fusselman, author of The Pharmacist’s Mate (McSweeney’s Books). “I think it will help us hear about more fringe-type, weirdo publishing, which is always a happy thing.”

Kevin Canfield is a journalist in New York City.

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