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Will authors get honest review for $350?

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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."

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