A blogger’s disclosure: I have received free books

October 5, 2009 by · 2 Comments 

When I sit at my desk in the Quill & Quire offices, I am surrounded by books. Dozens upon dozens of books. All of them have been sent to me by publishers for review consideration. When I sit at the desk in my home office, I am also surrounded by books. Dozens, even hundreds, of books. Many of these I have purchased with my own cash money, which I earn at my day job. Some, however, have been sent to me (either at my request or on spec by a publisher’s representative or directly from an author) in the hope that I will mention them on my blog. Sometimes I do. Many times I don’t. But in practice I have never disclosed a book’s provenance if I decide to review it or to profile the author in this forum.

I mention all of this because new guidelines from the American Federal Trade Commission, which go into effect on December 1, 2009, will require all (U.S.) bloggers to disclose whether they received compensation – either monetary or “in-kind” – to review a product or service. From the FTC press release:

The revised Guides also add new examples to illustrate the long standing principle that “material connections” (sometimes payments or free products) between advertisers and endorsers – connections that consumers would not expect – must be disclosed. These examples address what constitutes an endorsement when the message is conveyed by bloggers or other “word-of-mouth” marketers. The revised Guides specify that while decisions will be reached on a case-by-case basis, the post of a blogger who receives cash or in-kind payment to review a product is considered an endorsement. Thus, bloggers who make an endorsement must disclose the material connections they share with the seller of the product or service.

In other words, if yr. humble correspondent receives a book from a publisher (or directly from an author) that I then review (positively) on my blog (and assuming for the moment my hypothetical U.S. citizenship), the FTC regulations would require me to tell my readers that I received the book for free. If I failed to do so, I could be liable for fines of up to $11,000 (U.S.).

This seems absurd on its face. First off, the conflation of bloggers and “‘word-of-mouth’ marketers” is at the very minimum suspect when it comes to book reviewing. Believe it or not, when I review a book on this site (or anywhere else for that matter), I’m not acting on behalf of a publisher’s marketing department. I’m performing the job of a critic. Although review attention does provide the kind of exposure that publishers are constantly hankering after, reviewers are not in the business of promoting books or authors, and most media organs have explicit conflict-of-interest guidelines to prevent reviewers who may have a hidden agenda or lack objectivity from reviewing books that they are too closely connected to. Notwithstanding the FTC’s overly simplistic wording, book reviews are not “endorsements,” but rather critical assessments.

Book reviewers have always received free copies of the books they review. A review editor (me, for example) contacts a freelancer and asks if that person would review the new Margaret Atwood novel. The reviewer agrees, and the editor sends a copy of the book (or an advance reading copy), which has been supplied (free of charge) by the publisher, to the reviewer, who retains the product after writing the review. This has always been considered acceptable practice, and the transaction is generally understood by readers of book reviews. However, under the new FTC guidelines, if a book blogger behaves in a similar fashion, that blogger must disclose the provenance of the book under review.

What’s the difference between a newspaper or magazine reviewer and a book blogger? According to Richard Cleland of the U.S. Bureau of Consumer Protection, who spoke with book blogger Ed Champion, the difference is that in the case of a newspaper reviewer, the book remains the property of the newspaper, and the reviewer returns it upon completing the review:

“We are distinguishing between who receives the compensation and who does the review,” said Cleland. “In the case where the newspaper receives the book and it allows the reviewer to review it, it’s still the property of the newspaper. Most of the newspapers have very strict rules about that and on what happens to those products.”

This is, in a word, horseshit. When a freelancer reviews a book for any newspaper or magazine of which I’m aware, the reviewer retains the book. When Champion asked how a book blogger might avoid the appearance of conflict, Cleland responded that the blogger could return the book after writing the review:

“The primary situation is where there’s a link to the sponsoring seller and the blogger,” said Cleland. And if a blogger repeatedly reviewed similar products (say, books or smartphones), then the FTC would raise an eyebrow if the blogger either held onto the product or there was any link to an advertisement.

What was the best way to dispense with products (including books)?

“You can return it,” said Cleland. “You review it and return it. I’m not sure that type of situation would be compensation.”

Cleland also told Champion that when a publisher sends out a free copy of a book for review, it is in the expectation of a positive notice. This, too, is utter horseshit. Publishers send out review copies in the hope of gaining any kind of attention at all: I have never encountered a situation where a publisher insists on positive reviews of books they provide (and, indeed, would immediately sever ties with any publisher who made such a bizarre stipulation). “If there’s an expectation that you’re going to write a positive review,” said Cleland, “then there should be a disclosure.” I couldn’t agree more. The only problem being that there is no such expectation.

In the last few years, publishers have been shifting their focus away from traditional media outlets (newspapers and magazines), which are routinely curtailing their book coverage (if not eliminating it altogether), and targeting the people who are still paying attention to books: bloggers and other online writers. From a publishing perspective this only makes sense: faced with limited resources for promotion, you send your books where they have the best chance of getting coverage. Does this mean that publishers and bloggers are somehow in collusion with one another? Absolutely not.

I have given both positive and negative reviews to books I’ve purchased myself, and I’ve done the same with books I’ve been sent by publishers. My opinion has never been, is not now, and never will be for sale. If the new FTC regulations gain traction, however, and similar Canadian legislation is contemplated, let’s assume for the purposes of this blog that I get all my books for free. That’s my blanket declaration. You are welcome to take everything I write in these pages with as much or as little salt as you see fit. It just seems simpler that way.