books & writing

The FTC wants me to tell you something

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According to MediaBistro and The Washington Post, the FTC has issued new guidelines governing endorsements and testimonials.  Normally, this wouldn’t effect me in the least; however, these new guidelines could cost me — up to $11,000 in fines.

The new guidelines require that bloggers like me who review books online and receive free copies (generally referred to as ARCs or Advance Reader Copies) must disclose their “material connection” with the publisher, or be in violation.

Edward Champion, a well-known book blogger, was concerned enough to call Richard Cleland of the Bureau of Consumer Protection with some questions. The story on that interview appears today on his blog.  One thing was very clear to me in reading this interview: Richard Cleland doesn’t know much about book blogging.

There is one thing that most book bloggers are very, VERY clear about: sending us a free book does not guarantee a good review. I have posted good reviews, I have posted bad reviews, I have posted indifferent reviews. In some cases, I have warned readers to run very fast in the opposite direction if they see a particular book headed their way. That has never stopped authors and publishers from sending me books. Yet Mr. Cleland seems to think that sending a book assumes a positive review:

Cleland insisted that when a publisher sends a book to a blogger, there is the expectation of a good review. I informed him that this was not always the case and observed that some bloggers often receive 20 to 50 books a week. In such cases, the publisher hopes for a review, good or bad. Cleland didn’t see it that way.

–Edward Champion, Interview with the FTC’s Richard Cleland

Cleland even suggests that a blogger who receives enough free books “could open a used bookstore.” Nice idea — except that selling Advanced Reader Copies is clearly a no-no. Says so right on the book: Not For Resale. A fair portion of the books I receive for review are uncorrected proofs (complete with errors marked in red pen, pages paper-clipped in place, page numbers missing and entire sections redacted) and unbound galleys, and I don’t think anyone will be forking over cash for those.

There is also a double standard at work. According to Champion’s interview, newspapers don’t have to disclose that they got their books for free, because the books belong to the newspaper, not the reviewer.  Movie reviewers also don’t have to tell you if they got their tickets free or attended a press screening, because they don’t walk away with something of value.

I do understand some of the reasoning behind the new guidelines.  On some of the bigger blogs, products are endorsed with no mention of the fact that MommyBlogger got that stroller for free.  Nothing wrong with expecting someone who has received something of value and made recommendations about it to be upfront and honest.  There is just something I find laughable about slapping a huge fine on a book lover who has gotten a free copy of some new novel and wrote it up on their blog.

At least this should be easy enough to comply with. According to the FTC, all I have to do is tell you it’s a free book:

The revised Guides specify that…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.

FTC Press Release

So, from now on, all my posts here and on my blog will indicate how I got the book. But now I’m curious. Does the fact that I received a free review copy of the book color your perception of the review? Do you, like Cleland, assume that because I got the book for free, I am obligated to provide a good review? 

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7 Responses to “The FTC wants me to tell you something”

  1. The receipt of a free book in hopes of a review does not automatically lead me to think you had been “paid off”, though I have seen enough soft-soap reviews in the tech world to know that it does happen.

    My response would depend on how I feel about the integrity of the reviewer.

    I have to be honest and say that if I regularly feel that the reviewer is selling out, then the mention of a free book might bolster my belief they are not only dishonest, but cheap as well.

    On the whole, if I feel the reviewer is being honest, even if I don’t agree with the conclusions, I would assume they were doing their job in spite of, rather than because of, any remuneration.

  2. If someone is sending a blogger a steady supply of free breakfast cereal and that blogger is telling everyone how great the cereal is all the time, that is different from a publisher sending a blogger a free book and a blogger reviewing it. Any blogger that just loves every book he or she reviews and uncritically praises everything will lose credibility with readers very quickly. The blogger will have no influence over book purchase decisions and will be little use to publishers, who would have no reason to continue sending free books to the blogger.

    The far bigger issue of integrity in book reviewing is in mainstream and established publications, like the New York Times, which have far more readers than most bloggers and greater influence on publishing decisions. What we might want to think about is just how often people with conflicts of interest review books by authors from the same publisher or agency or review books by friends or enemies or have decided about a book before they’ve even read it or use the review as a political platform and more or less ignore the book being reviewed.

    As for free stuff, when I reviewed books for the Philadelphia Inquirer, the publishers mailed the books directly to me and I kept them. The Inquirer also paid me to write the reviews. I believe that most reviewers keep the books, for free.

  3. I agree, it doesn’t matter to me as a reader if you receive a free copy of the book. And I don’t think getting free books means that you are obligated to write a good review. Your reviews should be based on the quality of the book and nothing else. A reader will know something is up if all of your reviews are glowing, and they will lose interest quickly.

  4. Advance Review Copies are resellable, even though it says on them “not for resale” – The Strand in NYC is full of them. I’ve also bought quite a few of them from Half.com and eBay, because the price was better.

    So, the whole issue is that you disclose that you’re reviewing a review copy? I thought it was assumed, but if the FTC wants clarity, under the threat of fining you 11K if they don’t get it, by all means, mention that it’s a review copy. Otherwise, what – the presumption is that you bought it in a store with your own money hard-earned by book blogging?

    And, of course, as always – have they thought through the enforcement mechanism? There’s a million of book bloggers out there. Does the FTC have the resources to thoroughly investigate every one of them and pinpoint, beyond reasonable doubt, that they are reviewing a freebie or whatever? For each book reviewed? They have somebody actually reading all the book blogs and keeping track?

    Good luck to FTC with all that.

  5. Scott, I agree entirely. I think it’s a huge double standard that newspapers don’t have to reveal their book sources. The argument that the book still belongs to the newspaper is ridiculous – after all, that just means that the publisher and the newspaper have a relationship, and who is more likely to influence a reviewer than their employer?

    I’m such a little fish, I can’t imagine the FTC really caring about my blog, but that just makes me wonder who it is who got their panties in a bunch.

  6. The other question is, if you, even subconsciously, will lean more towards giving a book a negative review to prove no bias. After all, now that you are posting disclaimers, if you give the first few books rave reviews because you loved them, in the back of your mind, won’t you hope to soon receive a book you can give a negative review to, in order to prove it doesn’t sway you in the least? Most anyone would feel funny with disclaimers of free books and not yet having negative reviews.

  7. Hey what you can do is send each and every book back after reviewing. Though I like my personal idea much better. It is for music but every cd sent to me once I am done with it will be sent to the FTC via COD let them pay the post office not me.

    About the only thing I am really seeing out of this is an attempt by the FTC to save the print media from dissolution. The problem with that thinking is that the print media is really not in trouble. Look back to the 40s when moving pictures went into the living room (or was that the 50s?) radio supposedly was dead. I just listened to this dead industry this afternoon.

    So yea for all book reviewers just start packaging them up and sending them to the FTC via COD.

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