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.
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?