The FTC recently announced that bloggers who review books that they received for free from publishers should make readers aware that the books were provided for free. There have been threats of fines for those who fail to do so. See a post by our Lisa Hura on this subject. Edward Champion discusses it here. Reason magazine discusses it here and provides some links.
The official, considered opinion of the management of When Falls the Coliseum (me) is that the FTC’s position, particulary in regard to reviews of books and other entertainment products, is bullshit.
Newspapers and print magazines don’t provide disclaimers or tell readers that reviewers get the books for free. Newspapers and print magazines don’t announce that their reviewers often keep the free books or sell them on eBay. There is no presumption on the part of the FTC or readers that a newspaper book review is dishonest just because the reviewer was given the book for free.
We reject the FTC’s position that as a blog, online magazine, or whatever it is we are, we are somehow less honest than reviewers whose work appears in newspapers.
For one thing, some of our contributors have published many reviews in lots of newspapers and other paid venues. Some continue to do so.
For another, we don’t think the world of professional book reviewing is a model of integrity and neutrality. If not quite common practice, it is not unheard of for professional reviewers to review books by authors they know personally, that share the same publisher or agency, or that they have a conflict with, ideological or otherwise. It is also all too common for reviewers to barely review the book in their review, but instead to use the space to make their own points, political or otherwise, in what would be more accurately called an essay than a review.
For still another, the government has no place weighing in on the battle between traditional and alternative media and conferring legitimacy on some and denying it to others.
Newspapers are in trouble. Book review sections are disappearing. Print publications have been giving up on book coverage for some time. Bloggers have filled this void. That’s why publicists send them books. They’re trying to reach readers. While the quality of blog book reviews might vary greatly, it is for readers to determine which sources they trust, not the government. Those bloggers who can be bought for the price of a book and only give positive reviews won’t have credibility or influence. Those without credibility or influence are not likely to be sent free books by publishers.
So far, it seems that fines will be aimed at advertisers and not bloggers. Still, to avoid confusion, here is our disclaimer:
Our writers express their own opinions. Sometimes these opinions are about books, video games, songs, movies, or other cultural artifacts. Sometimes our writers pay full price for these artifacts. Sometimes they get a free copy from their cousin who was going to throw it out anyway. Sometimes they find a book on the street, or take it out of a library. Sometimes publicists or publishers give our writers a free book or a free ticket to an event, hoping that our writers might review the book or event. Obviously, the publicists are hoping that the review is favorable, though even when it is not, they are still probably happy to have their products covered — the only bad publicity is no publicity, after all. This is exactly how it works with professional reviewers at newspapers and magazines.
Our writers are expected to honestly review books and other products whether or not they received free copies or samples of the books or products. And they do.
If our writers are worried about FTC sanctions, we understand if they choose to indicate at the end of their review, in a footnote, that they received a review copy of the book for free. Doing so might be seen as giving in, acknowledging the power of the FTC, and surrendering to the supremacy of the professional media. But with talk of thousands of dollars in fines, we understand. Our writers could just link to this post instead, if they choose to be more rebellious.
It is our position that our reviews and our contributors are on the level of that of professional publications. Because of that and because of the size of our growing audience, publishers and publicists want us to review their books. They understand that our individual writers are not going to spend their own money on a book that they might not even like. That’s not how it works. If they want their books considered for a review, they will have to provide it to the reviewer. Just like they would with a newspaper. That’s how it works. Our writers spend a good deal of time reading the books and writing their reviews. For free. They shouldn’t be expected to pay for the books on top of that.
Readers should be aware that sometimes reviewers have financial or professional incentives to promote a book or movie. Sometimes people have ideological, personal, or political reasons to promote a book or movie. This can be true of newspaper reporters, professional reviewers, bloggers, and talk radio hosts.
We might note that the professionals are more likely to be looking for professional opportunities by staying on the good side of publishers and agents, and tend to have more friends who are writers and work in publishing — how many newspapers and magazines review or promote the latest book by one of their own writers? Maybe the FTC should be concerned about the motives of professional reviewers.
Book bloggers are usually motivated by a love of books and the desire to share it. They usually are not seeking professional opportunities and have little incentive to throw out the one valuable thing they have — credibility with their readers — for a free book.
Readers should base their opinion of the honesty of a review on the quality of the review and the track record of the reviewer — the body of work — and should not assume that a “professional” is somehow more honest or less likely to be bribed than an “amateur.” (And with what little money major publications usually pay book reviewers, really, we might as well all be amateurs anyway. I got free books when I reviewed books for the Philadelphia Inquirer. I didn’t suddenly become more honest because the Inquirer also sent me a small check for my work. ).