October 7, 2009

Should bloggers who review books have to make a point of saying that they got them free?

Scott Stein writes:
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....

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....

[T]he government has no place weighing in on the battle between traditional and alternative media and conveying legitimacy on some and denying it to others....

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. ).
I've written book reviews for The New York Times and The New York Sun, and I didn't do it for the money. It's not enough money for all the work it takes. In fact, once the NYT had me review a book, paid me, and then never published it. That irked me no end, because I would never have done that much work for the amount it paid. (Maybe $700.) So I certainly wouldn't read a book and write about it just for a free book. Think about it. It's like when people give you a book for a gift. Don't you think, oh, great, now I have to read it. It's way easier to buy somebody a book than for them to read it. Imagine if when you got a book for a gift, you had to write about what you thought about it. You'd be saying to anyone who threatened to send you gifts, please, no gifts!

Now, some of these other gifts are more potentially corrupting. If companies were sending me steaks or cases of wine or .... hey, remember the time I tried to get Chevrolet to send me a Corvette?


Peter V. Bella said...

Wait til the IRS starts taxing this stuff as income!

Synova said...

Oh, gawd, Peter. You just sent what I had planned to say right out of my head.


X said...

then let the gander do it too. pro-government bloggers and commenters need to disclose their government affiliations and compensation.

Synova said...

In any case... I agree with Althouse here 100%. It's ridiculous. Publishers print ARC's (Advance Reading Copies) and send them out to get reviewed and that's standard practice. It's what they're *for*. And if I ever got to that point with a novel it would be in the mail RIGHT EFFING NOW to Glenn Reynolds and I would just hope, really hope, that he thought it looked interesting enough to read... because I'm sure that he has piles of the things that he doesn't read.

Because I definitely agree with Althouse on that, too. Reading is work and sending someone a book is asking them to work for you for free for at least a couple of hours. A $7 paperback is not going to cover that amount of work... if the IRS wants to tax it as income, it's going to be a loss.

Seriously... what do you suppose a lawyer like Glen Reynolds can charge an hour? And I sent him a $7 "gift" for 4 or more hours of his time.

Fred4Pres said...

I think as a matter of good policy they should disclose that the publisher sent them a copy and that they are reviewing it. Reynolds does that. But then again, do movie reviewers disclose they got to see the movie for free? Usually not.

I believe restaurant critics pay for their meals and do not tell the establishment in advance they are coming (or openly disclose they are doing a review when there). If they do not, that is patently dishonest and stupid.

But regardless of disclosure to the reader as a matter of good form, should the FTC get involved? Hell no! Seriously, don't we have more pressing things to focus on? I see a federal agency that could use either a haircut or a more important mission!

Fred4Pres said...

And taxing courtesy books, movies, and meals to critics? No for reasons stated above. Seems like the IRS is looking for crumbs when there are mountains of unpaid taxes out there.

Alex said...

So much for the 1st amendment.

Henry said...

Synova wrote: And if I ever got to that point with a novel it would be in the mail RIGHT EFFING NOW to Glenn Reynolds and I would just hope, really hope, that he thought it looked interesting enough to read... because I'm sure that he has piles of the things that he doesn't read. I'm sure that he has piles of the things that he doesn't read

Reynolds has a repeated tagline he uses for advance copies -- "IN THE MAIL" and the title of the book.

I wonder how many people think that Reynolds actually orders or likes the odd lot of books he identifies as "IN THE MAIL".

My father-in-law has a library of some thousands of books, many of which are advance copies. In the newsroom where he worked he was the guy that didn't just throw them away.

rhhardin said...

Counter an overbroad requirement with an overbroad disclosure:

I get everything in life free.

It's actually a weak argument (kettle logic begins) to make the book-reading work point, since it grants them the authority over it in the first place.

TosaGuy said...

If the FTC has time and people to worry about this then the FTC has too many people, too much time on its hands and too much money.

Another anecdote for the "government's problem is not lack of money, it's too much money" file.

Paddy O said...

I wonder how many people think that Reynolds actually orders or likes the odd lot of books he identifies as "IN THE MAIL".

I think this is one of the great Glenn Reynolds contributions, actually. I think it's pretty clear he doesn't read most of those books. But, following his philosophy in even this, he's willing to use his popularity to help others who don't have a marketing reach. His link gave me more than a few sales, to be sure. And I'm extremely thankful.

Those simple words can help other interested parties know that a book exists. Makes sending him a book a lot more worthwhile than sending a book to someone who might read it but won't say anything, or sending a book to someone who just ignores all the books, thus depriving readers of something they may find interesting.

I should add that I have received Glenn Reynolds daily comments on his website free for years so take that into account when considering my applause of his book mentioning efforts.

I should also add that I received Ann Althouse's writings on this subject for free, a fact which may have been influential in my offering a comment (for no charge) in return.

David said...

I'm a little unclear on this. Is the FTC rule also supposed to apply to print, audio and video media? The news media have rules about this, which seem to be generally effective, but doesn't the logic also apply?

I don't think this is just another amusing governmental sulkiness. The feds can't wait to regulate the blogs, which are a threat to their generally chummy relationship with the MSM. This is just the first step of a series.

Peter Hoh said...

The women of GardenRant get some significant swag thrown their way now and then -- along with a lot of small stuff. They are writing about the proposed regulations, and for the most part support them. They do wonder how it is that print reviewers are not subject to the same disclosure rules.

When the Renegade Gardener writes an article about Round-up being relatively safe, I'm inclined to believe him. If it turns out that Monsanto is paying him to say that, or supplying him with a free supply of the stuff, yeah, I'd want to know that.

Tarzan said...

This is just another little hook they're putting into our lives which they can jerk some time in the future to make us dance. Call me paranoid, but I see ominous overtones...

Anonymous said...

The camel is trying to get it's nose under the tent. This is a preview of a coming series of initiatives to rein in and squeeze the blogosphere.

Henry said...

I'm going to start blogging about diamonds.

Brian O'Connell said...

I'm seeing a lot of people shrug their shoulders on this issue, and say that the regulations make sense, or that they agree with them. Well I do too- in the sense that people with honesty and integrity should disclose conflicts of interest when pumping or reviewing a product. Whether the feds should codify and enforce such regulations is a separate question entirely.

The problem that I have with many of these folks is that they don't have any problem with $11,000 government threats for failure to meet these best practices. The underlying thinking I guess, if they're thinking about it at all, is that it's the government's job to make things safer and better for us, and that threats to freedom aren't of much importance.

Most of us are against adultery- but few would countenance government fines for it. This isn't much different.

froggyprager said...

I agree. Requiring folks to disclose that a book or product was obtained for free or that the blogger got a very small amount of money seems like unnecessary overkill.

Who would/ could police such a world and if this rule discourages people from writing and sharing information would be a shame.

Let the readers police the blogosphere. Why would I read a blog by a person who only says great things about dumb books I have no interest in? Hits = free stuff. A blogger would only get free stuff to review if they have integrity, are an interesting person, a good writer and people want to read there stuff. Such a person would not just sell out and push things they don’t believe is any good. You can tell honest thoughts from BS when you read it and your reviews of books are no less honest if you got the book for free, who cares. Who is harmed if they read a book review and the reviewer did not pay for the book yourself and don’t tell that you got it for free?

former law student said...

Advance copies can be horridly unattractive perfect bound galley proofs, or they can be hardbound First Editions. There is a used book store I occasionally visit with a wall of what used to be reading copies -- reviewers and would-be reviewers would take a wine box load there to make some fast cash.

Nowadays you would expect publishers merely to charge up Althouse's Kindle: a $9.95 value, with no possibility of resale.

miller said...

I'm surprised the IRS & FTC haven't thought of this earlier - here are all these people doing something that the government isn't supervising and taxing.


Glenn Howes said...

As it happens, I am part of Amazon's Vine program wherein frequent Amazon customers who write frequent reviews are invited to receive stuff to review. As long as you review 75% of it, you keep getting stuff which you can do with as you like.

There is a huge difference between reviewing a set of headphones, which involves using them for a day or two and reading a book which takes who knows how long and requires your complete attention. And afterwards, you have a set of headphones which you might use every day, and a book which will gather dust on your shelf. Thus the fact that there are always plenty of free books for the asking, while you had better click fast to grab the hardware before it's gone. An arbitrary free book has essentially no or negative value to a reviewer.

And has for this rule, I don't know how it will affect what I write. The other day I mentioned in my blog, that I was using Pixelmator in full screen to allow my 4 year old son to learn to paint on the computer. As it happens, I got Pixelmator from the Vine program. Am I supposed to have a disclaimer every time I mention its existence from this day forward? It's a nice program, and I'll probably be using it frequently. I just don't want to think about whether my words are legal whenever I sit down to make a casual comment on my own blog. It's just not something an American should have to do.

save_the_rustbelt said...

Apparently this country has no serious problems because someone in Washington has time to worry about this little bit of nothing.

Anonymous said...

$700 to write a book review???

Where do I sign up?

(Yeah, right, like anyone would want my opinions about books...)

Joe said...

So on my very part time blog, I review two software products that I got for free because I went to a seminar. I give one a so-so review, one a terrible review. I definitely would have purchased on of the products anyway, and gotten the other through a generous license agreement at my job (which they paid for.)

If the FTC thinks my integrity is compromised because I received these for free, they're insane. Even if it was, who cares? Seriously, I have freedom of speech and that's that. The FTC can go to hell. I don't have to disclose shit. Too bad we don't have judicial, legislative and executive branches that actual take the constitution at face value and who have the courage to stand by it.

(Seriously, what's next?

Me: I just got Visual Studio 2008. It's okay, but not great.

FTC man jumps out from behind a potted plant: You are under arrest for not disclosing that you got that product for free.

Me: I wasn't referring to the copy I got for free, I was referring to the copy my company paid for.

FTC: But you have a timed demo copy on your computer, you were referring to that one.

Me: Yeah, dumbass, because I'm too lazy to enter the license key.

FTC (stomping): But it was still free!

blake said...

Yeah, Joe, can you imagine.

I used to do heavy duty software review (developers' tools). If you made minimum wage, you probably weren't working hard enough.

And, of course, if it's a bad product (or book or whatever), why would you want it?

My pal Kelly runs Loaded Questions, where she interviews authors. She quickly was swamped with more books than she could read.

It's hard to get any attention these days. Quality attention very hard. Targeted, quality attention? Yeesh.