Books as Compensation? Considering the Hubbub with the FTC

Monday night, I read a very interesting article on edrants.com, an interview with the FTC’s Richard Cleland. The interview follows Monday’s announcement that effective December 1, 2009, bloggers are expected to disclose any tangible connections. Basically, if I read the FTC’s policy correctly, the big idea is that if you review a book from a publisher’s blogger program and keep it (particularly if that review is positive), the book could be considered compensation. Essentially, you’re being paid with a book to give them a good review.

I’m sure the gang at Thomas Nelson would be disappointed with my last couple reviews then [insert canned laughter for unfunny joke].

Here’s a particularly interesting bit from the article:

“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.”

If, however, you held onto the unit, then Cleland insisted that it could serve as “compensation.” You could after all sell the product on the streets.

In the article, Cleland goes on to say, “If there’s an expectation that you’re going to write a positive review…then there should be a disclosure.”

Now, I have no problem with adding a disclosure to any review I write on a book received through a blogger program or at the request of a publisher, but I do find the idea of returning a book to the publisher a bit… silly.

I mean, seriously. What’s a publisher going to do with a copy of a book I’ve written copious amounts of notes in? Are they going to sell it as a one of a kind product? Gosh no. I don’t think most people are going to want a copy of a book that’s highlighted and marked up by a dude from Canada. I’m just saying. If I send it back, what will they do? Probably recycle it.

So why do publishers do things like blogger review programs? Is it to generate positive reviews?

While I’m sure that they’d love to see a product spread like wildfire because of positive endorsements from bloggers in whatever interweb subculture they run in—I think the reality is they understand how new marketing works. More and more, organizations are beginning to realize that your best bet is to get positive reviews from lots of bloggers (and in particular, the ones who have large followings). Word of mouth is incredibly powerful, because, let’s face it: Celebrity endorsements don’t work. Despite my affection for him, I don’t want to buy a product that David Hasselhoff approves of.

But if a person who appears credible and fair in their assessment approves of a product, I’m going to take their review under consideration.

Publishers (and most companies in general) get this. But they also get that it’s a bad idea to try to buy the endorsement. When you do this, you destroy the credibility of both the blogger and your organization. It’s why I appreciate how Tim Challies has been handling his experiments with sponsor posts over on his blog over the past few weeks. It’s open, up-front, and it’s not written by him.

When he reviews a book, he doesn’t always give a positive review.

So why all the hubbub?

Because someone could do something. Someone could sell the books they receive on the blogger book black market. But at the end of the day, it’s not in a blogger’s best interest to give a positive review unless they really like the product. It’s also not in the interest of the publisher.

What is in the interest of everyone is to be honest. If you like a product, great. If you don’t, super.

And if you keep it; frankly—who cares? But really, is anyone who reviews books going to sell them?

What say you?

Get new content delivered to your inbox

  • Wes

    I think, for once, you and I agree Aaron!

    • http://hardwords.wordpress.com Aaron Armstrong

      It was bound to happen sooner or later :P

  • Isaac

    This is beyond silly. It’s a blatant attack from the print media using thier pal, the lobbied government on the world of blogging. It’s quite disgusting.