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Book Publishers, Bloggers, & the FTC Guidelines

Shortly after the Federal Trade Commission issued its “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising” yesterday, the world learned that the FTC judges newspapers and blogs by different standards—while newspapers (and magazines, and radio shows, and TV shows) are able to receive consumer products for the purposes of review with no requirement to disclose the provenance of those products, the FTC’s stated position is that bloggers are receiving those same consumer products as compensation for a presumed endorsement: Nobody but a blockhead ever gave a blogger anything, according to the FTC, except for good reviews.

(This position isn’t unique to the FTC—three years ago, before he became the editor of Granta, John Freeman attacked book bloggers by making much the same argument, particularly with reference to blogs that participate in ecommerce affiliate programs in order to generate income by commissions on referrals leading to consumer purchases.)

Obviously, these guidelines apply to all consumer products; it’s just that books happen to be our particular area of interest here at GalleyCat. With that in mind, what can book publishers do to challenge this pernicious double standard? I am not a lawyer, so the following should not be construed as legal advice, but perhaps publicists at book publishing companies might wish to discuss it with corporate counsel. In fact, I strongly encourage them to do so.

(1) If the Federal Trade Commission sincerely believes publishers send books to bloggers with the expectation that those books will receive endorsement in the form of a positive review, perhaps it can be disabused of this notion. What if publishers developed a standardized document to accompany any books, whether they be sent to bloggers or media companies, explicitly defining the conditions under which that book has been distributed? This document could state, among other things, that the book it accompanies is being sent to the recipient for the purposes of review, that it is in no way intended as compensation to the recipient, that the publisher places no condition upon the recipient as to the handling of the book, that the publisher has no expectations as to how or even if the recipient will review the book, and so on. (Again, I’m not a lawyer, so the actual language of such a document, should a publisher choose to create it, is likely to be very different.)

(2) Let’s be honest, the FTC is much more likely to listen to Bertelsmann or News Corp. or other publishers of similar stature than it is to the bloggers. If whoever it is that lobbies the FTC on behalf of those companies—not only as individual corporations, but also as the Association of American Publishers—were to go to the FTC and argue against the way these guidelines define the relationship between book publishers and bloggers as distinct from the relationship between book publishers and other media companies, maybe that would effect some change in the situation. Or maybe it wouldn’t. We won’t know, though, if the book publishers don’t make the effort.

Of course, both of these proposals depend upon book publishers actually believing that when they send a book to a blogger, it’s for the purposes of review and not for a presumed endorsement. So maybe, before we go any further, bloggers need to have some frank conversations with book publishers about their expectations, and if it turns out that (some) publishers really do expect endorsements, bloggers might want to ask themselves: If this book is intended as compensation, is it enough compensation?

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