Miscellaneous Smugglers Ponderings

Smugglers Ponderings: On the FTC Guidelines & The Book Smugglers

Today the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) published its final revised guidelines governing endorsements and testimonials. While this usually would not be of interest or concern us in any way, these revised guidelines have a new stipulation covering bloggers and other word-of-mouth marketers. From the FTC Press Release:

The revised Guides specify that while decisions will be reached on a case-by-case basis, 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.

Basically, what this boils down to in our situation is that any bloggers who receive books from publishers/publicists/authors in return for a review or giveaway published on that blogger’s site is now an official, legal endorsement. **Note that “endorsement” in this sense does not necessarily hold a positive valuation as it does in the everyday vernacular – it simply means a promotional statement. For the full-on legalese, the FTC Guidelines currently define an endorsement as “any advertising message (including verbal statements, demonstrations, or depictions of the name, signature or likeness or other identifying personal characteristics of an individual or the name or seal of an organization) which message consumers are likely to believe reflects the opinions, beliefs, findings, or experience of a party other than the sponsoring advertiser.”**

And since this exchange now qualifies as an endorsement, bloggers need to disclose the specifics of their relationship with whomever provided that book.

Now, the FTC did not specify HOW bloggers should go about disclosing things, so we’re just going to explain our position and how we plan on disclosing this information in the future (in the spirit of full disclosure and all that).

If you read The Book Smugglers, you know that we have a bunch of giveaways. We also receive books from publishers, third party publicists, and of course, from authors themselves. We LOVE receiving review copies, and we encourage publishers et al. to contact us if they have review or giveaway copies they think we’ll be interested in. Review copies are great, because when you read as much as we do, spending on books can really add up. That said, this next point should be painfully obvious and self-explanatory for any reviewer:

We DO NOT promise a positive endorsement for ANY book that we receive.

We pride ourselves on our honesty, even when our opinions might not be popular ones (see our recent review of Gail Carriger’s Soulless). Any blogger worth their salt won’t trade glowing reviews for free books (or, heaven knows, cash) – this is the kind of thing that readers pick up on. We all know there’s a huge difference between the Harriet Klausners of the review world and review sites like Dear Author, for example. In this sense, the revised FTC Guidelines really don’t affect us, because we think we make it pretty clear that we are not some kind of publisher automatons that parrot back positive reviews for every book we read.

That said, we do plan on making a few changes to honor the FTC Guidelines.

In our reviews, we have a section titled “Why did we read this book” in which we informally disclose our motivations for reading a book – and oftentimes we’ll also use this section to say if we received an ARC of the book, a review copy from the publisher/author/publicist, or if we shelled out for the thing ourselves. In light of the new FTC Guidelines, however, we’ll be adding a new section to our reviews, titled “How did we get this book” in which we’ll formally disclose if the book was purchased by us, or solicited/received as an ARC/Review Copy, and if the latter from whom the book originated.

Also, you’ll notice a nifty new disclaimer on the bottom of our sidebar, and on our “About Us” and “Contact Us/Review Policy” pages:

“In accordance with the new FTC Guidelines for blogging and endorsements, The Book Smugglers would like everyone to know that while we do purchase our own books for review on occasion, you should assume that every book reviewed here at The Book Smugglers was provided to the reviewers by the publisher or the author for free unless specified otherwise.”

(This template was shamelessly copied from Jane of Dear Author)

Of course, we’ll be breaking down where we procured our books on a by-review basis with the new “How did we get this book” section.

That’s basically our professional, toned-down take on the matter and how we plan to proceed with the new FTC Guidelines in place as reviewers. That is not to say that we reacted in the same way to the news this morning:

Ana’s reaction:

I heard it first on Twitter. My first reaction, as our Twitter readers can attest to, was rather explosive and I managed to work myself up in a matter of seconds. Firstly, I felt completely furious at the idea of some unknown far away entity regulating the blog. Please bear in mind, I live in the UK and the first thing I thought was how exactly do they plan on regulating this? How does that apply to a blog that has one half in the US and one half in the UK? How do they propose to rule this?

Some of the books Thea receives in LA come from me, after I receive them from UK publishers: does that count? What constitutes “free”? We do get free books from publishers but more often that not, I have to pay for shipping. Further to that: how can they know? That is the point that boggles the mind: how would they know when someone is telling the truth whether a blogger bought a book or not? It expands to questioning about what exactly do they have in mind and how that does not infringe our own freedom.

I need to be very clear here though. It is not a matter of disclosing where I got a book (I always do that anyways) it is the thought of HAVING to do that, that does not sit well with me.

I got myself a headache I was so angry. Then Thea woke up and helped me cool down. And then I went and read this article from book review blogger, Edward Champion where he tells about a phone call with a representative of FTC and now I am utterly, completely furious all over again because the FTC rep makes assumptions of something he clearly does not understand! The nerve, the nerve!

Thea’s reaction:

I woke up this morning and logged on to the computer to meet a flurry of emails from Ana. That’s a pretty normal scenario. But, when I delved into the emails, I saw that Ana was totally, royally pissed off. And the culprit was not one of the usual suspects, but the dreaded Federal Trade Commission!

The horror!

After reading through tweets, press releases, and skimming a few super-dense official documents, I wrapped my mind around the FTC Revised Guidelines and was able to start calming Ana down a bit. My initial reaction was slightly indignant and PO’d, like Ana, but I also find the whole thing kind of humorous. This is what you get when an antiquated system attempts to keep up with a rapidly changing society of technology. Reading through the FTC official legalese and red tape, I came to the exact same conclusion as Ana: these old models of laws based on “compensation” and “endorsement” are simply NOT applicable to a lot of online media (such as blogging).

And then, there was the interview. I just finished reading this article from fellow book review blogger, Edward Champion. Edward relates a phone call he had with a representative from the FTC about these new guidelines and how they pertain to book review bloggers, and the huge gaping holes in the FTC’s arguments about the “compensation” angle for book review bloggers are big enough to drive a sixteen-wheel semi through.

For one thing, anyone that blogs knows that the whole blogging and reviewing process is a whole bunch of effort and cost with little tangible reward. Reading books, writing in-depth reviews of books, covering mailing costs for giveaways and promotional materials, not to mention day to day maintenance of a blog (including monetary costs of web hosting and domain purchasing, plus the time and effort cost of keeping things going day after day)…well, receiving “compensation” in the form of review/giveaway copies of books and having that be the constituting factor of payment is laughable. There’s a huge double standard – wherein (PAID!!!) reviewers of Newspapers and Magazines do not retain ownership of books and therefore are not seen as “compensation” by the FTC, versus (UNPAID!!!) bloggers who receive and retain review copies of books as individuals are seen as being “sponsored” by the publisher/author/publicist. The idea proposed by the obtuse fellow interviewed at the FTC to get around this compensation angle, that bloggers should send their review copies BACK after reviewing them, is even more laughable. (And by the way, Mr. FTC Drone, I also review books for a local print periodical, and I can tell you now that the newspaper certainly does not retain ownership of the book. Those books are mine now. And I’m pretty damn sure this is the case with other “professional” reviewers for magazines and periodicals that don’t fall under the “new media” umbrella.)

I’m not even going to expand on the FTC’s asinine view that reviewers who receive review copies of books do so with the understanding and expectation to write positive reviews for those books. (SERIOUSLY? If the world were made solely of happy fluffy reviews, what would be the point of critics? The FTC clearly hasn’t read Smart Bitches, or reviews like these. Our lifeblood, our CREDIBILITY rests on our ability to write honest – at times harsh and negative – reviews. And contrary to the FTC’s view, we don’t receive monetary compensation that would “buy” us off.)

I’ll say it again: the FTC’s approach to blogging is laughably antiquated and not applicable.

The economic model of compensation for advertisements and testimonials makes sense when you’re watching commercials for Tide or HydroxyCut or whatever (FTC DISCLAIMER: THE BOOK SMUGGLERS HAVE NO AFFILIATION WITH TIDE OR HYDROXYCUT OR ANY PARENT OR SUBSIDIARY COMPANIES THEREOF – are you happy Mr. FTC Drone? Are you?!), but does not hold water when it comes to bloggers. We are legitimate critics and members of the new media. We have our own code of ethics and online etiquette when it comes to reading and reviewing books, and the blogosphere has an ability to self-regulate that works pretty damn well. If reviewers are perceived of as “bought” by publishers and only publish positive, glowing reviews in return for free books and giveaways, or clog their pages with ads and promotions, they will be pushed out of the market. Their reputations will be marked, and no one in the blogging community will take them seriously – even to the point where readers may stop going to such blogs.

Not to mention as Ana so aptly puts it, HOW does the FTC plan on regulating the enormous (and international) blogosphere? Will The Book Smugglers, with its UK half, be subject to these regulations? I’m assuming that the FTC will deal with only the most egregious offenses (sort of like the Limewire/Napster situation) on a case-by-case basis, but in the age of social media where blogs die and new ones start up every day, Big Brother certainly will have his hands full.

We’ll play by the rules and put up our disclaimers, but it seems like repetitive, bureaucratic bullshit, and shouldn’t apply in the first place. We blog because we WANT to blog, because we LOVE to read and to write, and to share our love with other avid readers and writers. And as Ana says, the fact that we have to do this now is insulting.

We’re not exactly dealing with Bear Stearns or AIG here. Come on, government. Surely there are better places to worry about regulation.

**********

Bloggers and readers alike, please feel free to comment here if you have any questions, concerns, or if you just want a good laugh or rant.

The FTC Revised Guidelines are effective December 1, 2009. For more information, check the official press release HERE, or you can read the Guides in their entirety HERE.

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25 Comments

  • KMont
    October 5, 2009 at 12:51 pm

    I have never. Ever. Loved the two of you more than I do right now. In this moment. Forever.

    Doesn’t this just smack in the face though after all the BBAW hoopla, where the point was community and doing what we all love, etc.; and particularly after the big deal made of the BBAW for ONE blogger being paid to review…

    I pretty much have no patience for asshats that assume everyone is doing the wrong thing, and therefore must always stand ready to prove their innocence. I’ve had a notice in my about section for a while now on where/how I get books. Case closed FTC.

    For the first time in my life, after reading THIS post – I made the American football “touchdown” sign. And I pretty much do not like American football.

  • TDF Pamela
    October 5, 2009 at 1:01 pm

    A-freaking-MEN. Ana, Thea, you’ve said exactly how I feel about the FTC’s glaring ignorance in this situation, only you said it much more eloquently than I could in my current, cold-medicine-altered state. If the FTC seriously thinks that getting free books is compensation whereas being paid real money is not, I… I don’t even know. I wouldn’t think anyone could function with their head so far up their arse, but this is a government bureaucracy.

    I have to say, I’m wondering how many old media lobbyists have been hanging around the FTC lately…

  • Wendy
    October 5, 2009 at 1:06 pm

    Like I said on Katiebab’s post about this, I’m curious just how they think they’re going to enforce this new policy of theirs.

    It’s ridiculous. It’s bullshit. It’s laughable.

  • BMoreKarl
    October 5, 2009 at 1:12 pm

    Okay, 1st amendment. If Congress cannot regulate a free press, then congress cannot define a free press, because if they can say “You’re free press. No, you’re just a blogger.” that is defacto regulation.

    Doesn’t FTC have to follow the laws passed by congress. Don’t FTC employees swear to “uphold and defend the Constitution”?

    DO NOT COMPLY WITH THIS UNCONSTITUTIONAL BS. I for one promise to aid your legal defense fund to the best of my starving English major ability all the way to the Supreme Court.

  • Jeff
    October 5, 2009 at 1:37 pm

    Marketing Jeff and Blogger Jeff have differing responses to this.

    In blog communities other than the ones that we move in, there have already been firestorms about disclosure and ‘openness’. From A Certain Point Of View, I get it. But…I think the community polices itself in a lot of these cases. I also think that the first case where some mommy blogger gets the book thrown at her for what might end up being a simple misunderstanding is going to be quite interesting. I think the FTC’s thinking about media and sharing is antiquated.

    It’s all academic for me, since I so rarely get stuff to review and have always been pretty up front about where it comes from. But I rankle at being told I have to.

  • Heloise
    October 5, 2009 at 1:56 pm

    Really, I think the most insulting part is being targeted as if this community is making money. Did they see Julia and Julie and think “There’s got to be a way to tap into that cash cow.”

    Ladies, you said it when you asked, Don’t you have better things to do with your time, FTC?

  • danielle
    October 5, 2009 at 2:52 pm

    Sing it, sister. I don’t even understand the point of this–how could anyone ever consider ARCs payment???? What does this DO for those stupid corporate pigs’ lives? Blogging is a ten-times more reliable source for reviews then The New York Post, and to even think that getting free books could be considered commision while COLD, HARD money cannot is just astounding.

    Word.

  • April
    October 5, 2009 at 4:07 pm

    If the few ARCs I get are considered commission, I feel shafted. All of those hours I spend reading, for a book that is only worth 25 bucks? F-that shit. I deserve a textbook style commission (since the going rate of textbooks is around 120$). –that was a joke, obviously books are worth reading!

    In all seriousness though, WTF FTC they can kiss my Constitution, as my blog is an expression of my Free Speech, not a television commercial. I’m not trying to sell any books, although maybe it is selling if my reviews get people to read books LOL. Still, WTF.

    Awesome post, you definitely clarified some of my questions.

  • Kate
    October 5, 2009 at 5:55 pm

    My lovely brother-in-law, who is a lawyer who deals in intellectual property, first sent me these links this morning with the subject line, “Um…is this you?” God love him.

    Rationally speaking, 1. first amendment and 2. what Wendy said – regardless of what the FTC thinks there’s very, very little way that they’re going to be able to police these regulations. Not without a building full of interns surfing review blogs. (Sign me up!) I also wonder if this means our local arts reporter has to disclose that he got into the museum for free to review the exhibition online on the newspaper’s blog…or does the fact that he gets paid by someone to do this change the color of the horse?

    Otherwise, I’m just slightly annoyed that the FTC has decided to dabble in the interwebs. I think this bodes poorly for net neutrality, which is a subject I admittedly know very little about. I’m also slightly personally offended (not like they’ve ever read my blog or anything) since I’ve always made a point of disclosing when books come from some source other than me getting it for myself. I’m a tiny blog. My integrity is what I have to go on.

  • Virginia Hendricks
    October 5, 2009 at 6:21 pm

    Hmmm. I’d like to be paid in more than books that half the time I may not even like. And what if the website has more than two people writing reviews? Do you have to address it with each reviewer?

    What total crap.

  • Doug Knipe [SciFiGuy]
    October 5, 2009 at 6:53 pm

    Well it is at times like these that I am glad I am Canadian because I fully intend to ignore the entire thing. Doesn’t the FTC get that the blogosphere is international? I would suggest all American bloggers ignore the rules as well and wait for the FTC to actually try and enforce the rule. As a community I am sure we could provide the necessary donations to fund a legal response (heck fund it with all those books you are supposed to return).

  • Jennygirl
    October 5, 2009 at 7:06 pm

    I agree with the Captain!
    WHATEVER FTC! If you seriously have enough time to go after book bloggers…then the terroists have won.
    I put the book source at the top of my posts, so suck on that FTC!
    As my friend V told me before, “People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people.”
    Excellent posts gals!

  • Maya M.
    October 5, 2009 at 7:39 pm

    Am I correct in thinking that this is supposed to apply to American bloggers?

    And if yes: I wonder if other countries will follow suit or simply consider it not worth their time given the fluidity of the framework involved.

  • Falling Off The Shelf
    October 5, 2009 at 8:05 pm

    I just read about this thanks to Donna of Bites. Like I told her..I’m not worried about it. I already disclose where I recieve my books. I may just change it up a bit and make it bold faced at the bottom of each review. I don’t care what they say about positive reviewing…I’m not going to lie about something like that. My readers depend on my honesty, and that’s exactly what I’m going to give. Although, when I write a review for a book I didn’t enjoy I usually try to write some of the better aspects as well, and let my readers know that although the book wasn’t for me..things may be different for them.

    The above is true, especially when I have had a fellow reader/blogger come to my blog and tell me that the book I had not liked was amazing in their opinion. They also went to say that because I didn’t enjoy the book that they liked..I should just stop reading that genre all together. Is it wrong to say I wanted to smack her silly?….eh, I can be violent sometimes.

    Thanks for the heads up, your post shed a little more light on things. I’ll be looking for updates.

  • katiebabs
    October 5, 2009 at 8:46 pm

    The FTC can kiss my free ARC reviewing ass.

  • Falling Off The Shelf
    October 5, 2009 at 8:53 pm

    lmao Katiebabs! You’ve definitely said it!

    I love Katie, she’s hilarious…always speaking her mind 🙂

  • Wendy
    October 6, 2009 at 2:37 am

    Oooh, I just thought of something! (I know.. it happens rarely)

    I review most of the books I get from an online reviewing group. THEY get the books from authors/publishers, and then they give it to me! So really, technically, unless the publishers/authors/etc send the book directly to me, I’m under NO obligation to disclose where I got the book.

    Although, even if they send it directly, I’d still be under NO obligation to tell you shit!

  • Karen Mahoney
    October 6, 2009 at 4:39 am

    *boggles*

    I was thinking about this last night, too, and honestly… Ana & Thea… I love your response. You got it just right, ladies.

    *bows down to the awesomeness*

  • katiebabs
    October 6, 2009 at 6:01 am

    What can I say? I have a way with words. 😛

  • Melanie
    October 6, 2009 at 8:34 am

    Thanks for explaining this, ladies. I completely had no idea what this thing meant before hand. One thing that I’m still unclear on is that I read somewhere that bloggers aren’t going to be allowed to post links to places where people can order a book (Amazon, Powells, etc.). Is that true?

    This whole situation is absolutely ridiculous.

  • Diana Peterfreund
    October 6, 2009 at 9:14 am

    The other thing that makes it all laughable to me is the way the ARCs turn into these vast daisy chains of sharing. So, Blogger A discloses they got the ARC from the publisher, and Blogger B discloses she got the ARC from Blogger A as a present, which of course inclines her to not agree with the troll bashing Blogger A’s new meme — which she’s got to disclose, as it will affect Blogger A’s follower count and therefore her income from Google Adwords. Then, Blogger C discloses she got the SAME ARC from Blogger B in a giveaway on her blog (which, let’s face it, is probably an illegal sweepstakes), then Blogger D discloses she bought it when Blogger C illegally sold it on either one of those Bookswap sites or EBay. And then she gives it to her best friend, Blogger E, who already got a copy from Blogger F, so gives hers away in another illegal sweepstakes to Blogger G, who has been bugging the author on her website for a “free review copy” for months, despite the fact that the book is actually available on the shelves now — the corrected, non-ARC version, and she HATES the fact that the ARCs are still making the rounds. (And yes, that means you, Blogger H, who just gave your copy to Blogger J because you feel bad that anyone would have to read it with the new cover on which you don’t like as much as the old cover that is only on the ARC copy you got from Blogger K when she sold it to the Strand on consignment (nevermind the huge signs on the cover you supposedly love so well saying NOT FOR SALE).

    Am I, the author, responsible for any of this? Hell no.

    And I have nothing against the illegal sweepstaking, either. I do that on my own blog, i bet.

  • alana
    October 6, 2009 at 10:49 am

    I don’t know. One part of me thinks this is ridiculous, but the other part doesn’t really care. The not caring stems mostly from the fact this won’t affect me (just being honest). And another part is because there are some makeup “gurus” on youtube that blatantly peddle makeup that was given to them without disclosing it. It just seems kind of dishonest. (Not that I think you guys are anything like this of course.)

    It does seem odd that the FTC can just do something like this though.

  • Adrienne
    October 6, 2009 at 12:55 pm

    Here is what this all comes down to…tax revenue. Our economy is in the shitter and I’m sure some geek at the IRS is looking for ways of taxing internet blogging if a book was listed as an endorsment (i.e. 40% tax revenue =10$ per book if the book is a hard bound, $25 book). As Bloggers (and the best site out there) you should be outranged that you have to document every book you receive and post the reason for reviewing. With the state of the world as it is (pollution, over-farming, over-hunting, over-fishing, rising tides/sea water, melting ice caps) this is the f-en crap they think about? We are all doomed

  • Lauren (I Was A Teenage Book Geek)
    October 10, 2009 at 5:58 am

    Awesome post. I’ve been reading a bit about this over the last few days, and although it doesn’t really affect me personally because I’m (a) in the UK and (b) not someone who has ever received an ARC, it’s still eye-rollingly stupid.

    I think most regular book blog readers can tell the difference between a reviewer they can trust, and one who might just feel inclined to post positive reviews because they don’t want to stop getting review copies / upset the author / seem ungrateful. Drawing attention to the fact that the reviewer got an ARC could make it look to new readers like the review is an endorsement when it’s not, and I don’t like that. I’m almost inclined to just start claiming all my books were ARCs in a show of solidarity.

    What I also don’t get is the bit about having to declare ARCs on your takes if you don’t return them. If ARCs aren’t for resale, surely they have no monetary value?

  • Ellen Christian
    October 17, 2009 at 5:40 pm

    I really think the FTC should have better things to do with their time than bother a bloggers who write a review on a book they got for free.

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