Who Gets to Be an Online Book Reviewer?

By Neal Comment

While skimming the Federal Trade Commission‘s new “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising late last night, I was struck by this passage:

“[A]n individual who regularly receives free samples of products for families with young children and discusses those products on his or her blog would likely have to disclose that he or she received for free the items being recommended. Although the monetary value of any particular product might not be exorbitant, knowledge of the blogger’s receipt of a stream of free merchandise could affect the weight or credibility of his or her endorsement—the standard for disclosure in Section 255.5—if that connection is not reasonably expected by readers of the blog.”

This seems to strike at the heart of the distinction made by the FTC between individual bloggers and media companies. The New York Times Book Review, to pick a prominent example, does not have the “weight or credibility of [its] endorsement” called into question, even though it receives “a stream of free merchandise” on a daily basis, because the receipt of all those free books is “reasonably expected by readers.” It’s a book reviewing publication, therefore it receives free books as a matter of course. By that standard, any book blog which can reasonably be expected by readers to be in receipt of free books, supplied by publishers, should not have “the weight of credibility of [its] endorsement” called into question—and therefore it should be no more necessary for such a blog to make any disclosure about the provenance of the books it reviews than it is for the New York Times Book Review.

The questions we have to ask ourselves now are: Which book blogs meet that standard of reasonable expectation on the part of readers? Where does the line get drawn? Why was it drawn that way? And who gets to draw it?

(Note: I am not a lawyer; the opinions in this post should not be construed as legal advice. That said, you can expect further commentary as I familiarize myself more fully with the contents of the FTC’s guidelines.)