Disclosure: Not Just a Crappy Demi Moore Movie Anymore

by Patrick on October 6, 2009

The FCC has decreed that bloggers must disclose whenever they receive a promotional copy of a book that they’ve blogged about (or, one would suppose a DVD or what have you).  This is theoretically to prevent payola scams and the like, but the fact that it’s targeted at bloggers means reviving the old “who gets to be a book critic” debate.  Great.  Writing at GalleyCat, Ron Hogan summarizes the strange double standard inherent in this ruling:

[W]hile 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.

Blockheaded, indeed.  Anyway, here at Vroman’s, we will be following this new guideline.  I will disclose the following up front:

  • Those links I put to the books?  They’re to encourage you to buy them (from us).  Pretty much every time you see a link to a book on this blog, you should probably read that as me saying “buy this!” because that’s exactly what it means.  See, when you buy the books (from us!) you help support this blog, which allows me to keep doing what I’m doing.  If the store goes under, I’m going to have to find real work.
  • You should assume that every book I discuss at length on this blog I got for free from the publisher.  That isn’t always the case, but I do get books for free (though you may have assumed that, since I work in a bookstore).  That doesn’t mean I talk up everything anybody sends me (I happen to practice the “if you don’t have anything nice to say” rule on this blog).

With that in mind, on to the links!

  • The Millions has two excellent posts up side by side that serve as nifty companion pieces.  First, Edan Lepucki chronicles two weeks at a posh artists’ retreat (The Ucross Foundation).  Second, Emily St. John Mandel writes about having a day job.  It’s interesting to read Lepucki’s musings on how difficult the adjustment back from solitude was and then juxtapose it Mandel’s post, in which she admits that she thinks she’ll always have a job other than writing to support her.  This reminds me a bit of a passage from Steve Hely’s book How I Became a Famous Novelist, in which an English academic criticizes literary fiction for not being viable in the marketplace:  “[T]he novel was once a populist form, but these days it’s like opera, kept alive by foundations and a few wealthy patrons.  It can’t sustain itself.  If it wasn’t for the Guggenheims and the MacArthurs, Thomas Pynchon would have to write for CSI: Miami and Cormac McCarthy would be a blackjack dealer.”  (Disclosure:  Edan Lepucki is my wife, so we have, in fact, slept together.  Repeatedly.  Take that, David Letterman!  Emily Mandel is an acquaintance of mine.  I bought her a cranberry juice when I saw her in New York…Am I doing this disclosure thing right?)
  • Hilary Mantel has won the Booker Prize for her novel Wolf Hall.  Wolf Hall is set during the court of Henry VIII and involves Thomas Cromwell, among others.  It doesn’t come out in the US until next week, but you can pre-order it here.  Mantel was the favorite to win the award.  (Disclosure:  I had A.S. Byatt as part of a parlay with my dark horse Nobel Winner (Margaret Atwood).)

I’m obviously being a little bit funny with this post, but the fact that FCC decided to single out bloggers and other electronic media for this is troubling.  Sure they’re trying to go after aggressive internet marketers (and godspeed on that, my friends), but they are (inadvertently) tainting electronic media as a bunch of shills and hucksters, and that’s not fair.  I think it’s fairly obvious that this blog is affiliated with a bookstore, so you’d probably assume that what I write is edited in some way to serve the ends of the store.  That being said, I’d hate for you to think that I’m only writing good things about the authors and the books I love because their publishers paid me off or because the store told me to. This is just one more way of denigrating writing that happens online, to classify it as illegitimate or corrupt.  (And by the way, there’s further denigration within the online community.  Woe be to you if you try to start a serious blog on Tumblr.  Those WordPress snobs will look down their noses at you.)

What do you think about this issue?  When you see a blogger recommend a book or a movie, do you think they’re only doing it to get more free stuff?  And what about supposedly legitimate critics (who get books and movies for free, too, you know)?  Do you think of them differently?  What would it take for your opinion to change?

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

glockenspiel 10.06.09 at 7:57 pm

So, I think that the way the law was written is pretty ham fisted. I think that there’s no good way to implement this, and, as has been basically admitted by the FCC, there’s little hope of enforcement. But… I’m not sure that I would put this in the same category of “bloggers as pajama army in mom’s basement” kind of argument. Part of the motivation here is a kind of astroturfing that I readily imagine exists on a wide range of broadly popular sites (e.g., gawker). Must of that is site as shill… Honestly, its probably better to have thrown up their hands and say ‘whatever…’ but I think that the motivation is not entirely stupid.

Kristen M. 10.07.09 at 8:24 am

The way I’m thinking about it is that book bloggers (and perhaps some other niche bloggers) are not just handed a product that they take a glimpse at and then spew out a perky “review”. To lump together blogs that “endorse” a book that they have spent a few days reading with a site that gives a big thumbs up to Ragu (the kids loved it!) is just silly. It’s not the same thing.

And there are some bloggers that seem to be in it for the free books but I don’t read their sites and I’m guessing there aren’t many people who actually trust their opinions. I also don’t read many “legitimate” critics because they come off as writers, not readers. I enjoy what the book blogging community does and hope that it doesn’t change just because the FTC is bored and likes to regulate.

Alessandro Cima 10.07.09 at 10:21 am

This is an obvious court case that the FTC cannot hope to win. The double standard is blatantly unfair and it is a rule that grossly impedes free speech. All kinds of First Amendment stuff going on here that must be way over the FTC lawyers’ heads.

But for now, I recommend that the following heading be applied to the header of any blog that reviews or writes about any product at all: ‘Every single word of every single post on this blog has been bought and paid for by someone looking for a favor. All good reviews are done as favors. All negative reviews are done as favors for someone else.’

Emma 10.08.09 at 7:11 am

Good to know you slept with Edan and not Emily, though I’m sure they’d both like a good cranberry juice now and again.

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