As others have already noted, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) announced yesterday that it has adopted a series of revisions to its Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising which seek to apply existing laws on the subject to, among others, bloggers who receive cash or “in-kind” compensation for publishing a product review. Broadly according to the revised Guides (which are, however, to be applied case-by-case), these are now formally considered to be “endorsements” by the FTC. Given this, such bloggers are expected to fully and unambiguously disclose any compensation they receive from an advertiser in order to feature their product, and failure to do so may result in a fine of up to $11,000 per violation, as well as mandated reimbursements to consumers who may have been misled by deceitful and irresponsible endorsements from those who failed to disclose their material connection to the advertiser. This seems entirely fair to me.
The obvious concern here for bloggers on the Bible and Theology is the matter of the review books that many of us have received from academic publishers. Since these are sent at no charge, they may be construed under certain circumstances as “in-kind” compensation for an endorsement. Fortunately, I am unaware of any biblio- or theobloggers who fail to disclose the source of the books they review when these have been sent directly by publishers at no charge. Here at The Voice of Stefan, a complete listing of such may be found in the Books Received page, a practice also adopted by our good friend and reviewer extraordinaire Nick Norelli. Others, while lacking a full listing like those just linked, invariably acknowledge whether the book they are reviewing was received from a publisher, and this usually in the very first line of their review.
Of course, there is a long history of academic publishers sending review books to peer-reviewed journals at no charge. These titles are usually listed in a “books received” section in the journal in question (whence the name of my above linked page), and then are distributed to scholars and graduate students for review. In the end, reviewers usually either keep these books or else dispose of them according to their better judgement (and indeed, during my days at Baker Book House, I came across several books marked “For Review” by a number of journals, some of which now grace my bookshelves). Needless to say, these reviews can be alike positive, negative, or somewhere in between, and the fact that the book was received for free plays no part in the reviewer’s assessment.
It stands to reason that the practice of sending books to bloggers for review is an extension of this long-standing practice: as a matter of fact, review books sent by publishers started to appear in the biblioblogosphere among established scholars. Later the practice spread to graduate students, and later still to non-specialists, whether trained to a certain degree or with no formal training at all, but all interested (and often widely read) in the subject matters these books address.
Somewhere along the way (rather early on, if my cynicism may be trusted), some publishers realized that, since many of us turn to the internet to search for reviews of books we do not know, this was a very effective marketing strategy—particularly in view of the fact that many bloggers, unaware of the long history of journal reviews described above, feel that it is their bounden duty to speak of the books they have received only in glowing terms. Some have gone so far as to hastily review books they have not read (!), while others have resorted to writing two-paragraph “reviews” that amount to little more than a glorified blurb. In these cases, the haste is usually related to a misplaced desire to comply with the time limits of a marketing campaign, while the invariably positive review is tied to misguided gratitude for the free book received. In these cases, one might indeed say that an advertiser has effectively bought a glowing endorsement for the measly price of book production and shipping.
Of course, many publishers send bloggers their books in good faith, and many of us receive them on the same terms. But I encourage those who have fallen into the trap described above to realize that when a publisher sends you a book, they are taking a risk. While it is often true that many of us request books that we assume to be excellent treatments of their subject, it no less true that in more than one occasion these same books are a disappointment. Do not hide that fact out of a false sense of duty. A negative or mixed review is the risk that publishers take when they send along a book for critical examination. What you truly owe to them, to yourself, and to your readers is to produce a review that evinces critical engagement and that does not shrink from making criticisms, even pointed ones. Haste is not a help in this endeavor, but rather a pernicious foe. In all these respects, the example of our friend Nick Norelli is a fine standard against which other reviewers in biblioblogdom would do well to measure ourselves: note, for example, his recent two-part review of John J. and Adela Yarbro Collins’ King and Messiah as Son of God.
Returning to the revised FTC Guides, another concern for biblio- and theobloggers relates to the rather widespread use of link-based rewards programs such as Amazon Associates and the WTS Bookstore Blog Partners. This is more clearly an instance of a “cash” compensation for advertisement, and again, I believe that the FTC does well to expect from bloggers full disclosure of their participation in these programs. I myself decided to sign up for both of these programs earlier this summer. I do not, of course, place gratuitous links on this blog to earn rewards of any sort, but given that I often mention books here for which I invariably provide links, I decided to give these programs a try. In the meantime, be at peace: I have earned exactly nothing thus far towards a purchase at either retailer!