If you get a free book, and don't disclose this 'vested interest' if you blog about it, you are now liable to five-figure fines. Does this make any kind of sense to anybody?
Believe it. On 5 October the US Federal Trade Commission announced mind-bending new guidelines relating to "honest advertising" and new media which, when read in full, are clearly intended to delegitimise and intimidate fearless "books bloggers" aka yours truly. As Jack Shafer wrote on Slate, as from 1 December, bloggers:
" … could incur an $11,000 (£6,750) fine if they receive free goods, free services, or money and write about the goods or services without conspicuously disclosing their 'material connection' to the provider. The FTC guidelines extend even to Facebook and Twitter posters. If you received a gratis novel from the publicity department of a publisher and posted a tweet about it without disclosing that the book was a freebie, you become an 'endorser' in the FTC's view. It could – in the name of consumer protection – hit you with a fine. The 81-page guidelines, which also mandate stringent celebrity endorsements rules, will take effect Dec 1."
Well OK, I admit, it's not targeted specifically at me. However, as someone who blogs for US media I could fall victim were I, for example, to write a review of a book for free (which might occur were said book too esoteric for a paying venue) and neglect to mention that I got the book from a publicist. In a fascinating interview conducted with Richard Cleland of the FTC, books blogger Edward Champion exposed the manifold incoherencies in the guidelines. Read the whole thing, for yea verily, it abounds in absurdity. What leapt out at me was the blanket assertion made by Cleland that "when a publisher sends a book to a blogger, there is the expectation of a good review".
To which Champion replies: "I informed him that this was not always the case and observed that some bloggers often receive 20 to 50 books a week. In such cases, the publisher hopes for a review, good or bad. Cleland didn't see it that way."
"If a blogger received enough books," said Cleland, "he could open up a used bookstore."
Got that? Good Lord, the man's a genius! I never realised this criticism lark could be so lucrative! Yes indeed, in Cleland's brave new world a review copy is compensation, and a review from a blogger is a priori an endorsement, even if negative. Mysteriously the FTC does not require newspapers to disclose how they come by the books they review, or any other freebies their journalists might receive. And yet to pick one obvious example, almost all travel journalism actually is built on the kind of payola/payback system Cleland ascribes to book reviewing, so I can't see why not.