Thursday, October 08, 2009

Bias, Book Reviews, and the FTC

A couple of days ago, Laura McKenna commented on the recent ruling by the Federal Trade Commission that targeted bloggers who receive free stuff for the purposes of reviewing it (and, that is, promoting it) on their blogs. She pretty much nailed the whole affair, I thought: it's a ridiculous ruling, and an unenforceable one, which targets the wrong people because it misunderstands the whole nature of blogging. She writes:

I've heard that the mommybloggers get stuff, but I'm sure it's a small group of bloggers with the biggest audiences. Dealing with thorny ethical matters about receiving free stuff is a problem that most of us would be happy to have. Bloggers, for the most part, aren't corporate shills. If I started giving reviews of products I didn't believe in, I would very quickly have no audience. Actually, if I started reviewing products of any kind other than books, even ones I believed in, I would probably lose my audience. The bigger problem are publishers and corporations that try to manipulate the bloggers....As a group, the blogosphere may be a powerful thing, but the individuals aren't. There are a handful of people who have made money at this thing; most aren't making a cent. They aren't receiving swag. They are providing a service with very little to zero compensation.

I don't think there would be much to say beyond that, but my wife does. Melissa is part of the book-blogging (and hence book-reviewing) community, and as you can probably imagine, the notion that the FTC feels obliged to involve themselves in tracking, supervising, or regulating the exchange of books as part of the reviewing process makes about as much sense to that community as, say, the FTC telling movie reviewers that they are going to have to start itemizing on their tax returns every comp ticket to a preview of a film they receive would seem reasonable to Roger Ebert. I wouldn't say her fellow book-bloggers are up in arms over it all, but they do all agree it's ludicrous, and completely fails to appreciate what the words "book review" actually mean. Anyway, now Melissa has said so, in detail. My favorite part:

When I am reading "reviews"...of clothing, shoes, strollers, computers, cameras, or cars, I want to know how well they work. I want to know which brand or item is going to give me the most for my money. It's reasonable that such things are "reviewed" on the basis of their form and function, because their value comes from how well they perform those functions. Reviews of those products need to be clear about any bias which might have come into the review, because being biased or dishonest about the performance of a product will diminish the value of those products in the hands of consumers....But books are different. Sure, they can be perceived as a product: they are physical in ways that, say, movies are not. There are publishers and authors who benefit from their production and sale. However, this is not what book reviewers are reviewing....There is usually no (or very little) mention of the physical or utilitarian aspect of the actual book. There is also almost never any mention of which "brand" of book -- be it Bloomsbury, or LittleBrown, or HarperCollins -- is better than the other. Rather, what we are reviewing are the ideas, the outpourings of a person's imagination, in the book's story. And for that, we often want bias. When it comes to books -- or movies, music or art -- biases (of some sorts anyway) can be helpful. It can mean that you've read a lot of other books (some of which you got for free, some of which you bought on your own, some of which you checked out from the local library), that you’re familiar with the author, that you understand what the publisher is trying to accomplish. This will enable you to be more sympathetic (and thus give potential readers a chance to learn something new) or more critical (and thus warn potential readers away when a book is really just more of this or more of that, and not as good).

It's very good. So, as we used to say all the time around the bloggernacle, do read the whole thing.

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