Thursday, September 23, 2010

The FTC's Regulating My Book Reviews!

With all the work preparing for the ACFW Conference and catching up afterwards, I decided to recycle information that I posted on the ACFW Midwest e-mail loop about a year ago. So if you remember the discussion and don't want to hear it again, you can stop reading.

In October 2009, the Federal Trade Commission adopted guidelines on the use of endorsements and testimonials. These guidelines apply to a wide range of media and products, including blogs with book reviews. When they came out, the guidelines created a furor among blogging book reviewers. Yes, the guidelines do apply, and yes, you need to know what they say, but they shouldn't give you any sleepless nights.

Let me explain.

First, the FTC's guidelines are just that: guidelines. They aren't regulations that change the existing law. Instead, they tell people what the FTC thinks the law already is so that no one gets blindsided or can claim that he or she didn't know.

Second, the guidelines only apply to reviews you write based on books you get for free from the writer or publisher, someone affiliated with the writer or publisher (e.g., a publicist), or someone who benefits financially from book sales (e.g., a book distributor). If your sister-in-law says, "I just read a great book" and gives you her copy, the guidelines don't apply.

Third, if you did get the book free from the writer or publisher, someone affiliated with the writer or publisher, or someone who benefits financially from book sales, complying with the guidelines is easy: all you have to do is disclose how you got it. For example, "The publisher sent me a free copy of the book," or "Authors and publishers frequently provide reviewers with free review copies of their books, and I received this one that way." If you give it a negative review, you probably don't even have to do that.

You also don't need to make the disclosure if you give the book to Goodwill after you read it. The disclosure is only required if you keep the book or sell it or get some other tangible benefit from it. On the other hand, you may want to make the disclosure even when you don't need to, just so you get in the habit of doing it and nothing falls through the cracks.

By the way, if you use an affiliate link with Amazon where you get paid (however minuscule an amount) when people buy a book through it, you need to disclose that near the link. Personally, I think this is the ethical thing to do, anyway. And it can even work in your favor, because people who are likely to buy the book through other channels may decide to let you benefit from their purchase.

Yes, applying the law to most blogging book reviewers is stupid (and I personally doubt that the FTC will bother taking those cases), but in the larger scheme of things the FTC's rules are designed to protect consumers. I worked as a regulatory attorney in an industry where misleading advertisements are not unknown, and many of them show up on blogs and You-Tube these days. I never worked for (or even with) the FTC, but I can sympathize with what it is trying to do.

Especially since complying is easy.

Kathryn Page Camp

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