October 8, 2009

An Argument for Bias: An Open Letter to the FTC

To Richard Cleland, Federal Trade Commission:

As I'm sure you're aware, a lot of book bloggers have reacted strongly to the inclusion of book blogging in the "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising" which have recently been released by the FTC. They, like me, are wondering how it will apply to the work we do. We are also somewhat frustrated at your apparent lack of understanding regarding how book reviewing and book blogging works. It is these latter concerns -- with which I mostly agree -- that has prompted this letter.

As I understand the guides, the FTC is concerned about the consumer's perceptions of individual reviews of "products". I can understand this concern, especially when it comes to utilitarian products.

When I am reading "reviews" (though as one book blogger, Mother Reader, observed, "how does how one 'review' a bookshelf or swingset or tungsten rings?") 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. In short, it makes sense to regulate and oversee reviews of these kinds of commercial products: they have a definite utilitarian value which can be easily compared.

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. You will not read a review of a book that says, in essence: "This book is about 6 by 8 inches, with 288 pages. There's a nice smell about it, and the pages turn excellently. It also makes a great doorstop." 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).

Ultimately, a book review involves a question of taste. We book reviewers are reacting to the book in ways that a stroller reviewer doesn't react to a stroller. Sure, you can look at the "construction" of a book -- Are all the words spelled right? Does the sentence structure make sense? Is it cleverly or beautifully assembled? -- but, ultimately, what a review really boils down to is the reviewer's taste in stories. And taste cannot be regulated or influenced by free products.

Ask yourself what the consumers of book reviews--which include book bloggers themselves--are looking for. As readers of books, we actively search out not only multiple opinions on each and every book (if we're so inclined), and we look for opinions of people whose taste (which we have determined over time) closely matches our own. It doesn't matter if the review they find is in The Washington Post, the Wichita Eagle, Bookslut, or on an individual's blog. Generally speaking, all readers want to know is whether they will have a positive experience with the story the book contains. So, we find people with like-tastes and read and come to trust (or, in some cases, distrust) their reviews, searching out (or avoiding) the books they recommend. It doesn't matter if they got the book for free from Random House, or through a blog book tour, or because an author emailed them out of the blue; what matters is how they reacted to the story, and how we as consumers of book reviews are able to measure their taste against ours. As commenter Nicole said on this post in response to a comment about the bias inherent in blogs, "There is no tradition of 'unbiased' blogs, and any reader would know, going into a blog, that it is just a biased person giving an opinion. Sounds like the consumer has all the knowledge he needs."

Although the print media has a reputation for being "unbiased" in their reviews, in all actuality they are not any more unbiased than individual bloggers. In my role as book editor for Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, I receive books -- many unsolicited -- from publishers for review in the journal. I consciously seek out reviewers who are knowledgeable about and are involved in the issues surrounding the topic of any given book, which increases the likelihood of their giving a "biased" review. This happens in ways both "positive"--in that they see the author has agreed with the reviewer's own or work or has added something to the discussion which the reviewer thinks to be valuable--and "negative"--when the reviewer sees the author approaching a topic or area of study in a manner they think is ignorant, irresponsible, or counter-productive. I do not think this bias hurts the journal, and I do not think getting a free book biases a reviewer in favor of the book, whether that book comes from me, as an editor, or directly from the publisher. In fact, I think that if we actively discourage people from reviewing -- or receiving -- books they have a vested interest in, there would be far fewer reviews -- and far worse ones.

After all this, I do know that it's not really bias itself which you're attempting to regulate. In terms of the regulations, it doesn't matter if a particular blogger likes John Grisham or John Green. What does matter is if that blogger got the books directly from Grisham's or Green's publishers (or agents or publicists) instead of walking to the bookstore and buying a copy. But I'm here to say 1) that the variety of biases available throughout the book blogger world makes for a better and broader marketplace for those books (to say nothing of the "marketplace of ideas" which that variety contributes to), and 2) that the practice of obtaining getting free books needn't affect that variety -- on the contrary, it probably expands it. The reviewer who likes John Green will like his work whether or not the book was free. Same goes for the reviewer who dislikes his work. Because, unlike cameras or cars or strollers, books don't have a set physical value. Sure, a book may sell for $19.95, and the publisher, author, and agent each get a cut. But, honestly, that's not the real value of a book.

The real value to all readers of books is the ideas, and the experience of reading stories which contain those ideas. I'd like to think that the consumers of our blogs -- our fellow readers -- understand that concept. It's not the possession of the physical book that ultimately determines what I think of it, it's the reading experience. And, honestly, can one put a monetary value on or regulate an experience?

Sincerely,
Melissa Fox

14 comments:

Chris said...

Awesome, awesome post! I agreed with it all. You can not be objective about a book. Reading is emotional. Books are meant to get a reaction. I can't see myself crying over a toilet brush or new fabric softener, can you? But a book, yeah, definitely.

morninglight mama said...

Melissa-- you are awesome!! This articulates the common concerns I've heard from book bloggers all around-- very nicely done. Do you have a contact to send it to, as well??

Trillian42 said...

Not a book blogger, but a friend of MorninglightMama (thanks to her for the link), and I had to say that this was excellent! It's incredibly clear that the FTC doesn't get the difference.

One question - do they expect movie reviewers to state whether they were given a free ticket, or paid full-price, or went to a matinee? Ditto for theatre reviewers? Really, I'd think they are far more on level with book reviewers than people who review "stuff".

Corinne said...

OF course this is amazing. I would expect nothing less from you. Very well articulated. I'm wondering, like Dawn - do you have someone to send it to????

melissa @ 1lbr said...

Very well articulated. I completely agree with the bias of book reviews. And how it is a good thing. I also see, however, why the FTC is concerned about it. Someone somewhere might just get a free book and post a positive review solely because the book was free. Then again, someone else will probably get the book free and say: this is crap. You will get everything across the board about books. No one will be able to tell if a review was biased by the fact that the book came free. Too many variables in all this. FTC may need to rethink all this.

However, since I already say when I get a book for review and who from, I don't think it will be much of a bother. The affiliate programs, on the other hand...

Melissa said...

Dawn and Corinne, I have a snail mail address that I found here. I'll probably just print it off and stick it in the mail... So old fashioned!

saveophelia said...

What a great letter! Your last paragraph is phrased so wonderfully! I would definitely snail mail this off :)

Marie said...

Great post. :-) You can't put a price on reading. :-)

And thank you for commenting on my FTC post yesterday- folks got a great conversation rolling! :-) And you did here as well!

softdrink said...

Bravo!

Mary Lee said...

HUZZAH! Well said!!

Rebecca :) said...

You rocked this letter, Melissa! I love it so much I Stumbled it. :)

It doesn't matter to me if the book was free or not. Anyone can look at my review of that Octopussy Poetry book or the book Sonya Grey and find that clearly receiving the book for free did not make me write a positive review. It was the content of the book.

If any readers suspected someone of writing positive reviews just because they got a free book, I am sure said reviewer would be shunned. So, thanks to the FTC for making another asinine decision.

Wendy said...

Fantastic letter, Melissa!! Very eloquent and well written...The lack of understanding the FTC has in relation to book bloggers is HUGE. I actually think their "guidelines" could be challenged in court re: Freedom of Speech. But regardless, their ability to regulate reading and reviews is probably poor...

heidenkind said...

Couldn't agree more. If there are any FTC people reading this (I seriously doubt it, but you never know), this is why book bloggers feel like our free speech is being impeded: we review ideas with our biased opinions. Ergo, it feels like our opinions and ideas are being regulated.

Serena said...

Fantastic post! The FTC is definitely not interested in just bloggers and opinions, but the manipulation of the consumer.

I think disclosure may be enough. With that said, I think that the government has better things to do.