It’s not some big, huge, scary deal. The government isn’t going to come slap you upside the head if you don’t mention that the book you just reviewed on Amazon was a present from your Grandma. They don’t care. If you got it for free from an author in hopes that you’d write something nice about it, then the guidelines do apply to you – but if you forget to plaster a disclosure on a single book review they’re still not going to come slap you upside the head. You won’t be fined or go to jail over a book review or two. Now, if you’ve filled your library with free books obtained as part of a publisher’s street team, you might have reason to toss and turn in your sleep…and if you’re running the street team, you’d better understand how the law applies to you.
It’s about integrity and common sense. So don’t let it stop you from sharing and reviewing stuff – just be fair and honest and, bottom line, tell people if you have a relationship with the maker or advertising agency for the product. For instance – if my Dad were to review A New Leaf for Lyle, he should probably say, “I’m the author’s father.” You could then judge, for yourself, whether you thought that automatically made him too biased to write a fair review. I could guarantee that it doesn’t – but you’d just have to take my word for that unless you know him well, too. The disclosures I plastered all over posts like HP Slate 7: One Month Out, Honeymoon’s Over are probably above and beyond the requirements and bordering on obsessive. But you can judge for yourself the value of the information, and that’s fair. I like to play fair.
Customer reviews, in my opinion, are for buyers. If you write reviews, I urge you to keep them valuable to potential customers – write the sort of honest, fair, balanced review you would want to rely on if you were buying the product or service, regardless of your relationship to the maker or ad agency or provider of services and declare those relationships openly. This brings me to another point – and one of the reasons I so rarely review anything – conflict of interest, or the appearance of one. This can apply to both positive and negative reviews, by the way. Not many people would advertise or endorse the competition – theirs, or their employer’s. It’s bad business! The flip side of that, of course, is that I’m also not likely to tell you that any product made by my employer, my family members, my friends, or competitors is awful or urge you not to buy it. It’s unprofessional, it’s unkind, and it’s risky.
Authors may be the only people who regularly endorse the “competition,” because none of us could keep our customers – our wonderfully voracious readers – satisfied, and we’re happy to share. We know that the more you read, the more books you want to buy. We are avid readers, ourselves, and have many books with which we can compare the book at hand. Most of us have a both a reader’s and a writer’s sense of language and good storytelling, and could write a truly insightful, useful review. But we also know that it’s very hard to say, of a fellow author – particularly one we know personally, “This book is poorly edited, a bit of a slog through the middle, and the end is fairly predictable.” Few of us will knowingly hurt one another’s feelings that way, despite knowing that someone else is likely to disagree, Siskel & Ebert style, with our assessment: “Yes, but the characters were delightful; I really cared about them. And the humor, throughout, kept me laughing. It’s a light, fast read and only a very unobservant reader will miss the telegraphing of the end – but overall, it was an enjoyable little book.” Despite knowing that a critical review still has great promotional value – if it’s clearly written as one reader’s personal opinion – it is physically painful for most of us to write critically of another author’s book. We need to realize that “reviews are not for us.” But if you understand writers, you’ll realize that most of us have that “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all” mentality ingrained in us deeply. We tend to equate a 3-star review with a C in English class, and it can be soul-crushing to some. Writers are notorious perfectionists who will spend hours crafting the perfect sentence, so anything less than a 5-star review can make us cry.
But reviews are not for us. They’re for other readers. You go on – you write those reviews, because truly that “word of mouth advertising” is our best shot at selling books and getting read. Just send tissues and chocolates if the rating is less than a 4.
Actually, smart product makers – including authors – do read reviews for insights into what makes a great customer experience and what doesn’t. Anything less than honesty and and a fair, balanced review doesn’t help there, either.
But back to you…
Here’s the scary – actually, no, not scary, mostly boring legalese – version of the law: TITLE 16—Commercial Practices. And here’s the part that matters to you, in plain English: The FTC’s Endorsement Guides: What People Are Asking. They’ve even provided some clear examples of how the law might apply to you – or not. It’s the first big update since 2010, and I first read about it on iBlogZone. It’s the real rationale behind policies at Amazon and other social media sites, and it makes everything much less confusing. I’ll bet you thought lawyers never wrote such clear, straightforward sentences, didn’t you?