New Guidelines for Reviewers

Jun 14, 2015 | Technical & How-To

Maybe you’ve heard “reviewing is dead.” It’s not. For authors, book reviews are more crucial than ever. But it’s also important to understand a little bit about applicable laws, truth in advertising, and how that applies to “endorsements” of a product or service. Once upon a time, only sales and advertising professionals had to have any real familiarity with these laws. Now, with social media and blogging making part-time or full-time marketers and advertisers of us all – whether we realize it or not – it pays to review the FTC guidelines for reviewers to be sure that we’re complying with them when we share what we like and don’t like on blogs, Twitter, Facebook, Amazon, Pinterest, etc.

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?

Holly Jahangiri

Holly Jahangiri is the author of Trockle, illustrated by Jordan Vinyard; A Puppy, Not a Guppy, illustrated by Ryan Shaw; and the newest release: A New Leaf for Lyle, illustrated by Carrie Salazar. She draws inspiration from her family, from her own childhood adventures (some of which only happened in her overactive imagination), and from readers both young and young-at-heart. She lives in Houston, Texas, with her husband, J.J., whose love and encouragement make writing books twice the fun.


  1. Mia

    Okay this entry was scary. But it got me thinking and I do planning on reading those guidelines. I rarely review books on Amazon. However, I did do one last week for a popular bestseller that everyone was raving about. My review was three stars and I basically said that while the story was original, the characters were awful people, and the book was overhyped.

    Also, your entry had me thinking about people who pay for reviews. Sites like Fiverr, there is a whole mess of people that will review for money and some that will give a five star review and vote down negative reviews for money. Are those guys in trouble?

    Like I said, I don’t really review books that much but I do review restaurants quite a bit. I’ve gotten a little bit of recognition for it. I once reviewed a gift card from an upscale restaurant after they spotted a glowing, lengthy review I posted. That was pretty cool. 🙂

    • HollyJahangiri

      If you – as a paying customer – spontaneously and with no expectation of anything in return – review a product or service on your blog, the FTC Guidelines do not even apply to you.

      If you receive a gift card as a “thank you” after the fact, you do not need to tell anyone about it.

      IF you start reviewing restaurants – or THAT restaurant, again – in the hope and/or expectation that your POSITIVE review will net you some freebies, it’s iffy. It’s dishonest. It does no one any good at all.

      IF you are sent a gift card or freebie in the hopes that you will review or blog or share the experience on social media, you need to disclose that to your readers and friends. It’s the fair and honest thing to do.

      If you get paid a commission on things you link to and sell, you must disclose that.

      If you work for the company whose products or services you’re talking about – or if you work for a competitor – you must disclose that.

      And in all cases where disclosure is required, you should make it brief but clear – in other words, use those big ol’ disclosure badges and explanations, or put it in clear, plain text in or visible and close to what you write or share.

      It’s mostly common sense, and frankly I am not sure why anyone would hesitate to do it unless they’re lying, you know? If I suggested a particular computer to you, do you think I’d want you to come back and gripe at me for freaking EVER if it gave you problems? NO. I’d want you to do your own homework and not just take my word for it. I’d want you to continue believing that I’m an honest and sincere human being who has nothing to hide. I’d want you to continue being my friend. IF it had problems, I’d expect you to return it or take it up with support. 😉 But I wouldn’t tell you it was the best thing since sliced bread unless I truly believed that it was.

      You’d wonder about that if I didn’t tell you where my paycheck came from, and you found out later, wouldn’t you?

      • Mia

        Oh goodness no, I would never review for incentives. I’m saying that was just an added bonus. Even if I never received anything again, I’ll still write food reviews. I love food. I love exploring new cuisines and such.

        I completely understand not wanting to recommend a product because yeah, that person is going to hold you forever responsible if it doesn’t work out.

        Back to author paid reviews, do they have to disclose to the readers that they were paid specifically to gave positive reviews. I know of at least one well-known author who has admitted to it.

      • HollyJahangiri

        Technically, I think that they must require their reviewers to disclose the fact that they were paid, yes. And if they were specifically “paid to write a positive review” it’s just a flat-out violation of the guidelines if the reviewer didn’t read the book at all, or if they read the book and didn’t like it but said it was terrific. This is why things like Klout Perks come with NO strings attached. Sure, they HOPE very much you’ll like the freebies and feel moved to talk about them. They require a disclosure if you do. But there’s NO obligation whatsoever, and they do not suggest anything like “positive reviews only” – they say, “Tell us what you think.” That’s the only right way to do it.

        Here’s what the FTC has to say about it:

        Besides disclosing my relationship with the company whose product I’m endorsing, what are the essential things I need to know about endorsements?

        The most important principle is that an endorsement has to represent the accurate experience and opinion of the endorser:

        You can’t talk about your experience with a product if you haven’t tried it.

        If you were paid to try a product and you thought it was terrible, you can’t say it’s terrific.

        You can’t make claims about a product that would require proof the advertiser doesn’t have. The Guides give the example of a blogger commissioned by an advertiser to review a new body lotion. Although the advertiser does not make any claims about the lotion’s ability to cure skin conditions and the blogger does not ask the advertiser whether there is substantiation for the claim, she writes that the lotion cures eczema. The blogger is subject to liability for her unsubstantiated claims.


  2. HollyJahangiri

    By the way, you can read my in-depth disclosures here:

    Unfortunately, burying them in the TOS isn’t good enough for the FTC, so I have those big badges and other text on posts where it’s more than an incidental Amazon link for our mutual convenience. I guess to be in full compliance, I’ll have to stick an Amazon Affiliate disclosure thing in my sidebar so I’m covered if I forget. Sheesh.

    Well, I still don’t think they’d do anything worse than email me to say, “Remember your disclosures, you bad blogger, you.” We all know who they REALLY want to crack down on with this. And for just $47 I’m sure they’ll tell you, themselves, who they are. Or maybe they’ll cure whatever ails you, enlarge your favorite body parts, slenderize the bits you’d rather not think about, and generally promise you nirvana in just three easy payments. Promises come cheap on Fivrr, I hear.

  3. Rummuser

    Except when a friend or a relative has published something, I don’t review on Amazon. For that matter, I don’t review at all except may be to recommend a book to someone on facebook or in my blog post.

    • HollyJahangiri

      As an author, I appreciate any and all reviews. I also know how awkward it feels, as a friend, to be asked, so I don’t push and there are no hard feelings towards friends who’ve read my books and not reviewed them. Reviews on Amazon and recommendations to friends are our BEST advertising, so I encourage all readers to review the books they’ve read – and to make their reviews useful to readers (not to me, your friend, but to potential buyers). If that’s likely to interfere with a relationship, don’t do it. But, as much as a so-so review might sting, it’s still publicity; I have actually bought things because I thought the reviewer sounded like someone whose tastes and attitudes so differed from my own that I was pretty sure their negative review meant I was guaranteed to like the product! Not everyone loves Shakespeare or Stephen King or the bestseller of all time – the Bible! It’s okay.

      The only thing that I can’t stand (and Amazon does have ways of dealing with it) is reviewers who clearly haven’t laid eyes and hands on the actual product. They don’t know the story or the features of the model they’re reviewing. They have NO frame of reference, but their review could potentially deceive people – and those people would be upset, later, when they find out what they bought doesn’t match the review.

      If you’re recommending books to friends – books you’ve read – then the FTC isn’t going to raise an eyebrow. If you got the books for free (as “reviewer’s copies”) you should say so. But as I said in my TOS, are you going to discount my credibility over the price of a BOOK? I can see it people questioning where a reviewer’s loyalties lay if the freebie is a car, or a diamond ring, or a week’s stay at their vacation home in the Caymans…but over the price of a BOOK? There are libraries, if you’re that strapped. When it comes to books, the important disclosures are things like: “This book was just published by the publisher who holds an option on my latest manuscript” or “This book was written by my sister in law.” 🙂

  4. Simplify Life Blog

    Holly, I think people are starting to question reviews because they can be paid for.

    I believe you should be curious about a review, but an honest review goes a long way.

    It shows how much people appreciate your writing skills. Your writing is unique.

    I love your style because it makes you think.

    • Holly Jahangiri

      They’re absolutely right to question them.

      I have mixed feelings about “paid” reviews – I mean, you wouldn’t expect the book critic from the NY Times to work for nothing. But the critic is paid by the NY Times, not by the individual publishers. There are review services, like Kirkus Reviews, that authors or publishers do pay for – but there are no guarantees of anything except that it will be reviewed. But here’s the deal – if you don’t like it, you can choose not to make it public. You’ll have paid hundreds of dollars for 250-300 words that you may or may not like, and you have the option of “hiding” a negative review. I’d kind of rather take my chances on spontaneous reader reviews for free! Or give the same deal to some random guy on Fiverr, if it comes right down to it. Of course, part of that fee includes them distributing the review – should you want them to do so – to all their licensee book sellers. It may be worth it, but right now it’s not in my budget. And frankly, knowing that authors can choose to bury a bad review does make its value a little more questionable.

      Like I said, I like to play fair.

      And thank you, Michael – what you say about my writing means a lot to me. (And I didn’t even pay you to say it! Which makes it mean more.)

  5. Mitch Mitchell

    As you know I do reviews from time to time. If I bought the book, received the book, or might make money from the book, I’m going to disclose it and then tell it like it is. I’m not worried about the FTC or anyone else; I’m clean (he screams as they drag him away to a dirty cell…).

    • HollyJahangiri

      ROFL! If you BOUGHT the book, you don’t have to make any disclosures unless you have some material relationship to the author or publisher. (You know, like it’s your wife or employer or some such.) Amazon appears to be playing it ultra-safe, adding fairly onerous restrictions to authors when it comes to their getting friends, family, or bloggers to review their books. So it’s causing a bit of a flurry. I think it’s a bit silly – they have no problem with paid reviews, if the reviewers are “professionals.” Like Kirkus reviews. And the reviews are “editorial.” That smacks of hypocrisy to me, and if I ever find out they’re offering such a review service, I will gleefully review it right here…

      • Mitch Mitchell

        LOL! Well, just so you know, I mention you & this particular article in tomorrow’s post… now I’ve got your interest 😉

  6. MS Qureshi

    Hi Jahangiri,
    Yes of course, reviewing is certainly an integral part of selling or buying books on Amazon or any website. I always look for reviews if I am confused. But will straight-forwardly buy a books if I’m certain that it is what i’m in need of. I think there should be more better guidelines for reviewing books ( i’m it can be improved). Looking forward to hear from you. 😀

    MS Qureshi

    • HollyJahangiri

      Now that’s an interesting thought! I guess, growing up, I had to write enough “book reports” for school, I assumed everyone knew how it ought to be done and just chose to rebel and do it differently when it wasn’t for a grade. 🙂

      Really, I hadn’t thought that there might be a lack of guidance in writing a useful book review. I think the main thing is to remember that it is for potential buyers, not for the author. To remember that it’s not a “book critique” but a “why this book is something you will find useful/entertaining or a complete waste of time/money.” And in doing that, it’s helpful to remember that you can only speak for yourself and people like you (so maybe include a bit of “where I’m coming from” in the review – so people know if they can relate to you). I can’t say whether a book on colony collapse disorder would satisfy someone with a Ph.D. in Entomology or a professional beekeeper – but I can say whether the ordinary, curious person would find it intriguing, easy to understand, and informative. I might say “This is far too technical for me; I’m left just as uninformed as I was before I got the book. But for the advanced beekeeper, I suspect it offers insight and possible solutions; the chapter on teaching bees to meditate might help to prevent the stress that factors into the deaths of so many.” 🙂

      Thanks, MS Qureshi.

      • MS Qureshi

        I agree 100% with that statement. Exactly, when it comes to a book on colony collapse disorder or any such specific or particular niche field; they just target their potential buyers and the most curious readers will find the book just like digging gold in a gold mine. Thanks for replying to my comment Jahangiri.

        MS Qureshi

        • HollyJahangiri

          Thanks for commenting! I was just saying the other day that “targeted marketing,” which sounds like a dirty word these days, isn’t evil at all – if you think of it as “not wasting everyone ELSE’s time.” (POORLY targeted marketing is a waste of time and money, and WELL targeted marketing can come across as supremely creepy and stalkerish, but it’s not really “evil.”) I love getting followed around the web by purple things and books and fountain pens. I’m glad I don’t often see ads for running shoes, these days. 😀

  7. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt

    Reviewing is tough. It is probably best to avoid even the appearance of quid pro quo – so if I’ve written a review of someone’s book, even in a different fiction genre, I generally don’t expect to ever see a review from them.

    Mostly because if I saw something like that – or found out about it later – I would feel that there was something dodgy about it. Life is too short to do dodgy things and then have to worry about them coming back to haunt you.

    Karma, and all that, will get you. And even if it doesn’t, doing things you shouldn’t leaves a mark – on you. I have skidmarks already – don’t need more.

    If you DO get a review from a star in your field, and are indie, you can list it under Editorial Reviews – which implies the reviewer makes a habit of reviewing, and can be professional about it.

    It’s frustrating because you KNOW many other writers are buying those fiverr packages. But no.


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