“Sponsored By…” – Book Blogger Integrity and Conflicts of Interest.

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Recently, there was some social media discussion among book bloggers and reviewers over the potential breach of ethics regarding a prominent book vlogger called Christine Riccio who did not issue a proper disclaimer over the promoted content of her video reviews. While a brief line in the text description of at least four of her videos noted that the publishers had “sponsored” them, there was no mention of that in the video itself, except for a vague moment of being asked to talk about the book in question in one. Many, including myself, considered this to be a major conflict of interest. While she claims all opinions are her own, there’s nothing written or said by Riccio, who has over 100,000 subscribers, on what she had to do as part of the sponsored deal or what the publisher expected from her as part of this arrangement.

Riccio, in one of the t-shirts she sells on her website.
Riccio, in one of the t-shirts she sells on her website.

It’s one thing to be a blogger who receives advance reader copies of a book (as I do, and I always make a point of including this fact in my review), it’s quite another to have a direct relationship with the publisher regarding the bulk of the review itself. Indeed, this issue is particularly relevant to Riccio because her videos’ descriptions used to note that she had received the book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Now, that line has been replaced by one on sponsored content. Given that the new YouTube rules state that such disclaimers must be displayed prominently, it calls into question Riccio’s honesty and integrity as a reviewer, especially since she is an adult reviewing YA to a largely young audience.

Riccio is not the first in the book blogging sphere to be accused of crossing ethical lines. A number of reviewers have faced such questions regarding not only their possible conflicts of interest with publishers but with their closeness to the authors they review. One of the positives about book blogging is the relationships you build with others, including writers, which has become easier now that social media plays such a prominent part. It allows you to make great friends, participate in wide reaching and varied discussions about your passion, and to hear the kind of voices you never would have been exposed to otherwise. I myself am very fortunate to have befriended a number of authors online, with whom I enjoy great discussions about books, the industry and all manner of unrelated topics. However, this does make things murkier when it comes to fulfilling my duty as a critic when their work is involved.

Usually, I just don’t review their books, considering the conflict of interest to be too big an obstacle towards me giving as objective an opinion as I can. However, I am about to finish reading a book that I have thoroughly enjoyed, one that I intend to give a pretty positive review to, and that was written by a friend. I will note this very prominently in my review as well as the fact that I received my copy of the book from the author, but I still worry that the usual questions will come up. Have I crossed a line there? Will my integrity as a reviewer be called into question? Is my opinion of the book completely separate from my opinion of the person who wrote it, is that even possible, and can anyone offer up a 100% objective opinion? I’ve been asking myself these questions a lot and I’m not sure I’ll ever fully be able to answer some of them, but I know there are simple rules I can follow to make sure the inherent fairness of the system remains. If you are friends with an author, it’s only fair that you state that upfront.

Publishing isn’t the only field looking to widen its promotional power to the regular readers who seldom call themselves critics in the way those at large publications do. It’s a smart move since readers of certain genres don’t tend to turn to the New York Times or the Guardian for their reviews, mainly because such publications seldom bother to cover anything outside of the literary circles with anything beyond scorn and confusion. Blogging is a more wide reaching form of word of mouth, from your intended audiences outwards. Of course bloggers want to get involved with that. It’s fun doing what we do, but the lines between professional and questionable that used to be clearly defined have started to fade away, or rather be wiped out.

Look at the world of video games journalism for a similar story. To give one particularly infamous example, gaming journalist Geoff Keighley engaged in a cross-promotion for Halo 4 surrounded by Mountain Dew and Doritos, who were offering a special points deal for gamers who bought their products. The image of Keighley, arguably the most prominent person in his field, sitting po-faced surrounded by an obvious promotion, made many uncomfortable and raised questions about the ethics involved in journalism in gaming. These questions came to the forefront when it emerged that journalists at the British Games Media Awards, supposedly for the best journalists in the gaming industry, were being encouraged to tweet with promotional hashtags in the hopes of winning a PS3. Then there’s the now infamous case of Jeff Gerstmann, who was fired from GamesSpot for giving a negative review to a site advertiser’s game. Suffice to say, the website’s reputation hasn’t quite recovered since then.

We haven’t reached levels like that with book blogging, and I doubt we will for a number of reasons, but the rise of promoted content will undoubtedly continue, and that will open many more doors over the ethics of what we do and whether our words carry much weight when the shadow of business obligation looms overhead. Publishers will continue to look for new ways to publicise the work they release, and they’ll become more creative as they do so because they have to in order to keep up with the ever changing industry. Bloggers will be a big part of that, and that’s a good thing, but if we want to participate in this with transparency, honesty and integrity then we have to clearly establish where the lines are drawn. Your readers deserve at least that much.

EDIT: After reaching out to Riccio for comment on her practices on Twitter and clarification on what a sponsored post is, we received this response (pieced together from tweets):

it means that I’m paid to include the books in my videos but i’m very selective about the books i choose. i only accept sponsorships for ones i think ( i do extensive research) / know i’m going to like, and all my opinions are honest and my own. 

After asking if she felt her posts met the requirements of the FTC regarding sponsored pieces and full disclosure, she added:

I’m not aware of how bloggers do it, but this is what i’ve seen YouTubers do for years. I’ve started stating out loud when a vid is sponsored & will continue to do so in the future. I’ve done research & this is completely within FTC guidelines.

More as this story develops.

7 COMMENTS

  1. I don’t think lines are crossed so long as any and all possible biases, connection to book or author review restrictions,* payment (even if a free book, free ARC,* review exchange, etc.), or anything not readily apparent to general readers are very clearly disclosed. That resolves all ethical concerns for me.

    Once disclosed, readers can just use their own judgment on how biased, unbiased, helpful, not helpful, readable, enjoyable, or whatever a particular blogger or review is.

    *I, with bloggers/reviewers who do disclose potential biases, worry more about what blog tours, publshers, authors and others behind reviews or distributing ARCs require. Requirements that aren’t always clearly disclosed; some of the requirements, particularly blog tours and publishers step way over the line for what are suppose to be consumer opinions. Oh, not the please post your review only after-before-on-date (a given with blog tour date and ARCs with book release dates) and send us the link (an unwritten piece of netiquette even if not required). The communicate to us privately any issues or any reviews under a star rating requirements, the don’t post any review less than a certain star rating, don’t post it until we approve it, don’t post it without our revisions, don’t post it without the keywords/tags we require (suggested tags are fine, the ” required” sits badly), the too long lists of where you have to post (hey, is it a review or are you being their publicity machine?), the don’t include needed edits or critique the editing in your public post but do send it to us privately (ummm…are you beta reading or reviewing the published book or the Advanced Reading Copy expected to be the published book?), … lots if behind the scenes restrictions or requirements think need to be disclosed. And that already, unfortunately, make some bloggers back away from some authors, publishers, tours, etc.

    Some self-published authors in particular seem to feel they get to control the format and content of a review of their book or else they are being attacked by a bullying reviewer (well, some of the uploaders will say “bulling” instead if “bullying” but that’s a whole other article). Nit a good way to encourage bloggers. And I don’t mean just in negative reviews. I even had an author blow up at me on amazon over a 4-star review back when I reviewed on amazon because I forgot to include the wording he asked for (amazon left the nasty comment after nasty comment from the author and their street gangs until one if my friends helpfully commented how “spiteful” they were being—punchline, months later in goodreads author pm’ed apologizing because he had confused me with the “Debbie” he had paid to post reviews under various accounts; I didn’t bother pm’ing hi back that payment had to be disclosed or that by including same keywords and phrases in a batch of reviews most readers would think “fake”…)

    • Ooh boy, I could write an entire thesis on the splintering relationship between reviewers and self-published authors, and the extreme entitlement displayed by the latter on many occasions. There’s no excuse for putting out your work to be purchased by consumers then attacking them for stating opinions, especially when basic requirements like editing and spell-checking aren’t meant. I’m weary of reviewing self-published authors for this reason, among many others. That’s not to say shitty behaviour is exclusive to self-published authors – seen a lot of that from those in the traditional model, including some big names – but it seems to be a more regular occurrence there.

      • Yeah, a thesis or even a long series of books! But, it really grates on me when authors (a) think they can tell you how to review even before you post a review and (b) blow up when you do disclose what they asked.

        Reading some of the requirements on ARCs and free for review books (nevermind the even worst ones on some author review exchanges [that incidentally almost never include disclosing a return review received as payment per FTC requirements]) makes me almost not want to read reviews except from a few trusted bloggers and readers.

        I’m afraid all the attempts at manipulating reviews, faking reviews, attacking reviews, etc. will eventually drive off both those honestly reviewing and readers who read reviews. I partly blame the drive to leverage social media and word of mouth marketing. The people connected to book sales see that reader reviews are an excellent tool to reach readers and booksites like goodreads narrow down marketing targets to fans if a particular whatever for them that they feel entitled to use to leverage their product; they fail to get that all that marketing research in the world doesn’t top a reader whom stead chooses their next book based on “hmmm…what am I in the mood for?” while possibly influenced by what other TRUSTED friends/readers/reviewers say more so than a few thousand star ratings by strangers.

    • *ack* sorry for all sorts of typos in my rant. I’m dictating versus typing due to hand injury and i’s and o’s get confused. So, “if” instead of “of”; “nit” in place of “not”; “fir”/”for”; “firm”/”from”…

  2. I definitely feel like I’m caught between a rock and a hard place when reviewing books of Goodreads authors–especially if I interact with them on the site. I’ve had authors and their fans lash out at me before for writing their books negative reviews (or just writing negative reviews as an author in general, because it is not very sportsmanlike of me, I guess).

    It’s hard to be objective in a review. I know I’m probably not unbiased, which is why I tend to avoid reading books by people I do not like personally, and try to write disclaimers when I know the author whose book I am reviewing, just so at least then people can decide for themselves whether they think my opinion is honest.

    Great post, as always. I love how relevant all the topics on this site are. These are things a lot of people think about, but few dare to broach.

    There is one thing I’m curious about: a lot of authors on Goodreads rate and review books (although few rate as negatively as I do). I am wondering–if an author gets picked up by a publisher, would they get in trouble for negatively reviewing books by other authors managed by that same publisher?

  3. I think there is a HUGE difference between receiving something for review, that you have not been paid to review, and being “sponsored” aka PAID to review it. I think that crosses a line and would surely make it difficult to negatively review something. To be honest, I follow quite a few book tubers and came across this particular one a few months before the bookcon meltdown. I didn’t subscribe. I personally didn’t enjoy the videos. Then bookcon happened and now this and I’m left confused as to why this particular reviewer is as popular as she is. I don’t get it. Aside from personal preference, I think that unless you clearly state “I’ve been paid to include this” you’re acting dodgy, and you know it.

  4. Under FTC guidelines, she has to mention if she receives money or anything of value (including a free review copy of the book) in her post. it doesn’t say where or how she has to say it. Her videos may meet the technical requirements of the FTC, so no more may be legally required of her. Whether she has any other responsibilities, however, is another story.

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