WTF Wednesday: The Only Honest Reviews Cost the Reviewer Money

Yes, yes, I know it’s only Monday. But sometimes, WTF Wednesday comes early. Think of it as like Christmas in July :).

This week’s early WTF Wednesday is brought to you by the FTC (Federal Trade Commission). By now, you’ve probably heard about this strange new set of guidelines, which basically requires bloggers who review books they have received for free (or, apparently, even books they paid for but to which they provide an Amazon link for purchase) to disclose their “financial” relationship with the publisher/author/seller of said book. Well, at least if they say nice things about the book.

I won’t go into a lengthy explanation of the rule here, because others have already done so. Instead, I simply point you to the post that made me drop my jaw in disbelief–an overview of a discussion with Richard Cleland of the FTC, explaining why bloggers who don’t actually get paid to review books should be subject to a different standard than those who are paid to do reviews by newspapers, magazines, etc. I’ll wait for you to get back if you haven’t already read it, because it is seriously WTF-inducing.

Back? Picked your jaw up off the floor yet?

Okay, so here was the first thing that got my undies in a twist (I’m not sure what gets yours; there’s plenty of grist for the mill): Cleland believes that when a blogger receives a free copy of a book to read, there is an “expectation” on the part of the party providing the book that the review will be positive in nature. Apparently, then, the free book is “payment” for a service being rendered by the blogger–to wit, an endorsement of the product.

Except I don’t know ANY authors who believe this. Every author I’ve ever known who has sent out review copies of her book to bloggers has worried whether the resulting review would be positive or negative (or whether there would be a review at all). And in fact, in many cases, there IS no review. Sites like Dear Author and Smart Bitches can’t possibly read and review all the books they receive–the people doing the reviews can’t read that fast or live that long. And I’ve sent out plenty of copies of Behind the Red Door to reviewers who NEVER reviewed them, one way or the other. Guess what? I don’t expect them back. They aren’t payment for a service–they’re a gift, plain and simple. There’s nothing I can do TO get them back, even if I wanted to, so the notion that the book is a payment strikes me as ludicrous. It’s only payment if you don’t get it until you do the work…but that’s pretty hard to manage in the case of book reviews.

But what troubles me even more about this rule isn’t that the FTC is asking book bloggers to disclose their “sponsorship” by authors/publishers who send them free books for review. It’s that they’re exempting the folks who really DO get sponsorship (and lots of it) from publishers and authors from the rule. You see, apparently, readers of magazines like Romantic Times or other “traditional” book review media (including the booksellers themselves) are somehow aware that those publications’ endorsements of the products reviewed in them are, by definition, NOT THE REVIEWER’S HONEST OPINION.

Um, wow. Thanks for saying what I knew all along–we can’t trust the reviews of paid media because, hey, they’re being paid for it! (And yes, I believe that WHICH books are reviewed/recommended in traditional media is strongly influenced by money. I don’t mean that publishers are paying for good reviews/recommendations per se, but I do believe that publishers DRIVE which books get attention with their advertising dollars, and that translates into greater attention to those books by reviewers.)

Okay, so now the book bloggers who don’t actually make a living at reviewing books are being asked to disclose the fact that they received a book for free (with a WHOPPING value of, what, $8 for an mmpb, $15 for a trade, and $25 for a hardcover) because I MIGHT believe their review is an honest expression of their opinion of the book. Well, heaven forfend!

To me, the irony is that I think when people read a review in the New York Times or on Publisher’s Weekly, I’m betting that for the most part, they actually think they’re reading the revewier’s honest opinion, even though the reviewer is getting paid to do the review. If we DIDN’T believe that when reading a review, regardless of the medium, why would we bother at all?

And of course, this doesn’t even get into the whole free speech thing. If I love a book and want to recommend it to my friends, how I came by it is irrelevant. I should be able to say what I want about it.

Frankly, I’m stunned by this. Even more so that this is the FTC under my president. What gives?

Musing on Monday: Placement Does Matter

Last week, I asked you all what most influenced your book buying decisions. The results (you can see them yourself by clicking “View Results” on the poll in the right margin) were quite interesting to me, mainly because they confirmed my long-held believe that there’s not much an author can do to materially affect her book’s sales. I was especially interested to see that very few people cited advertisements or online blog appearances as having a significant impact on their buying choices.

What I did notice, however, is that the majority of the respondents said the book’s cover, title, and blurb, along with a scan of its contents was a factor in their choices. That makes sense to me. I know those are a factor in my decisions as well, along with the second-biggest vote-getter, word of mouth recommentations from friends and family. But while most everyone knows that picking up and reading/handling the book is an important part of their book-buying choices, few of you acknowledged that the book’s placement in the store or availability in stores like Target/Walmart had an affect on what you choose to buy.

Now, I suppose if you do a lot of research on books before you even walk into the bookstore and have a very strong idea of what you’re looking for when you get there (and I generally do), store placement/distribution probably doesn’t have much effect on what you purchase. You’ll go searching in the stack for that book you’re interested in whether you can find it easily or not.

But what about those impulse buys? I have to admit, store placement makes a huge difference to me, because I certainly haven’t got the time to go through ALL the books that are shelved, spine-out only, in the romance section to see if the cover and title then the blurb and contents grab me. So it’s just a fact that the books that are shelved face out, whether in the front of the store or on end caps and tables, are going to draw more attention from me unless I’m looking for something specific. And while the cover and title may entice me to pick up the book, the blurb may intrigue me, and the contents may actually induce me to buy, unless I SEE that cover and title, I’m never going to pick the book up in the first place unless I’m actively looking for it.

This is even more true if you do most of your book-buying (as I suspect the majority of Americans do) not at book stores that shelve a wide variety of titles, but at big box chains like WalMart, Target, and Costco. Everything at those retailers is stocked face out, but it’s only a limited subset of everything that’s available at any given time. Those stores have, quite honestly, a huge impact on the reading tastes of Americans. A book that doesn’t get stocked in WalMart, for example, will generally wind up with an initial print run of less than half a book that they do pick up.

All of this makes it tough for authors whose books don’t get picked up by those big chain stores AND whose publishers don’t choose to purchase that face-out space in brick-and-more stores. Your initial print run is pretty much guaranteed to be under 30,000 books. And many potential book buyers who might really like your book will never even see it, because it will be buried in the shelves at Borders or B. Dalton, spine out, between hundreds of other spine-out books. It’ll be there for people who are actually looking for it, and that’s a good thing. No one can buy a book that isn’t stocked. But it’s an uphill battle to get exposure for a book unless the publisher buys it, because there just isn’t a whole lot the author can buy that works half as well.

What Influences Book-Buying Decisions

One of the most persistent and pesky questions that authors and publishers deal with is what sorts of promotion are most effective for getting a book into readers’ hands. This is especially true now, as the whole world of advertising is changing so dramatically with the rise of the Internet and social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook.

Because of this (and because I’m infinitely curious about the degree to which an author can effectively promote her book independent of what her publisher does), here’s a little poll on how you make your book-buying decisions.

[poll id=”4″]

And I’ll tell you mine if you tell me yours ;).

I Know It’s Been Quiet…

But that’s because I’ve been quietly plotting world domination…muahaha!

Well, that’s not entirely true. I did spend a few weeks under a rock after my option book proposal was…well, not exactly rejected, but postponed by my editor at Kensington. I knew there was a very good possibility of that happening, but when it actually did happen, I was a bit more discouraged than I thought I’d be. Even so, the door’s not locked, just temporarily closed. Prospects may be better in the fall.

In the meantime, my agent (the lovely Kevan Lyon of the newly-minted Marsal Lyon Literary Agency) and I decided the best course of action would be for me to dust off my Victorian-set single-title historical romance and finish it with the idea of shopping it during the summer. This is a book I started quite a while ago, and I really do love the characters and plot, so it’s no hardship to be working on it again after the hiatus. I’m about a third of the way into the manuscript now, and hope to finish the first draft by late May or early June.

I’m also trying to slip a few smaller projects in between the cracks. Those who read and enjoyed my first contemporary novella, The Gospel of Love: According to Luke, may be pleased to know that finished the sequel, According to Matthew, last month. It’s currently biding its time in the submission queue, but I hope to hear within a few more weeks whether it will be accepted for publication. I have a few other small irons on the fire, as well, including (are you ready?) a book I’m writing that’s aimed at the middle grade/YA market. (Hey, I have to write something my kids can read, right?)

And in addition to all that, I’m working on promotion for Behind the Red Door, which will be out in a mere two months! (I’m still sort of breathless over that). As part of that effort, I’ll be rolling out a new, improved website and blog on or about May 1. That probably means this blog will go away as I convert from Blogger to WordPress (hmmm, I wonder if Blogger considers that admission to be filterable content?).

With everything that’s going on, I’ll only be posting here sporadically for the next few weeks (but hopefully a bit more than the last few!). I do promise, however, to post soon and ask you if you have any questions you’d like me to ask some of the blog guests I’m lining up for the month of May. Among those who’ve already accepted my invitation to guest are my agent and her partner, Jill Marsal. So, be thinking about what you’d like to ask an agent, because I’ll be asking for questions soon!