The Thin Gray Line Between Author Recommendation and Book Promotion
Last week I talked about the way the personal and the professional often overlap in the Romance community around authors reviewing and recommending books. At one end is the elevation of what seems essentially a concern about personal relationships among authors to an alleged professional value that discourages critical review. At the other is the diminishment of the professional currency of an author in the service of an allegedly personal book recommendation. Before I move forward, I want to make it clear that I am not suggesting that authors have nefarious intent in either of these examples. I have no doubt that many authors genuinely love books they recommend, even when those books are written by critique partners and friends. Similarly, I think it is incredibly easy to let personal feelings affect professional relationships. However, I think that among authors who discourage critical peer review, this overlap of the personal and the professional is deeply problematic, even in the absence of any disingenuous intent, in part because it makes it even more difficult for readers to make informed judgments about author recommendations.
Which brings me to this week’s issue: the author as a commercial brand, and the point at which an author’s speech crosses the line from personal to commercial speech.
Remember back in 2009 when the FTC revised its guidelines to focus on product reviews? Well, they recently revised their guidelines again, and they have intensified their interest in social media as a potentially gray area in regard to product endorsement and commercial sponsorship. The Wall Street Journal provided an example of an actress recommending a weight loss product via Twitter, highlighting the difference between a tweet that simply announced major weight loss and provided the product name and a link to the company, and a tweet that announced itself as a sponsored advertisement.
As Jane pointed out back in 2009, the FTC guidelines seemed more focused on readers and bloggers than on publishers and authors, even though book blurbs, for example, are often blatant commercial endorsements, lacking even a guarantee that the blurbing author has read the book on which her name and recommendation appears. But now we have so many authors who are joining forces – in blogs, co-ops, and other professional partnerships – to help market each others’ books, sometimes in direct ways, sometimes in indirect ways, sometimes in ways that may not even be deliberate commercial endorsements, even though they may amount to almost the same thing for the reader who depends on the author’s brand in buying a recommended book. It’s interesting to see how bloggers have taken steps to disclose the source of books they review when they have no economic interest in a book’s success. And yet, because the economic interest of authors is a given, perhaps, there has not been similar pressure for universal disclosure when it comes to recommending other authors’ books.
The FTC’s position with regard to endorsements is easy to understand: commercial endorsements are associated with positive reviews, while criticism is generally perceived to be more honest. So will the new guidelines mean greater interest in author endorsements? When Sarah Weinman joked that the 2009 FTC guidelines would encourage more aggressively snarky reviews, her prediction raised interesting implications for authors who insist that professional behavior necessitates only positive remarks about other authors’ books. Think of it this way: if criticism is aligned with honesty, and authors are afraid that their relationships with other authors will become imperiled if they engage in public criticism of their peers’ books, then to what extent can readers rely on “professional” authors to give them honest views of other authors’ books? If professional becomes aligned with positive, and positive is aligned with a commercial endorsement, then can’t this uncritical “professional” behavior be characterized as a form of commercial endorsement?
Commercial endorsements are not, of course, intrinsically dishonest, especially when they come with a disclaimer that they amount to an advertisement of sorts. The difficulty comes with the lack of disclosure and the status of the author as a commercial brand.
Why is this a potential problem? For a number of reasons, one of which is the extent to which authors may be engaging in commercial speech when they make these recommendations. Although we talk a lot about political speech in the US and its almost sacred level of Constitutional protection, we don’t talk so much about commercial speech, even though in a community where authors are more readily marketing their own books (and those of their peers), this category of speech is becoming increasingly relevant to our discussions.
However, commercial speech has itself posed some definitional problems. Very briefly, commercial speech has been defined by several criteria: 1) the speaker is “engaged in commerce”; 2) “the intended audience [is] composed largely of actual and potential purchasers; and 3) “the content of the speech consist[s] of representation of fact of a commercial nature that [are] intended to maintain and increase sales” of the product (Nike, Inc. v. Kasky, 123 S. Ct. 2554 (2003)). These criteria echo what’s called the Bolger test, which also identified three characteristics: 1) is the communication an advertisement; 2) does the communication concern a product; and 3) does the speaker have an “economic motivation” (Bolger v. Youngs Drug Products Corp., 463 U.S. 60 (1983)). Additional factors like discussion of price and quantity are also taken into consideration when discerning the nature of the speech (see What is Commercial Speech? The Issue Not Decided in Nike v. Kasky, by Erwin Chemerinsky and Catherine Fisk). For example, authors who tweet out links to their own books, mentioning a price cut, for example, or a Kindle ranking, could easily be said to be engaging in commercial speech.
Seemingly simple in articulation, but difficult in application, for the same reasons that it’s difficult to discern whether an author who recommends a book is doing so in a personal, critical capacity, or in the way of someone who is attempting to sell books and who has an economic interest in the book’s sale (you can also see why paid reviews are so deeply problematic in this context). Still, one of the reasons this distinction is important is that commercial speech is afforded less Constitutional protection than noncommercial speech, and one of the reasons for that – beyond consumer protection from false and misleading claims, which is a substantial factor – is the assumption that speech deriving from an economic interest is less likely to be chilled than noncommercial speech. Part of the rationale here is that someone has a greater investment in a product they economically benefit from – as well as a greater incentive to have that product seen in a positive light. Whether or not it’s true that commercial speech is more potentially resilient, it seems clear that someone with a commercial investment in a product is likely to be much more desirous of having that product viewed in a positive way.
I realize that one author’s economic interest in another author’s book is not a foregone conclusion; at one level authors are competitively positioned in the marketplace. Still, if Author A recommends Author B’s book to Reader C, and Reader C loves that book, isn’t it likely that Author A might benefit from that recommendation with a present or future sale of her book? Also, what if Author A and Author B are sharing marketing costs and cross-marketing their books — doest that intertwine their economic interests? These often undisclosed possibilities (and more) are part of the difficulty for readers trying to navigate an environment in which authors are only providing positive comments about other authors’ books, and representing those recommendations as unproblematic. No one likes to have their good intentions questioned, but when readers are only getting one view from authors about their peers’ books, it can raise questions about the potential commercial benefit that authors perceive to accrue to them by mutually supporting and promoting each others’ books. In other words, in a market where authors see criticism as detrimental to book sales, where is the incentive to recommend books written by market competitors, unless there is a perceived commercial benefit to the recommending author?
At this point I feel the need to mention again that I am not accusing authors of trying to deceive readers by recommending their own and other authors’ books. However, I do not think readers are unaware that a successful recommendation by an author can very easily translate into a future sale for the recommending author, merely as a function of the trust and good faith that an author can build through her commercial brand. Beyond straight marketing, these more ambiguous expressions are, for me, at least, much more problematic, because in the absence of “honest” criticism, and in an environment where such criticism is deemed “unprofessional,” it can be difficult to trust those recommendations as anything but (indirectly) self-interested marketing.
When readers talk about the relative power of the author – both in terms of the authorial voice and the brand – commercial interest plays a key role. Because the economic investment authors have in the commercial success of their own products (books) gives them a greater incentive to quash negative perceptions of their product. And when authors publicly reinforce the shunning of criticism on the part of other authors, it does not help either the case for authenticity around authorial book recommendations or the insistence that readers hold all the power. To the extent that readers do not have enough information to make informed decisions in response to authorial marketing and recommending, their power is being artificially limited. And given the fact that authors have a greater investment in the commercial success of their own books than readers do, it can be tempting to cross a line from mere promotion to the active silencing of critical opinions. And if reader opinions are perceived as potentially powerful, and negative opinions as potentially detrimental, it’s not difficult to see the incentive to have those opinions quieted and/or discredited.
If it is not already obvious, I am working toward a discussion of the whole “bullying” conversation, one that considers this whole dimension of the commercial investment of the author in the sale of her product (her books) in an environment where criticism is perceived as “unprofessional” and therefore against the commercial interest of authors. I think it would help if there was a way to easily discern the difference between marketing (commercial speech) and the authentic sharing of a beloved book (noncommercial speech), but when there is no defined limit to an author’s tastes (e.g. tropes she doesn’t like, books she finds problematic, etc.), ambiguity is likely to persist. And this ambiguity disadvantages readers by clouding informed decision-making. I believe it ultimately disadvantages authors, too, by weakening the genre’s ability to be challenged and to grow through open, honest criticism, but I think that cost is long-term and therefore hidden behind the short-term perceived professional and economic benefit of being “nice.”
So readers, tell me: how do you tell the difference between marketing and un-self-interested book talk? And authors, do you have any system by which you communicate this distinction to readers?