MotherReader posted a very informative article on her blog last week on the subject of new regulations that may be coming down the pike from the FTC that would obligate bloggers and other word-of-mouth advertisers to disclose their commercial relationships, i.e. when they are given books for review by publishers/publicists/authors, and what kinds of other commercial relationships they may have related to their blog, for example if the blogger is an Amazon affiliate or will profit from selling something.
First of all, I am an IndieBound affiliate; every review I post has a link to my IndieBound account and theoretically if enough books were sold through it, I would make a percentage. I say theoretically because I don't believe that I ever will! I'm sure I would make more money if I linked to Amazon, but I would rather support independent bookstores, which I believe are the heart and soul of the book business.
I don't always disclose when I'm reading a book that I received in exchange for a review. I do make a habit of acknowledging LibraryThing for Early Reviewer books, and Barnes and Noble for books I receive as part of their First Look program; I also acknowledge Lisa Roe for the books I receive from her Online Publicist business. Otherwise I don't always disclose what I've received gratis versus what I've paid for, and honestly I don't really have a good reason for this decision- it's just a habit I've fallen into.
As a librarian I have access to galleys every now and then, and those are usually not books I'm obligated to review per se, so if I do review them I don't feel compelled to say where I got them. And I would say in those cases, it's nobody's business where I got them. I receive relatively few review offers and accept a small percentage of them, and I rarely request books directly from authors or publishers apart from the above-mentioned commercial sources, so there really isn't much to disclose.
MotherReader asks the question "are we serving less as reviewers and more as an unpaid marketing machine?" I think the answer is "both," with the balance shifting depending on the situation. Book marketers are smart enough to know that they can get some good publicity by working with bloggers, enthusiastic readers who are happy to give of themselves to promote books they love. That's great, but there's something a little out of balance about it too.
Take blog tours. I don't do them anymore because it felt too much like advertising and too little like honest reviewing. I know the blog tour operators and publishing representatives say they want objectivity but when I did blog tours I felt pressured to, at a minimum, provide unrestricted space for the author to promote his or her book, and, at a maximum, take an active role in shilling for the work. I also felt that the work involved for me was more than could be compensated for by a free book. How about a more monetary form of compensation for my work? My time is valuable, and operators get paid to line up authors and organizetours while a small army of bloggers diligently reads, posts, links, interviews, comments and promotes the book- in return for a "free" book. If they're lucky, they might even get the opportunity to do even more work for the operator by running contests or giveaways. There's something wrong with that equation.
Compensation is a thorny issue for bloggers in general, whether it be books or cash, due to the way it may impact objectivity. I can tell you that it doesn't take a check to make someone feel obligated or pressured to deliver a positive review- all it really takes is a flattering offer and a personable, persistant author or publicist. When I started blogging, I wrote a couple of positive-leaning reviews for books I wasn't really crazy about, because I felt like someone was standing over my shoulder. Nowadays when I'm working with someone and I'm not crazy about a book, I'll email them in advance of posting to let them know what to expect, but I don't let myself get intimidated anymore. And that's why, at bottom, I don't feel the need to disclose- because I'm confident about my objectivity and honesty. But if it helps my readers to have more confidence in my reviews, disclosure is a small change I'd be happy to make.