Kim Bofo at Reading Matters started a firestorm in the litblogging world on Monday with this post, in which she argues that bloggers ought to note when they've received copies of books they review free from the publisher. She suggests that publishers are "using" bloggers to manipulate sales of books that would (presumably) otherwise not get favorable coverage. She is particularly incensed about a Simon & Schuster marketing effort regarding The Thirteenth Tale, which she outlines clearly in her post so I won't bother rehashing it.*
Bofo concludes: "Personally, I think it's time that book bloggers came clean. It might sound ridiculous, but I honestly think we need a code of conduct. We need to tell our readers when we are reviewing free books or when we are taking part in marketing exercises, because if we don't we run the risk of just becoming yet another cog in the public relations industry. And surely the reason we all started blogging about books was because we were sick of the mainstream media's treatment of books. If we don't clean up our act now, we might as well forget any notion of reading unbiased, reliable and truthful reviews online, because how will we ever be able to tell the difference between a genuine review and one written on obligation? I don't think it is any exaggeration to say that our credibility as book bloggers is at stake."
The response was quick. Edward Champion calls Bofo's post "preposterous", noting her assumption that whenever a publisher provides a copy of a book, "there is an automatic quid pro quo between publisher and litblogger. This is a preposterous contextomy, seeing as how any sane person is aware that it is impossible for any journalist, whether print or online, who receives fifteen to twenty books a week to review each and every one of them. The litblogger is under no duty to review anything, just as the publicist is under no duty to send free books." Champion goes on to note that he has more faith in the average litblogger than Bofo and does not automatically assume that they are incapable of deciding for themselves what's good or bad.
Ron Hogan at GalleyCat also found Bofo's comments unimpressive. "[A]t a certain point, readers have to either trust that the writer/reviewer is sharing their genuine sentiments or stop visiting the blog. Bloggers don't have to beg for your trust any more than 'legitimate' book reviewers do...and, frankly, it's insulting of Bofo to suggest that a blogger's opinion could be 'bought' for a couple hardcover novels." Hogan's final sentence says it perfectly: "[I]f you can't tell the difference between somebody who's genuinely passionate about a book and somebody who's repurposing press releases, then frankly you're probably not the most attentive of readers to begin with."
When I wrote the first review of a book I'd received free from a publisher I revealed a bit of the angst I was feeling about that relationship, and commented that I "almost wanted it to be bad so that I could pan it and not feel like I was selling out." Since then, I have rarely made clear which books I've read from my own collection, which I've purchased, or which I've received from publishers. I hope that those who read my reviews will indeed take them for my true feelings, which is - in every case - exactly what they are. If you ever have a question about where I'm coming from, I hope you'll ask me and not assume one way or the other. But I think it neither my duty nor my responsibility to outline how I received any given book I write about, whether from a publisher, a used bookstore, Amazon, a friend, &c. If you disagree, that's fine - every blogger is free to disclose whatever they wish. But like Hogan and Champion, I think we've got to all have a little faith that those who write about books are doing it for the right reasons, not the wrong ones.
* A note on The Thirteenth Tale: I reviewed it, positively. Because I liked it.