The Federal Trade Commission has issued new "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising," [PDF] which will take effect in December. They suggest that bloggers who receive review copies from publishers must disclose that they've received the books, because a positive review of such would constitute an "endorsement" (would a negative review not count?). There's some discussion and analysis of this at Dear Author, and Edward Champion interviewed Richard Cleland of the Bureau of Consumer Protection here.
Just about the only thing that's clear is how muddled these standards being put forth are: what precisely triggers an "endorsement," the liability of publishers in what is said about their works by bloggers, what the blogger does with the product after it's reviewed and whether that changes the equation, &c. &c. Cleland told Champion that if a blogger received review copies of books and reviewed them, the blogger would then have to return the books in order for the review not to be considered an "endorsement" of the product. Champion writes: "Cleland insisted that when a publisher sends a book to a blogger, there is the expectation of a good review. I informed him that this was not always the case and observed that some bloggers often receive 20 to 50 books a week. In such cases, the publisher hopes for a review, good or bad. Cleland didn’t see it that way."
I can honestly say no publisher has ever stopped sending me review copies after I've written a negative review of one of their books. And I've written some very negative reviews. I don't think there is any expectation of a positive review: there's an expectation of a review, and that's fine, but to suggest an automatic expectation of positive endorsement is, I think, entirely wrongheaded. Look at the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program - 31 publishers this month alone have provided 1590 copies of 55 titles for readers to review, with the explicit understanding that an honest review is the goal, not a positive one.
But then there are the perfectly reasonable scenarios Champion lays out to Cleland: "He didn’t see any particular problem with a book review appearing on a blog, but only if there wasn’t a corresponding Amazon Affiliates link or an advertisement for the book" (so every review I've ever posted, whether I got the book from the publisher or not, would be fine, since I don't link to Amazon). BUT ... "A book falls under 'compensation' if it comes associated with an Amazon link or there is an advertisement for the book, or if the reviewer holds onto the book" (so if I receive a book from the publisher, review it, and keep the copy, that's an endorsement?). Then there's the question of what disclosure constitutes - would it have to be noted in each review? Or some blanket statement that would cover all reviews? Or would regularly noting how books are acquired (as some of us do every week) suffice?
Many more questions than answers. I think I and many others will just keep doing what we're doing, unless we're told otherwise.