Thursday, July 20, 2006

[Ethics] Reviewing Free Cookbooks

Food Blog S'cool pupil Kalyn Denny poses an interesting question about Product Placement on Blogs, An Ethical Dilemma over on Blogher today which I thought might be an interesting conversation to pick up here as well.

This Post was written by sam from becks & posh


Cate said...

As one of the 25 who accepted the offer, I'll bite. The premise was that you were not guaranteeing a positive review - just an honest one. That being laid down, I see no ethical dilemma. Had I seen the book in the store, I honestly would not have given it a second look. For me, lack of pictures is a total turn-off, but this one fits into the adage of "don't judge a book by its cover," or in this case, its lack of pictures. ;)

Andrew said...

For me it has to do with trusting the writer. If they are honest enough (whether they mention the book was free or not) and have built a reputation then I dont have any problem with them writing about the book. Cant see any dilemma in the article as the writer specified exactly what the book was about.

Barbara said...

I also accepted the offer and because a positive review was not expected I was happy to participate.

Silverbrow said...

Interesting topic. I was particularly intrigued by Sam's comment at the end of Kalyn's post.

Personally I think that as long as there is no compunction to write, receiving a free product is not a problem. If the blogger does write, then as long as the terms under which it was received ie free and w/out agreeement to blog, are made clear, there is no problem.

I think this is especially true of a product, like a book. My views on restaurant reviews are different. Restaurants are able to tweak their service and quality, if they chose to impress the reviewer. If the restaurants comp the meal, they clearly know the reviewer is reviewing and therefore it will be difficult to be impartial or objective.

This clearly doesn't hold for a product, such as a book. Personally though, I'd be uncomfortable with any stipulations being put on me by a publisher.

As an aside can someone explain the rationale of Blogher to me? Why is there a need for a specific blog for female bloggers? Are male bloggers allowed to blog there, I'm assuming not? My experience of the blogosphere is that it is pretty egalitarian and gender non-specific. It strikes me as odd that there was a feeling that there was a need for a female blog community.

Lisa Stone said...

Hi Silverbrow. Yes, indeed, you and all men are welcome at BlogHer -- as members of and at our conferences.

I'm glad your experience of the blogosphere has been, to use your words, pretty egalitarian and gender non-specific. The food blogging community to me looks and feels like a warm, open group; women are well-represented in the community, leaders in fact.

However, that is not the experience many women have had as bloggers in other subjects, from business to politics, news and technology. Elisa Camahort, Jory Des Jardins and I began organizing BlogHer in March 2005 in response to general concern that it was enormously hard to find women bloggers unless you knew where to look and invested hours doing so. Why was it hard? The reasons are many -- leading male bloggers weren't linking to women, leading blog search engines favored people who had been blogging the longest (typically male engineers) and certainly leading conferences in every subject (from AlwaysOn to Web 2.0 to Bloggercon itself) invited only token numbers of women to speak.

Ironic, given that women were fast becoming the majority of Internet users and bloggers.

So, we thought, we could complain about it. Or we could do something about it -- BlogHer Conferences and are the answer.

Today, is a directory and a surfing guide. In our directory, more than 3,000 women have listed more than 4,000 blogs in our blogrolls (and we approve each and every one, a time-intensive process but one that avoids spam). At the same time, 60+ editors constantly update the site with a guide to the latest, greatest blogging by women. And we are very proud that these women value BlogHer's mission enough to contribute: food bloggers Elise Bauer, Sam Breach, Kalyn Denny, and Alanna Kellogg.

Their work is exceptional. And, to their credit, many people have been looking at the numbers provided by BlogHer and third parties about the number of women who blog. Conferences such as Bloggercon and SXSW worked hard to grow the number of women speakers this year. Technorati has changed its format, putting the Top 100 bloggers below the fold and instead focusing on blogs by topic as BlogHer does, pulling many familiar faces into a list of bloggers who recommend blogs on their site. One year later, many more guys do link.


I hope this helps. I also hope that I haven't hijacked this thread with an issue that is not of interest to the majority of readers -- the only links I provide are to food bloggers and a more detailed list of links on the topic for anyone who wants more detail than I think it's appropriate to list here.

sam said...

Thanks lisa for the explanation!

Ok back to the question in hand. It seems clear to me from the responses here and on blogher, that I am clearly in a minority when it comes to wrangling with my conscience over these issues. I am envious of everyone else who just seems to deal with it in their stride.

Amy [of Cooking With] has, since I first met her 18 months ago, been trying to convince me there is nothing wrong with accepting the review copies, but I just dont and can't feel easily comfortable about it. My problem.

I think the publicists of that cookbook were very smart indeed. They managed to raise the profile of a book that no one would have had any interest in of their own accord.

Food bloggers are a nice bunch of people, and i think the publicists knew that probably no one would really trash the book and even if they were turned off by the lack of pictures, that they would find something else positive to say about it.

When I declined to be part of the reviewing team I said this to the organiser: "I do accept review copies of cookery books but only if the promoter agrees to accept that I won't guarantee a review."

I think I will stand by that sentiment. Like I said on Blogher, it is a complete turn off for me to be dictated to. I can't help it, it just doesn't rest easy with me.

Do you all think I need to see a shrink?

Amy Sherman said...

Ultimately this is a personal decision. Sam let me publicly apologize for pressuring you. Your decision is your decision.

Let me clarify my position. Some of my food writing is for pay, but my blog is not. I wrote for Dannon because I like their product and they paid me and it was on their site. There is no pay for play on my blog. Heck I don't even accept advertising!

Personally I don't think anyone should "shill" for a publisher (or a food producer for that matter). But review copies are exactly that. Copies of books for a writer to review. If upon reviewing them they choose to write about them, fine. If not that's ok too.

I have certainly reviewed books I might not have come across except that a publisher sent them to me. But I have also reviewed books I received as gifts from friends that I might not have come across either. The main thing is that you feel comfortable with your own decision.

Kalyn said...

Lisa, beautiful job explaining what Blogher is all about. I'm proud to be a part of it.

Sam, I DON'T think you need to see a shrink. Part of the reason I wrote that piece for Blogher was that I had to work through my own feelings about being "bought". I had no problem with agreeing to post a recipe from the book (no positive review being promised) because that's mainly what I do on my blog, post recipes for others to try. However, when I learned that the publisher never intended or agreed for us to post recipes, I thought to myself "What's in it for my readers?" and "Do these people even get what food blogs are all about?" I handled it by being completely transparent about what happened when I wrote about it on my blog. I also was quite impressed with the quality of the book, so that helped me feel ok about it. And I did think it was very, very fun to see what other people choose to cook from the book. For me this was the best part.

All that said, it's a complex issue. Not that thousands of publishers are offering to send me books (and I keep hoping Penzeys will offer me free spices, all the free advertising I give them, LOL) but in the future I like the approach that "I'd be happy to accept the review copy but I can't promise to write about it."

Sam said...

Amy! - I wasnt intending to be giving you anything to apologize about. I love all the advice you have given me and appericate it a great deal, I just can't understand myself and why I personally struggle with it so much. That's all. Please keep up your excellent work. I mean I did get a free book because of you.

Kalyn - you kind of sound like you feel like me.

Amy Sherman said...

One other thing--I think this has a lot to do with how you define yourself as a blogger. Sam has a very "real person" identity. Me, I'm happy to get some of the perks that journalists get even though I don't quite consider myself one, not yet anyway. Maybe someday.

David said...

Publishers send out promotional copies of cookbooks all the time to journalists. There is never any expectation of a review, positive or negative, and it would be unethical for any journalist to receive a book on the condition there would be only a positive review.

Any editor or pr person who says they'll only send you a book if you promise to give it a positive review is rather unusual.

(Many journalists aren't allowed to accept gifts, but some do anyways.)

And Amy's right; Are you a journalist, or a person with a blog?

You should say, "Send me your product or book if you like, but I can't promise I'll write about it, positively or negatively."

Or you can say on your blog, "Bill and Susan Smith sent me their latest cookbook, and I must say it was a lovely book full of great recipes...etc..." or something to that effect.

Bonnie said...

I've been thinking about this post for quite sometime now - mulling over the issue and how I feel about it.

Ultimately, to be fair and unbiased, I wouldn't feel comfortable doing a review on a cookbook that I hadn't bought or selected myself. However, as journalists and bloggers I think we've become to expect the books for free if we're asked to review it. Remember this post?

Unlike Silverbrow, I believe that reviewing a restaurant and reviewing a cookbook are very similar. I can't trust a restaurant critic that has received preferential treatment. I'm not going to have the same experience as a restaurant critic has when dining if the critic is known to the chef and staff, doesn't have to pay for the meal, and his meal that is being prepared to perfection with the best cut of meat available.

I guess the preferential treatment here is getting the cookbook for free. And as such, the biggest point is value for money. With cookbooks, I want to see value for money and how can you see value for money if the reviewer didn't pay for it?

In the end, like everything, it's about the individual. I believe that as long as the individual is comfortable reviewing the cookbook, and the circumstances surrounding the review are stated, the reader will make up his or her mind (as I'm sure they're smart enough to do), whether or not the cookbook is worth their while.

Rosie said...

I would have no problem accepting a review copy of any book - as long as the publisher of the book knows that I will not give it a positive review unless the book merits it. My hubby and I review books for our print magazine all the time and it is understood by the people who send the books to us that we are under no obligation to review them at all if we wish. We usually review the very worst and the very best - and that is because we get anywhere from 5-10 items a month to review.

A certain number of books are made with the express intent to have them distributed to people the publicists believe will give their product the most favorable exposure. Also, it is in my best interest as a reviewer to give the items I review a fair and balanced appraisal. First of all, if all I do is praise the items I receive even if they don't deserve it, I loose the trust of my readership. If I trash everything, then the publicists will no longer send me items to review.

Professional ethics would not allow me to give anything other than an unbiased account. If I were asked to give a book a favorable review and the item did not warrant it, I would return it to the sender. (And we have done so in the past.)That probably means that they won't use my services anymore - but if they want a patsy, they will have to find someone else.

If you want to see some of the items we have reviewed check out
and yes - those publicists still send us items for review.

linda said...

I participated in that event, and if the recipe hadn't been good, I wouldn't have been quite so gracious as to send it back without a word. Of course, as I reread my post, I think I could have been a little bit more forthcoming on my review ~ the fact that I wasn't posting the recipe threw me off. As others have stated, I don't think there is anything wrong with accepting something for review as long as you aren't pressured to only post positive reviews. O

L Vanel said...

I think we should clarify something about shilling. Shilling involves deception and a conflict of interest by definition. To use a cookbook as an example, if a book author blogged a positive review of their own book without saying they were the author, that would be shilling.

When it comes to the issue of cookbooks or any other book distributed for review purposes, my standpoint is that it is really not a good idea to accept books with the stipulation attached that I would review it. Not because of any pressure I might feel to give a positive review, but it corrupts the whole idea of the choice of a reviewer to decide if a publication is noteworthy.

If the book is truly being sent for free with no strings attached by the publisher that's fine. This is a practice that ties in with the marketing of any new publication - the goal is to attract the attention of people who can provide valuable puiblicity (negative or positive) for a book (in this case bloggers) by tossing the book into the path of a potential reviewer. My opinion is that it's not shilling to review a book you've received, and it's certainly ok to accept the book, even if you choose not to review it.

Amy Sherman said...

Since I was the one who used the shilling reference, here is the definition (according to my dictionary) and what I believe it means:

Somebody who promotes somebody or makes a sales pitch for something for reasons of self interest.

Accepting a book in exchange for a positive review would fit this description.

pay per head said...

I am thoroughly convinced in this said post. I am currently searching for ways in which I could enhance my knowledge in this said topic you have posted here. It does help me a lot knowing that you have shared this information here freely