Full Disclosure: On blogging, books, and money

Bookkeepers (the “my day job” kind)
I’d be lying if I said that the possibility of making some money from writing wasn’t lurking somewhere in my mind when I started blogging here. I wasn’t sure it would happen from blogging, but I did hope that blogging would open some doors to paid writing opportunities in other venues (and it has, but it took four years to get there!). But I’ve also had some chances to make a little money with the blog itself, and I have selectively taken advantage of them. I belong to an ad network, I use affiliate links, I’ve been paid to have a few of my posts syndicated to wider readership, and I occasionally post (or re-post) a paid book review here. 

Blogger disclosures are taken pretty seriously, and not just by the FTC. In the book-blogging realm, we’ve gotten used to stating where we get the books we read and review. Openness and transparency about our sources are meant to defray any concerns our blog readers may have about our objectivity and honest opinions, and this sort of disclosure is standard ethical business practice–as an accounting major, I remember discussing it in my university auditing classes. As Amy notes in “Unsolicited Advice: When in Doubt, Disclose”:

“…(S)ome more high profile bloggers and bookish people have come under scrutiny for not disclosing all their sources of income. One blogger said they were honest and absolutely nothing had changed about the review policy or procedures. While this may be true, the problem remains that this is the internet. We don’t all know each other. But even more than that, it’s not that they are doing anything wrong, it’s that the appearance of wrongdoing exists (emphasis added). It casts a shadow not only over individual bloggers but book blogging as a whole. “

One reason that disclosure seems to be of particular concern among book bloggers is that so many of us started doing this as a hobby that expanded out of another hobby–we loved reading and talking about books, and blogs were a new outlet for that. We’ve formed a sense of community around it. Those origins and connections may feed some conflicted feelings over taking a more “businesslike” approach to book blogging…and about bloggers who decide to do that. April addressed some of the reasons for her decision to monetize her blog, and some of the negative feedback she’s received about it:

“Sometimes blogging feels like a full time job. If you are a successful blogger and I’ll leave you to determine your metrics for that, you likely put in AT LEAST 14 hours per week blogging. You deserve to be compensated for that…Further I am sure SO MANY OF YOU can relate to spending out of pocket money on your own blog.

“I am recouping my costs and I will be damned if I hear another person complaining about other people monetizing. When you pay my blogging salary, then you can complain to me about my ads.”

The thing about ads on blogs is that it’s usually pretty obvious that’s what they are. It’s the less obvious paid promotions that generate more concerns about disclosure, and when book blogging begins to shift toward practices that may be customary in more traditional business environments but haven’t been part of this hobbyist culture, we should probably be even more aware of the need for transparency and clarification.

And with that said, you can read elsewhere about the big flap over revelations that the popular #FridayReads hashtag/meme has evolved from a weekly community “share what you’re reading” Twitter activity to a business that charges publishers several hundred dollars a pop to promote particular titles and/or conduct giveaways of featured books on Facebook during the event–and hadn’t mentioned that in those tweets and Facebook posts. I missed the Twitterstorm over this, but when I read about it later, it explained the e-mail that came from the BlogHer Book Club organizers last week (although the timing may have been merely coincidental):

“We’ve recently made a change to how #BHBC Twitter promotions should be done. Effective immediately we ask that all #BHBC social media promotions to BlogHer.com content also contain the #ad hashtag.”

(The BlogHer Book Club is a partnership with Penguin, and it pays participants to write reviews, discuss, and promote its selections on social media, so it’s pretty evident there’s publisher money involved. In my experience with BlogHer.com, it has been open about its partnerships and advocates and practices disclosure.)

The FridayReads principals have responded with their own discussions about disclosure, and Wendy is surveying book bloggers about their disclosure practices.

Teresa addressed the distinctions between paid and editorial content, which are well established in traditional media but still evolving in the online social-media world, and how this impacts disclosure:

“Many of you know that I work in magazine publishing. In my world, we try to make it abundantly clear what content in our magazine is advertising and what content is selected by the editors. The ads look like ads, and the editorial content looks like an article or column. If we ever get an ad that looks too much like editorial content, we require the advertiser to redesign it or we add the word ‘Advertisement’ at the top of the page. Readers do not have to hunt around to figure out what content is paid for and what content is not…

“In the new world of social media, the separation is less clear. On Friday, some of the Friday Reads defenders claimed that the paid content was clearly marked as sponsored content and that readers who followed Bethanne’s stream could see what was paid and what wasn’t. But the thing is, it wasn’t clear at all. It looks to me like the team was using a shorthand and a format that was clear and understandable to them but that wasn’t clear to those outside the circle. Never once did I see the word ‘paid’ or even ‘sponsored’ before Bethanne tweeted about how the program operated on Friday morning.

“So what material is paid for? According to the Friday Reads FAQ, publishers pay to offer weekly giveaways through Friday Reads. They also pay for Twitter interviews with Bethanne. This information is available on the Friday Reads website, so the team has not been hiding it. The trouble is that before Friday there was no reason for readers to go seek it out. For a lot of people, that means it might as well be hidden…

“…(What) about paid bookstore placements and Amazon suggestions and online ads and so on…? I don’t like those things either, and when I go to a big box bookstore, I tend to browse the stacks so I can be directed by my own interests. If I look at the tables, I keep in mind that the publishers paid to have their books there. Do I wish it were more clear? Sure. But a bookstore is more obviously a place of commerce than a Twitter stream is (emphasis added). If the publishers weren’t paying to be there, the bookstore might still be choosing the most sellable books.”

I don’t think I’ve been unclear about any of my own monetization activities on this blog, but if you have any questions about them, feel free to ask in comments or e-mail me. They basically cover my blogging costs and generate some personal mad money. Blogging is a hobby, and as much as I enjoy it, I will not be quitting my day job for it–let me be clear about disclosing that, too.

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