Read the Review, Buy the Book: How Ethical?

By: Steve Outing

Starting this week, when you read a book review on the New York Times Web site, you will be able to very easily purchase that book online through mega-bookseller Barnes & Noble. At the bottom of every review, there is now a button that says "To purchase online. Barnes & Noble."

Clicking on the button goes to a Barnes & Noble Web page in which a search of the B&N database for title and author has been automatically run. Just a few clicks and you can order the book.

The Times joins what are now thousands of Web sites that offer such services (including more than 40 others with B&N). Salon, a Web site devoted to books and arts coverage, has a similar deal with Borders Books, for example. Salon's book reviews go one step further than the Times/Barnes & Noble approach. On each book review is a button that leads to an order form for the particular book reviewed. Just fill in name, address and credit card number and, voila!, the book is on its way to you., the online-only bookstore that rivals B&N in terms of size of its collection of titles, has been a pioneer in this area. It has what it claims to be "thousands" of Web sites in its "Associates" program, including Atlantic Monthly and Upside Magazine. Associate sites publish links to book order pages along with their book reviews, and receive a commission of up to 15% on sales of books that result from their readers clicking through to order from Amazon.

Good service, yes. Good journalism? Maybe not

At first blush, this looks like a great idea. Consumers reading the Sunday NYT Review of Books on the Web can get instant gratification, ordering a book that looks appealing based on a review that's fresh in their minds. It's a nice application of the Web, creating a useful service that is far superior to print. The Review of Books print reader has to look through the magazine to find an ad for the book elsewhere on the pages, or go to a favorite bookstore to fulfill the craving that a book review might have created.

But not everyone is enamored with this latest application of Web technology. Such online transaction features -- in which a publisher benefits monetarily on every book sold as a result of a review being read -- has the potential to influence book editors, it can be argued. Positive reviews are of course more likely to generate more sales of a book. The danger inherent in schemes like this is that it could influence book editors to publish mostly positive reviews, because of the financial interest at stake. (Imagine if the bookseller offered a higher commission on certain books that it wanted to promote. The temptation might exist to write a positive review to take advantage of the financial bonus.)

Eric Meyer, a journalism professor at the University of Illinois, "It presents an ENORMOUS problem if the bookseller pays any sort of commission to the publisher. (And what publisher would provide the link without a commission?) ... This would be nothing short of a blatant attempt to capitalize on endorsements. It would be as if Oprah were a legitimate news person, expecting a rake-off every time she mentioned a book. ...

"The pressure on critics to positively review expected bestsellers would be tremendous. I can't imagine a paper panning a new Steven King novel then featuring a link facilitating your purchase of the book. Just imagine all the glowing reviews of new Star Trek novels, mindless celebrity memoirs and the like," Meyer says.

Maybe there's a middle ground

But Meyer holds the more extreme view. Others in the industry seem to be convincing themselves that linking transactions to editorial coverage can be accomplished in a manner that serves the consumer and maintains editorial integrity.

Steve Yelvington, editor of Star Tribune Online, the Web service of the Star Tribune in Minneapolis, Minnesota, thinks that the concerns about separating advertising (and commercial transactions) from content are legitimate, but "we need to be careful not to knee-jerk our way to irrelevancy."

Yelvington and others believe that such direct linkage between, say, a book review and a commercial offer to purchase the particular book is acceptable as long as the labeling of paid links is clear. "Clarity sets appropriate expectations and establishes a context that the user needs in order to interpret the information," he says. "But we also have to make the connections seamless and convenient. I think that can be done ethically."

Bill Smith, a Boston Web consultant and former journalism academic, says that the availability of a commission on certain books could appear to influence the choice of what books a Web site chooses to review. Thus, it's important for any publication engaging in such a deal with an online bookseller to disclose the details of the relationship to its readers.

"On some level," Smith says, "this problem is present whenever a publication reviews any sort of product or service and then accepts advertising from vendors of that product or service. In one way the (online bookseller-publisher) relationship potentially makes the problem more severe, since revenue is tied to sales, but in another way it may be less threatening -- since I've never heard of (the booksellers) trying to twist people's arms to write favorable reviews, or of threatening to cancel advertising if nasty things are said about the books."

Amazon loses out

At the New York Times, where this column began, Web site editor Bernard Gwertzman says he's comfortable with the relationship worked out with B&N, which won out in a bidding contest with to have the exclusive right to put an ordering link at the bottom of book reviews on the Times site. The Web editorial staff played a strong role in implementing the book transaction links, with careful attention paid to how the links are worded and presented. Gwertzman says that it is clear that a reader is purchasing the book from B&N, and that the Times is not selling them a book. Links are at the bottom of reviews, where Web readers are used to seeing banner ads.

The issue was debated internally at the Times, and Gwertzman says the consensus view was that it provides a valuable service to Times readers and is likely to make the Times site some money. In any given NYT Review of Books edition, there are often more negative than positive reviews, he says, and there should be no perception among readers that a Web deal would have any influence on the print Review of Books, where the online review originate.

What has caused controversy with the NYT-B&N deal is the tremendous advantage the book giant gets over independent bookstores, whose livelihoods have long been threatened by the growth of super-bookstores like B&N. Competing bookstore companies can and do run banner ads elsewhere on the Times site, but that can't compare with the advantage of the direct order link attached to reviews.

Mindful of independent bookstores' criticism of its Web relationship with B&N, the Times is developing a Web directory of independent bookstores, which will enable Web site visitors to type in their location and find nearby independents.

In my opinion ...

While the online book order issue does raise legitimate journalistic ethics concerns, I have concluded that such online transactions schemes as this are an inevitable part of the evolving Web scene. Banner advertising has yet to prove itself as a sufficient revenue generator for Web publishers. As Microsoft's Bill Gates and others profess, online transactions may be our best hope as an industry to succeed. Thus, the interactive media does need to explore ways to tap transaction revenues.

That said, this is a road fraught with potholes -- ethical and otherwise. Publishers considering taking part in commission deals such as those offered by the online booksellers need to steer carefully. Foremost, disclosure of these relationships with readers is imperative. Also, policies must be formulated and publicized that state the separation between the book review editorial process and commercial transactions systems with which the publisher has allied.

In an ideal world of 100% purely ethical journalism, publishers might never engage in relationships like this. The reality is that Web sites need to make money; consumers want the convenience that online ordering offers; and competitors like Microsoft have no reluctance to employ such transaction systems.


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This column is written by Steve Outing exclusively for Editor & Publisher Interactive three days a week. News, tips, and other communications may be sent to Mr. Outing at

The views expressed in the above column do not necessarily represent the views of the Editor & Publisher company


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