Declarations of Interest and why you should

So this email has been going round on Twitter shared by @lotte_le:

interest

Let’s have a refresher course on basic ethics, shall we? As follows:

DECLARE YOUR INTEREST.

That was quick, eh? See you next week!

 

Okay, we have space for a bit more.

Declaring interest is a bedrock principle of functional communities. If you are a councillor who awards the contract for rubbish collection services, you must declare that your brother-in-law runs the bidding garbage truck company. If you are asked to be in charge of an inquiry, you need to say that one of the accused is a family friend. If you run a website that reviews cosmetics, you should mention that you run your own cosmetics company under a different name.

It may be that your brother-in-law’s company is the best by miles, or that you would apply the law no matter what it cost your personal life, or that you scrupulously avoided ever plugging your own product on your site. Conflicts of interests happen all the time; we all live in small worlds. If I review an m/m romance, it’s quite likely that I will have interacted with the author on social media, and as a freelance editor it’s not outside the realms of possibility I have or will have worked with them.

But the only way to deal with interests is transparency. You put your interest out there, and let people take a good hard look at your behaviour and your opinions in the light of what they know.

And if you don’t declare interests, people have the right to draw their own conclusions as to what motivated your decisions, which may well be worse than the reality. You might get your brother-in-law the contract because you really think his is the best company, but the voting public is entitled to assume you’re taking a backhander because you hid your interest. Your family friend might be innocent, but who will believe it when the inquiry stinks of cover-up? What value do your genuine negative lipstick reviews have when people decide you were trashing your rivals?

There are laws about this stuff. The Federal Trade Commission in the US requires that you disclose any ‘material connection’ such as payment or free product accepted in return for a review, because your review is endorsing the product. If I might decide to buy a book on the basis of your five-star rave, I have a right to know if you actually spent money on it or not. I definitely have the right to know if you were morally blackmailed into leaving it by big sad kitten eyes and pleas of ‘but bad reviews hurt authors!’

The free book business is a tricky one. The whole point of the ARC (advance reading copy) is that the author gives the reviewer something (a free book), and in return gets a benefit (a review). You might well feel this teeters on the edge of dodgy by its very nature. Let’s be honest, it kind of does.

I have been contacted by readers who have offered to leave five-star reviews if I give them a free copy. Blog tour companies have been known to ask the bloggers to suppress 1 or 2* reviews. Goodreads is full of books that have been five-star-spammed by hardcore fans in return for freebies. And, as we see here, there are authors who feel that the act of giving a free book entitles them not just to a review but to a good review. (There are also, needless to say, vast numbers of authors who would never dream of policing reviewers, and reviewers who are scrupulous in declaring interests. There is nothing wrong with the ARC system except when it’s abused. But it’s basically an honour system, and any honour system is open to abuse by the dishonourable.)

This hurts everyone in every direction. It bumps the unethical author up the rankings, it disappoints the reader suckered into buying overpraised books; it damages the authors who don’t game the system; it devalues the honest reviews that people slave over. It undermines the reading community. It stops the system working. 

A declaration of interest does not “discredit a review” as the email says. It does the opposite, by demonstrating that you have considered basic ethical principles. Hiding that interest discredits the reviewer, the author, the book, and the whole damn system. No author should ever ask for that, and no reviewer should ever feel obliged to agree.

A quick checklist for the ethically challenged:

  • It is fine to offer an ARC in return for a review.
  • It is never okay to ask for only a positive review.
  • It is never, ever okay to ask for a negative review to be suppressed.
  • It is never, ever, ever okay to ask a reviewer not to declare her interest. You are asking her to be dishonest and possibly to break the law.
  • If you are prepared to violate your personal integrity and the law, you should probably set your price higher than a free e-book. Have some self-respect.