Since the Web was invented, there have been tensions between those who would make a quick buck and those who wanted to live in cyberspace as an unsullied frontier where crude commerce has no place.
But the real goat rodeo starts when people who thought they were living in Utopia find out they’re actually in a Wild West whorehouse. Which is pretty much the state of the online literary world for the past month, after the #FridayReads scandal broke.
Bethanne Patrick, also known as the Book Maven, stands accused of publishing payola, reviled by many in a tight-knit community of readers and authors for making money off of what they thought was a simple love of books.
If her critics’ charges are true, Patrick may have done more than betray her community’s trust. In taking money for books she tweeted about, she appears to have violated Federal Trade Commission guidelines that require disclosure of paid endorsements, whether they’re on late-night TV or on Twitter. (The FTC is the closest thing to a sheriff in this tumbleweed town.)
For the past few years, Patrick has made #FridayReads a popular hashtag on Twitter, connecting book enthusiasts who tweet what they're currently reading and fostering literary discussions that can expose a book to a potential audience of tens of thousands. She created a related website, and a supporter created a Facebook page.
Patrick was the friendly face behind the hashtag, the one facilitating discussion and supplementing the conversation with book giveaways, author interviews, and her own book recommendations. In March—unbeknownst to most of her followers—she started charging publishers for her services.
Patrick also recently became the executive editor of Book Riot, a literary news and reviews website. That’s where she crossed digital swords with another writer, Jennifer Weiner. A Book Riot contributor—not even Patrick herself, mind you—called Weiner out for supposed hypocrisy.
The crux of Weiner’s complaint: Patrick had not disclosed FridayReads’ paid services on her Twitter account; to find the one-line disclosure, you’d have to read through a long frequently-asked-questions list that, as Weiner points out, few Twitter participants would ever see.
Once Weiner went public with the information, Patrick responded with a lengthy blog post that read in part:
What I did not choose to do was to label each and every promotional post as an “ad,” because those posts are not written by the publishers. Were they “advertorial?” Technically, yes. Should I have labeled them as “promo?” Perhaps (I’m still turning this around in my head). Did I mean to deceive anyone into believing that #fridayreads was just a big happy group of readers? Of course not.
FTC guidelines call for “clear and conspicous” disclosures for paid promotions in all media, including social platforms like Twitter. Tweeting a promotion and then disclosing it on a website’s FAQ page doesn’t seem like it would meet the FTC’s test. But the FTC generally only gets involves in such cases if there’s a complaint, and while some of Patrick’s critics have cited the FTC rules, it’s not clear if any of them have actually taken this matter to the feds.
After repeated inquiries to Patrick and her agent, Patrick told the Daily Dot, “I think we've said all that we need to say on the subject.”
Two weeks after the post, Patrick added a lengthy introduction to her website’s FAQ. She insisted that she was not selling access to the #fridayreads hashtag, but just her own base of Twitter followers. The numbers show that's a specious argument: Patrick's tweets account for 85 percent of the audience generated by the #fridayreads hashtag, according to TweetReach.
“I am not trying to obfuscate,” she wrote. But some #FridayReads participants felt she was doing exactly that.
Book on the Radio host Sean Cranbury, for one argues that Patrick had protested too much.
“[The update had] too many words to be believable,” said Cranbury. “The post-facto groveling defies credibility.”
It also appeared to upset Patrick’s less vocal followers. Statistics on Topsy, a social-media analytics service, show that tweets using the #FridayReads hashtag spiked when news of Weiner’s charges spread, then dropped off by a third.
If Patrick’s goal was to make money off her community, in other words, she shot herself in the foot through her mishandling of the situation.
“When money changes hands, everything changes,” Cranbury said in an online chat. “It is the obligation of the person who is taking the money to alert the people who provide the leverage for her to take that money what she is doing. FridayReads broke the unspoken trust that provided its power. Enthusiasm for books—for someone to ‘monetize' that without disclosure is selfish in the extreme.”
Ruth Seeley, a book publicist and avid Twitter user, told the Daily Dot she felt “duped.”
Seely contrasted Patrick’s actions with those of Tim Spalding, the creator of LibraryThing, an online book-cataloguing service or Otis Chandler at GoodReads, both of whom have always been upfront about their commercial aims.
“I gather #FridayReads has been a business venture since March of 2011,” said Seeley. “I, however, didn't find out that was the case until what was it, November 27?”
Seeley drew the comparison between herself, sending books to the media to feature as giveaways, and Patrick's agent actively pitching publishers and authors with “packages,” all at a certain price. Writing off review copies sent to professional critics is a given in the business, but paying to promote your product to a community of enthusiasts used to be called payola.
Seeley also points out that Patrick is a member of the National Book Critics Circle, an authoritative organization which might not appreciate this new business model or the questionable level of disclosure over a period of months or years.
“Will they take a stance on this?” she asks. “I think they either should, or they should remove Bethanne from their critics' circle. Apparently the NBCC is averse [to taking a stance] on most issues. But really, I don't see how they can ignore this one or lose all credibility.“
Patrick’s response also rubbed some people who worked closely with her the wrong way.
“It's my view that Bethanne's ambitions in no way matched her understanding of the nature of it,” said Ian Lewis, a Web developer who helped popularize FridayReads, and who maintains the BestReadList, a compilation of the top 100 books mentioned by FridayReads participants. Until the controversy broke, he maintained that list on Patrick’s FridayReads website.
“I was not compensated for this although there was an 'understanding' with Bethanne that I would be,” Lewis explained in an email. “Had I been paid for the lists it would have been a £2-3k ($3,000-$5,000) for development and licensing would have been about £3-500 ($450-750) a month. Negotiations with Bethanne got nowhere really as their aim was to get control of the data I collected, though there's little indication they would have known what to do with it.”
Lewis and Patrick have now parted ways.
Erin Mitchell, another supporter, created and maintains the Facebook page for FridayReads, which now has more than 9,400 subscribers. The page, unlike the hashtag, has largely avoided the controversy because it didn’t participate in the publisher-paid promotional activities, Mitchell said.
“The controversy that surfaced on Twitter has not had much impact on the Facebook page, probably in no small measure because the two have remained separate, even through there is a small percentage of people who participate in both venues,” Mitchell told the Daily Dot in an email.
While it may be a stretch to draw conclusions from the two related communities, it’s telling that while FridayReads is going strong on Facebook, averaging a new contribution every five minutes. participation in the hashtag on Twitter has dropped since many users got surprised with the news that they were being shopped around.
“I know how hard it is to promote books,” said Seeley. “But this is not the way to do it.”