Here's an idea: You write a book—nonfiction, let's say—about a controversial or explosive subject, probably involving a personality or entity much in the news. Said book is full of juicy anecdotes, untold secrets and, maybe, educated conjecture. Your publisher loves it. You're excited: next spring or summer or fall, that book is going to go out to reviewers, and the whole sometimes Rube Goldberg—esque contraption that is the publicity machine will begin.
Except that these days, if the publisher really thinks your book is important, he's going to do just the opposite of "getting it out there." In consultation with his editors, his publicity directors and his sub-rights people, he may decide to "embargo" the book, making it available pre-pub to only a very, very select few—probably magazine editors who might want to pay serious money to excerpt it, maybe a hand-picked reviewer or two—who no doubt must sign a form promising not to leak information about the book before pub date.
If you ask a publisher, on the record, why he's doing this, he'll tell you he's protecting the book's "news value" and/or that he's trying to keep the personalities in the book from demanding changes or threatening a pre-pub lawsuit. He may also admit that he's protecting the excerpting magazine.
Last week, it was revealed that Simon & Schuster's Disney War: The Battle for the Magic Kingdom—Pulitzer Prize—winning writer James B. Stewart's heavily embargoed exposé of what the New York Post calls "The Mouse House"—had fallen into the hands of the very Disney executives it discusses. This was bad because the executives disagreed with some of the information in the book and suggested they might sue. S&S execs shot back. "It's ours, and we want—and need—to control the timing of its release," S&S publisher, David Rosenthal, told the L.A. Times.
The Disney War war is unlike other recent examples of embargoes gone awry in that the embargo breaker here was not a news organization that published verboten material. (In 2003, S&S got into a copyright spat with the AP over leaked excerpts from Hillary Clinton's memoir Living History. The settlement included AP instituting a copyright tutorial for its staffers.)
But the end result is the same: this book that nobody is supposed to know about is all anybody is talking about.
So, tell me again: This is bad for a publisher because...?
Call me cynical, but I'm starting to think that embargoes are often nothing more than publicity gambits and that, like many rules, they're begging to be broken. Often, despite the sincere efforts of some embargoing publishers (like S&S, in this case), leaks are not only tolerated but often expected and sometimes even welcomed.
The point, after all, is to sell books, right? Publishers, like manipulative lovers, know that nothing is more tantalizing, more desirable, than the thing you can't get. Which is precisely why embargoes are sometimes slapped on books that don't have news value (or have very little of it); suddenly, a publisher hopes, everybody will want to have a look.
Except, of course, that sometimes embargoes backfire. "There better be a lot of news in the book, or else the critics will get mad," says one veteran publicist. Reviewers can be a cranky lot who live in a permanent state of "Oh, yeah?" "An embargo tells me the publisher thinks the book is verrrrrry important," one says. "I'm like: Well, I'll be the judge of that." And what about the poor bookseller, usually off the coastal beaten track, who abides by all the rules and signs all the papers—and still receives shipment just late enough for media-saturated customers to give up and go elsewhere?
And don't get me started on the relatively recent practice of embargoing fiction. Is there really a need to closely monitor the release of a book like John Grisham's latest, The Broker, which, like many "big books," was withheld from reviewers until its one-day laydown. It had the news value of a menu. Couldn't the man/womanpower that goes into demanding reviewers and booksellers toe some arbitrary line be better used to, say, get out more news and more copies of "smaller" mid-list books?
Isn't it just time we stop this foolishness and drop the skulduggery and the secrecy?
Books are supposed to be about spreading ideas, not strangling or controlling them.