Although Richard Ford fans weren't able to buy the final entry in his Frank Bascombe trilogy, The Lay of the Land, until it went on sale October 24, reviews in prominent publications had readers going to bookstores before then looking for a copy. Newsweek and Time ran reviews of Land in their October 23 issues—both of which were on newsstands October 16; the Los Angeles Times ran its take on the book October 22; the Rocky Mountain News October 20; and Slate reviewed The Lay of the Land in its Book Blitz column on October 10. Increasingly, say independent booksellers, pre-pub reviews in consumer publications are creating frustration and lost sales. Independents say they can be forced to turn away customers because they either don't have the book in stock yet or are afraid to break the on-sale date and risk angering publishers.

"For indies, early reviews... don't create anticipation, they create frustration," said Geoffrey Jennings from Rainy Day Books in Fairway, Kans. Hut Landon, executive director of the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association, added that, at worst, the situation can damage a bookseller's reputation. "Customers don't understand laydown dates; they just think a store that doesn't have [a book] on the shelf is lame." Carole Horne, of Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, Mass., echoed Landon: "We're left looking silly or incompetent when the customer reads the review and we have to tell them we can't sell the book."

The early reviews exacerbate a broader problem with universal laydown dates. Even though the street date was invented to offset the vagaries of the distribution system, most independents say it doesn't work. They claim that some retailers (predominantly national chains and big-box stores) don't always abide by the rules. And although the system supposedly allows for the prosecution of offenders—to "prove" a retailer broke a street date or embargo, publishers ask that copies of books purchased early be shipped to them with a receipt—the independents claim little or no action is ever taken against violators. "Enforceable street dates are meaningless to a consumer," said Diana Abbot of the Bookworm Bookstore in Omaha. "But they can strike fear into the heart of an independent bookseller.... I did spot a violation with the newest John Grisham at a large supermarket, but what can be done about it? By then, the damage is done—we have lost sales, and that revenue is lost."

Representatives of Barnes & Noble and Borders denied that their stores ever break embargoes or street dates. Bob Wietrak at B&N said he signs affidavits from publishers stipulating the company will honor these dates, and Ann Binkley from Borders said her chain "takes embargoed titles and street dates extremely seriously." Nonetheless, nearly every independent had a tale to tell about being undercut by a supermarket, mass merchandiser or book chain. (Adam Rothberg, head of corporate communications at Simon & Schuster—which had a recent embargo broken when a retailer sold a copy of Bob Woodward's State of Denial to a New York Times reporter—scoffed at the implication that embargoes and street dates are frequently broken or that offenders aren't dealt with.)

Another issue for some independents is confusion over which books have strict on-sale dates. Lori Kauffman, a buyer at the Brookline Booksmith, said she reported a competitor selling Zadie Smith's last book, On Beauty, before the street date only to find out the book didn't have a street date. And Lisa Pekuri, the bookstore manager at Piragis Northwoods Company in Ely, Minn., said "the various 'selling' dates" have hung her up. "I've had several customers who keep track of their favorite authors tell me when a book is available," she said. "Apparently the information on a fan Web site is more specific than the information on Ingram's Web site."

As street dates and embargoes for books proliferate, some think early reviews will as well. Paul Bogaards, senior v-p and executive director of publicity at Knopf (which published TheLay of the Land), said publishers have long had to accept early reviews. "Newspapers and magazines work independently of us and their job is to report the news, and sometimes news requires that they break pub dates." And with publishers scrambling to get press from media that are covering books less and less, Bogaards said the real concern is getting coverage, not worrying about when it will run. "We have to understand why this is happening," he added. "Periodicals are more competitive with each other and it's not about who writes the best story but who's out with the first story.... This isn't going to change and, if anything, it might get worse."