Embargoed books, or why book publicists have white hairs
About a week ago, The New York Times ran a piece about Edward Kennedy’s memoir True Compass (followed a day later by book review doyenne Michiko Kakutani’s assessment of the tome). As a reader, you probably looked through the stories and went on your merry way. As a book publicist, you gasped as you read that the book is not yet in stores and won’t be until September 14 and said a quiet thank you that you weren’t the one working on the book (unless you are working on the book in which case you probably slammed shut your door and emitted a primal scream).
Sometimes, when publishers determine that a book contains earth shattering information, they will “embargo” it, i.e., not send out any galleys or advance copies to the media or anyone else save for a handful of select journalists who must sign non-disclosure agreements (that say they won’t run a story before a specified date) and promise to hand over their first-born children. (Actually, I think just the NDA might suffice, but don’t quote me on that.) Embargoes typically apply to nonfiction titles — novels not generally being known for their revelatory content — but with some hotly anticipated fiction books (for example, Dan Brown’s latest, The Lost Symbol, due September 15) publishing houses do attempt to keep the books under lock and key. (Of course, it’s difficult to keep hundreds of thousands — if not millions — of books under lock and key when they need to be shipped to thousands of bookstores across the country in advance of a book’s publication date.)
The Washington Post reports that the book embargo may have begun with Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s 1976 book The Final Days. Several years ago, Slate ran a piece about why books are embargoed. In a world in which media outlets are all fighting to survive (and publishing houses are jockeying for shrinking book coverage), it’s not unexpected that access to a hot commodity would be limited. Enter the embargoed book.
For book publicists working on embargoed titles, planning publicity campaigns and scheduling interviews becomes an intricate dance in which one false — if unintended — step can torpedo the relationships we work for years to build. Usually, our job is to book as many interviews / features / reviews as possible. (All publicity is good publicity, right? Well, give or take.) But with embargoed books, since we can only schedule a handful of interviews, we can’t accommodate most of the requests we receive. Possible outcomes include any / all of the following: yelling, crying, prayer, prescription medication. You think I’m joking. And this is before someone, somewhere, buys an early copy of the latest Harry Potter which, somehow, makes its way into the hands of a reporter, who writes a front-page story that jeopardizes the deals with the publications and shows that were promised first looks at the book.
Given the nearly impossible logistics of maintaining an embargo — particularly in an age when the Internet has given new meaning to the term “spreading like wildfire” — many publishers have abandoned the practice. At the same time, embargoes undoubtedly have their benefits for the show or publication that can bring a hot-off-the-presses story to their audience before anyone else (and for the publishing house that can build on the buzz an embargo tends to generate). Rock and a hard place.
So what to do? For those working with books that are embargoed, to journalists I ask for patience and understanding, to authors I counsel communicating closely with the publishing house and doing what they ask, to publicists I suggest L’Oreal and Prozac. Any one have any better ideas?