The Book Publicity Blog

News, Tips, Trends and Miscellany for Book Publicists

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?


September 9, 2009 - Posted by | Miscellaneous |


  1. Hachette should have let the book out…once the other horses had left the barn…

    Comment by Jason Rice | September 9, 2009 | Reply

  2. When “The Da Vinci Code” first came out I was offered the chance to do a radio interview with Dan Brown. I passed. Oh well. Who knew?

    In the case of a book like “True Compass” by Ted Kennedy. I watched the hourly top ten books over at Amazon after Ted passed away. The book got up to about #8 on the Amazon list then it stalled with an arrow pointing down.

    The day the New York Times piece ran the book shot up to #2. The only book above it was the much hyped new Dan Brown. It stayed high on the list for a week.

    While I can understand the frustration publicists go through when books are prematurely covered, isn’t it to the book’s advantage in some cases, like the Kennedy memoir, to have a major piece of coverage in The Times before the pub date? I think the Kennedy book really took off because of it. Timing is key. I can’t imagine that the Kennedy book would be doing as well if the Times had simply held off…

    Yen? Thoughts?

    Comment by vick mickunas | September 9, 2009 | Reply

    • Embargoes can definitely be advantageous to publishing houses — that’s why we use them! (And they can be advantageous to the media too, at least for those people who get the interviews.) What’s tricky — and this is why some houses are shying away from embargoes — is enforcing them. Realistically, it simply isn’t possible to police the hundreds of thousands of books (millions, in some cases) sent to bookstores. And if (when) a reporter gets their hands on one of those books and writes a story, then the embargo is broken and the carefully arranged plans between publishing house and media outlets are, well, not quite so arranged.

      Although my post discussed why book publicists don’t care for embargoes (being a book publicist myself), the truth is that embargoes require a herculean effort on the part of not just the publicity department, but also from marketing, subsidiary rights, operations and sales (and to an extent from editorial and other departments as well).

      Are embargoes worthwhile? It all depends. Sometimes publishing houses weigh the odds and decide to move forward with them; other times they decide the payoff simply isn’t worth the effort.

      Comment by Yen | September 9, 2009 | Reply

  3. The control of information is over, and has been for some time now. Even Apple, with its stringent corporate secrecy, can’t keep many secrets in advance of their product announcements these days. Once any sort of valuable info comes out of a person’s head and is recorded in some form, it’s only a matter of time until it leaks out onto the web, without regard for anyone’s timetable or carefully crafted strategy. Sorry, but that’s just the way it is, and any PR/publicity strategy needs to take that reality into account with leak-contingency plans covering a variety of scenarios.

    Comment by vickivanv | September 9, 2009 | Reply

  4. Hi,

    Please contact me if you can get some national media for my book, the 12-Step Buddhist. It was released March 10th by Atria and is in its 4th printing. I’ve done nationwide workshops which continue, some radio, magazine and podcast, one local TV show. I need a syndicated interview, ie on Loveline, Deepak Chopra, Ellen, the View, etc.



    Comment by Darren Littlejohn | September 9, 2009 | Reply

  5. […] publicity does not apply to book embargoes. Seriously, Hachette? Yen Cheong, publicist for Viking tries to make the case for embargoes, but I’m skeptical. Via Galley […]

    Pingback by Wednesday Midday Links: Quartet Press Closes | Dear Author: Romance Novel Reviews, Industry News, and Commentary | September 9, 2009 | Reply


    California – Central Coast writer to be nationally aired on WNB West on September 21st, 2009. Writer and Photographer John Crippen will be interviewed on ‘The Author’s Show’
    hosted by Internet Talkshow Host Don McCauley . Crippen, the writer of “The Sweet Smell of ASH in the Morning” will talk live about his book, a humorous dedication to Atascadero State Hospital and also talk about the difficult struggles of the healthcare system. This book also takes a lighter look at what it’s like to be a Psychiatric Technician in the largest freestanding forensic mental Institution in the world.

    As a 13 year veteran Psychiatric Technician, and former Atascadero State Hospital Employee, Crippen has a lot of funny stories to tell about the hospital. The talk show will run on the 21st, and be placed in a loop for the entire day. To hear the internet talkshow, visit the link below. The book is currently available on as well.

    Comment by John Crippen | September 9, 2009 | Reply

  7. […] Embargoed books, or why book publicists have white hairs […]

    Pingback by Links and things « Enter the Octopus | September 10, 2009 | Reply

  8. I know I am late in posting here–but these are also a pain in the buttkus for booksellers as well. EVERY big release has embargo violators. As a former indie bookseller, we would conscientiously protect the embargo–notice and report the violators (consistently the same store violated). There was no real consequences, ever. The violators made more money selling these ‘contraband’ items and we would usually get a last minute call from our sales rep saying–go ahead and sell it early.

    Comment by Jean | September 10, 2009 | Reply

    • But we did understand that embargos theoretically level the playing field. I just wanted to point out that this isn’t just a media issue. And when people come into the stores to buy a book in today’s paper and you can’t sell it yet (or it hasn’t arrived yet) they would often simply go back to their computer and order it online.

      If it is an embargo with teeth—loss of coop? late shipment of next embargoed book?–and media doesn’t talk about the book as if it is currently available–they CAN work. Best to save them for the truly big, big books.

      Comment by Jean | September 10, 2009 | Reply

    • Thanks for chiming in with the bookseller perspective.

      Comment by Yen | September 10, 2009 | Reply

  9. […] embargoed titles are a funny thing, a practice that the movie industry also uses in an effort to prevent poor reviews on craptastic movies with the hopes of not diminishing opening week-end box office sales.  publishing tends to use embargoes on nonfiction titles to prevent spoilers which would then negatively affect sales.  but fiction titles aren’t immune to embargoes, see Dan Brown’s forthcoming “The Lost Symbol.”  of course, this is a very simplified version of the ins and outs of an embargo.  but the end result – a lot of hype that might or might not be deserved. […]

    Pingback by embargo shmargo « Collection Developments @ Sno-Isle | September 10, 2009 | Reply

  10. […] Embargoed books, or why book publicists have white hairs « The Book Publicity Blog Explaining what exactly an embargo on a book means, and why you should be horrified the NY Times ignored it. […]

    Pingback by APFOL: Sept 6-12 « Birdbrain(ed) Book Blog | September 12, 2009 | Reply

  11. […] Embargoed books, or why book publicists have white hairs […]

    Pingback by Adventures With Words | Interesting Finds – September 16, 2009 | September 16, 2009 | Reply

  12. Hi Yen,

    Sorry to go off-topic but I was hoping you could answer a quick question. Is it worth sending Advance Information Sheets to individual stores (i.e. to store managers) or should they be restricted to senior buyers, etc?

    Example: Is sending an AI sheet to Borders’ Senior Fiction Buyer sufficient or should one also be sent to all the individual stores as well?



    Comment by Suzanne | September 19, 2009 | Reply

  13. I am looking at Library Journal for Sept. 1, 2009. In the Random House ad there is a title “The Last Nazi” and it says “Author Embargoed”. Does anybody know why they would do this?


    Comment by Lance Larsen | September 26, 2009 | Reply

  14. […] Embargoes explained. […]

    Pingback by Linklog: What Wyndham’s worth, Kurt Vonnegut with trash TV, and more | March 5, 2011 | Reply

  15. […] memoir by obtaining an unauthorized early copy. Yen at the Book Publicity Blog reflects on the history of embargoes and their importance. And it turns out that Hachette was so miffed about the embargo-breaking that they hired a private […]

    Pingback by This Week in Publishing 9/11/09 | August 9, 2017 | Reply

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