Book embargoes create buzz, leaks

Neely Tucker / The Washington Post /

The embargo on the J.K. Rowling novel “The Casual Vacancy,” reportedly one of the most draconian nondisclosure agreements in the history of publishing ... did not quite work.

Thursday was the release date for the first book for adults written by the empress of Hogwarts. Reviews were embargoed until 1 a.m. and book sales until 3 a.m. Since Rowling’s Harry Potter books have sold more than 450 million copies worldwide, the release of her new book — even though it is set in an unmagical British town called Pagford — is one of 2012’s largest publishing events.

Thus, it is a test case for the common, if unloved, practice of forbidding booksellers from selling the book in advance of the embargo date, and forbidding media outlets from reviewing said tome before the date the publishing company decrees.

The practice generally has several intents: to make sure books are in stores when readers hear about them; to retain the news revelations in nonfiction books; and to try to bottle up interest in big fiction titles, propelling them onto best-seller lists with an unusually high number of immediate sales.

“For franchise authors, you want to drive it to No. 1 by having everyone buy it the first week of release,” said Elyse Cheney, a literary agent in New York.

Rowling, who is nothing but a franchise author (she is the first in the world to earn more than $1 billion in book sales), added spice to this release with an unusually strict legal document that its publisher, Little, Brown, reportedly imposed on prospective reviewers.

The Independent in London reported a clause that not only required signees to hold off on sales and reviews but also forbade them to even mention a contract.

But — and this almost always happens — somebody got the book anyway.

The Associated Press and the New York Daily News (and perhaps others) said they managed to get early copies of the book, and they published reviews Wednesday. AP reported it did not sign the contract but “purchased” the book; the Daily News said the novel was “obtained.” Because they alone had reviews, those two organizations set the tone for readers’ perception of the book.

Other news organizations observed the embargo, running reviews Thursday.

Just about nobody was happy.

“I couldn’t even get an embargoed copy to review,” said Dan Kois, editor of the book section for the online magazine Slate, which is part of The Washington Post Co. “They wouldn’t send it to us. They had very clear levels to this campaign.”

“I had to sign affidavits, more than I have to do for a (Bob) Woodward book,” said Mark LaFramboise, senior book buyer at Politics & Prose, a landmark Washington bookseller. As of late Wednesday, he said, the store had yet to receive the copies that were to go on sale Thursday morning. “It’s hard to break an embargo when you don’t have the book in your store.”