Why do publishers "embargo" books?

A cheat sheet for the news.
June 9 2003 4:48 PM

Stop That Book

Why do publishers "embargo" books like Hillary Clinton's new memoir?

This season has seen more than its usual share of embargoed books, from Hillary Clinton's memoir Living History, published on Monday, to Stephen Glass' novel The Fabulist,to Sidney Blumenthal's account of his years in the Clinton administration, The Clinton Wars. Most media junkies know that when a book is "embargoed," they can expect a Big Gossipy Event. But why embargo a book in the first place? As a publicist who's embargoed everything from magazine articles to political speeches, I'll try to explain why the embargo can be a useful strategy.

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An "embargo" originally meant a governmental ban on the movements of other nations' ships in and out of its ports, or a prohibition on trade with a foreign nation. In book publishing, an embargo means that the publishing company won't release advance copies of the book to the media—and that if members of the media do get a copy of the book before its publication date, they're not allowed to review it before that date.

From a publicity standpoint, a book embargo is useful for two reasons: first, to maximize (and control) media coverage by building advance buzz; and second, to leverage the most money for the publisher. In the first instance, the publicist wants to protect (and hype) the newsworthy content of a book and to ensure that reviews are published when books are available for purchase and not before. A successful embargo delivers a well-orchestrated press blitz in such a way that a huge amount of sales happen at the same time—which pushes the book further up the best-seller lists (and provides all the accompanying beneficial effects). In Blumenthal's case, a publicist might calculate that embargoing his book would help build public anticipation—and that juicy tidbits, slowly revealed, might generate more media coverage and therefore higher sales. (An embargo also protects material that a publicist wants to leak to only one news outlet.)

An embargo can also help a publisher guard a vulnerable author from negative pre-publication press. Embargoing Stephen Glass' novel—a fictional chronicle of the journalist's dismissal by the New Republic for fabricating stories—gave Simon & Schuster, his publisher, the opportunity to stave off an inevitable wave of personal attacks by old colleagues and disapproving columnists, and, in the meantime, negotiate some sympathetic interviews and articles.

If the embargo holds, the publisher can sell a sneak peak ("first serial," in publishing lingo) for a tidy sum—exactly as Hillary Clinton's publishers did with Time. (An excerpt of the memoir appears in Time's June 16 issue.)  A first serial is different than a leak, because magazines pay hefty prices for first serial (which are sold on non-embargoed books as well), and they don't want what they've purchased to appear elsewhere first. Thus, the Associated Press' leaking of material from the Clinton book jeopardized the first serial agreement between Simon & Schuster and Time, which could have cost the publishing house money. (This is part of the reason Simon & Schuster threatened to sue the AP, even though the leak generated useful free publicity.)

In fact, embargoes are ubiquitous in the media, but usually consumers don't hear about them. Magazine publicists often embargo articles so that a newsworthy article won't be old news by the time the magazine is available on newsstands. Medical journals frequently make use of the embargo, because it gives reporters ample time to sift through complicated material of potentially broad import. Embargoes on political speeches are also common—publicists often provide journalists with the text in advance, allowing journalists the opportunity to focus on the politician's delivery, the speech's reception, and so forth.

But whydo newspapers and magazines abide by a book embargo? For one thing, they have to, legally; in 1983 after The Nation published 300 words from Gerald Ford's then- forthcoming memoir, the publisher sued the magazine; the Supreme Court ruled that the magazine was guilty of copyright infringement. Of course, publishing is a game in which rules are meant to be bent; everyone involved knows that some leaks are good, some are bad. In extreme cases, reporters may choose to abide by the terms of an embargo in part because they need to maintain good relations with the publisher or source of the embargo. And as one magazine editor describes it, an embargo is often honored to the letter of the agreement but not the spirit—reporters sometimes pass information on to other reporters who plan to use the information for different purposes, for example. And of course, access to embargoed material can be a sure sign that you're in the game, in the know—true of both those who issue the embargo, and those who get the scoop.

Jen Bluestein has worked as a publicist for magazines, political candidates, nonprofit organizations, including The New Yorker, Harper's, and DATA (Debt, AIDS, Trade in Africa), a political advocacy organization.

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