July 21, 2015

Two for Tuesday: This column is embargoed until today


This is a cartoon about The Embargo of 1807. I don't get it. And I don't care to get it. (via Wikimedia)

This is a cartoon about The Embargo of 1807. I don’t get it. And I don’t care to get it. (via Wikimedia)

Topics discussed: last week’s column, next week’s column, the week after next week’s column, infinite recursiveness, Harper Lee, Go Set a Watchman, Gawker, book reviews, embargoes, Marco Rubio, Donald Trump, Donald Trump, Foreign Rights Assistant, Michiko Kakutani, 60 Minutes, Nell Zink, Jonathan Franzen, n+1, Freedom, Purity, A Little Princess, Tina Andreadis, HarperCollins, The New York Times, New York Times Book Review, Chance the Rapper, Lil B

Alex: Hi Mark! Hi Two for Tuesdayers! Last week was wacky. (Sidenote: I think it should be spelled “whacky.”) Let’s never do that again.

Mark: Let’s never even speak of it. Indeed, let’s stop speaking of it. About it? Either way, never again. (And no, it should not be spelled “whacky.”)

But . . . speaking of last week . . .

Alex: I thought this column was going to be about last week’s column.

Mark: I know, we’d plotted the whole thing out! Next week’s column was going to be about this week’s column. And the following week’s column was going to be about next week’s column. We’d have ended up with an infinitely recursive column about publishing, which actually seems right, given that our topics are bound to become less and less substantive over time. Also, it would have been less work than actually writing a new column.

However, we’ll have to save the formal gimmicks for next week. Next week can be our Difficult Third Album. This week I’d like to discuss yet another thing that really bothered me about the whole Watchman circus, and it’s a thing we didn’t discuss. I know it’s hard to believe that we left any aspect of that theater of the absurd undiscussed, but we did.

Alex: The Gawker stuff?

Mark: No, not that.

Alex: The book’s trim size?

Mark: Not that either, though we should totally do a whole column about that next week. “Two for Tuesday: Does the Trim Size of Go Set a Watchman Reveal that Corporate Publishing is Corrupt?”

Hey, that’s a pretty good title for a column.

But anyway, no, not the trim size. It was the review embargo! Alex, I want to talk about embargoes. The first thing I want you to tell me is whether you find it weird that the word “embargo” refers to both a) a publishing term for keeping book reviews out of the public eye until the publication date (i.e. one of the most low-stakes things imaginable) and b) a usually devastating act of economic coercion, like the one we had in place against Cuba for many decades, which no one thinks was a good idea except Marco Rubio, who is a chill dude. Do you find this weird, or just right?

Alex: I find it right and totally appropriate—as appropriate as the embargo on those dang communists in Cuba, an embargo that would still be in effect, if not for a certain illegal alien usurper president (not my president!)! I also think it should be spelled “embargos,” but I think we have already determined that I am not a great speller. I also think that we should not send copies of Go Set A Watchman to Iran or Cuba, or at least that Donald Trump should be in charge of the book’s foreign rights. That would be fun! “Atticus is a loser.” – Donald Trump

Anyway, embargoes (ugh, again, I want to protest the spelling of this dumb word), are generally pretty silly! But I do get their utility, at least in theory. For all of the changes in the publishing world over the past decade plus, first week on sale is (with few exceptions) the absolute most important time in a book’s life cycle. You want a roll out to peak that week because, historically speaking, that week will either a) be the biggest week in the cycle or b) kickstart the book’s takeover of the world around it. Concentrating marketing and publicity around that makes sense, and books with dense rollouts (i.e. where publicity is concentrated around the on sale date) tend to do better. Embargoes are one way to make sure that happens for books with wide appeal (especially in media).

So, a Michiko Kakutani review a few days ahead of on sale that declares that “Atticus is a racist now,” actually boosted sales for Go Set A Watchman—I think because it made people even more curious about the book, rather than less curious. But if you move the coverage of Go Set A Watchman back a week, does the book still sell 1.1 million in its first week? I don’t know! My instinct is to say it would probably sell something very close to that, but I honestly have no idea. (Anyone who has an idea is full of it, imo, and by “it” I mean “shit.”) Which, I guess brings me to the biggest question of all which is, are embargoes actually totally pointless, as they tend to only cover books that loads of people are already interested in?

Mark: First, let me dwell on the most important point you brought up above, which is of course the idea of Donald Trump as a foreign rights assistant. I don’t find Donald Trump particularly important or worth discussing, but for his five- or six-hour-long stint as foreign rights assistant (before his swift termination for punching an intern, or peeing in the water cooler, or making fun of his boss’s suit), he’d be incredible. Can you imagine his conversations with foreign publishers?

Donald Trump: So, we’ve got this book–this new book, by Harper Lee. It’s not a book written by me, so it’s not a good book. I’ve written many fine books, and most of them are still in print, except for Trump: The Art of the Comeback, and that’s only because of that asshole, who understands nothing about publishing, unlike me, Donald Trump. You know the asshole I’m talking about–

Foreign Publisher: I’m sorry, did you say you’ve got a new book by Harper Lee? How is that possible? May we read it?

Donald Trump: Harper who? I’m talking about Trump: The Art of the Comeback, one of my finer books. A winner, a real gem. Millions of Americans read it and loved it. To read Trump: The Art of the Comeback is to understand what it’s like to be Donald Trump.

Foreign Publisher: Yes, I understand, but really we’d be most interested in this Harper Lee–

Donald Trump: You know what your problem is? You speak to me, Donald Trump, about foreign rights, which I know everything about and you know nothing about. I’m the author of Trump: The Art of the Comeback, and I’m an exceptionally capable foreign rights assistant, and you act as if I don’t know my job.

Foreign Publisher: No, it’s just that this book would be a major opportunity–

Donald Trump: Don’t tell me, Donald Trump, author of Trump: The Art of the Comeback, about opportunity. I refuse to speak to someone so poorly versed in their own business. If you don’t want to buy rights to Trump: The Art of the Comeback, I have nothing to say to you. [Hangs up phone.]

Alex, do you want to work with me on my spec script, Donald Trump, Foreign Rights Assistant? I think we’d have a hit on our hands.

As for embargoes, I think that they verge on pointless, yes. Or rather, I think that’s true in cases like Go Set a Watchman, where the book would have been guaranteed a massive amount of attention regardless of its contents.

Then again, there are books that absolutely depend on embargoes. I’m thinking of, say, memoirs by politicians or ex-administration officials. Those books tend to generate much of their publicity on the back of a few juicy anecdotes/revelations/straight-up lies, and if those things leak too early–say, before a well-timed 60 Minutes segment–the book risks seeming irrelevant to readers. (Of course, said book probably is irrelevant, but everyone wants to keep up appearances.)

What I find most curious about the embargo, though, is that it’s a somewhat atavistic concept. Embargoes exist in TV and in film, of course (though my sense is their enforceability is being eroded there, as well), so it’s not as if this throwback is particular to publishing. But if any aspect of book publishing seems incompatible with the Twitter age, it’s the embargo. Last week’s Nell Zink/Jonathan Franzen/n+1 incident seems like a perfect example of this incompatibility. Alex, do you remember the Nell Zink/Jonathan Franzen n+1 incident? In said incident, Nell Zink (who is friends with Franzen and who became a published novelist thanks in part to Franzen) wrote a very biased, very entertaining review of Franzen’s forthcoming novel Purity. The review was pulled soon after because it violated FSG’s embargo.

Alex: I do remember that incident! I thought it was really funny! Both actually funny and “funny funny.” (Also, I will work on anything involving Donald Trump right now because I can’t avert my eyes from Donald Trump right now. Help me.)

Aside from all of the ethical stuff, it wasn’t really a “review” in any traditional sense—if anything it felt like a long, very good blurb and it made me want to read the book. Comparing Purity to A Little Princess is funny! (Btw, the movie of A Little Princess is very good. I liked it a lot as a kid and imagine I would still like it now.)

Anyway, that seemed like an instance where the total absurdity of the embargo was on full display. The review itself wasn’t really a review and it didn’t give anything away about the book—instead, I imagine its biggest crime was that it would show that there were no consequences to breaking embargo and, therefore, would reveal the whole edifice to be a sham. (By the way, I think embargo is a sham!)

Last week, Newsweek’s Zach Schonfeld wrote a very good piece about The New York Times breaking embargo on Go Set A Watchman. Tina Andreadis, HarperCollins’s director of publicity, had this to say, “Am I angry at The New York Times? I’m not angry, but I’m not happy. I think it does a disservice to consumers who are out there wanting to buy the book. They read a review and they want to buy the book.”

That’s a little bit different than what I said before—the argument here is that early reviews are a disservice to consumers, not publishers.

That may very well be true. Andreadis has been proven right, at least to an extent. The early reviews released on Friday (and beyond) led to a jump in sales for Go Set A Watchman. People read the reviews and they preordered the book. Was it a disservice that they had to wait three days to actually read it? Probably, but only because we live in a day and age where everybody wants everything right away! I want everything right away! Chance the Rapper and Lil B just announced they are recording an album together and I want to hear it RIGHT NOW.

But Andreadis’s argument raised another interesting question: is embargo really about consumers? Or is it about sales? Maybe I’m going too deep, but I suspect that sales have something to do with it! I.e. embargoes tend to be placed on books where high interest is presumed. There’s an assumed saturation to these books—reviews can only hurt them by revealing things, whether they be tawdry revelations in a political memoir or unexpected elements (like, say, the fact that a beloved character is a big ol’ racist). Now, I’m not sold that (ha/ugh) sales really end up being affected one way or the other by these strict embargoes—especially in this instantaneous internet age of ours—but I do think that they’re probably about protecting the interests of the publisher (and author), not the consumer. Am I insane?

Mark: I think that’s right. (The part about protecting the interests of the publisher–not the part about you being insane. Actually, wait, what am I talking about? That’s also right.) The embargo is ultimately a way for the publisher and author to control, as tightly as possible, the rollout of a book. You don’t know what reviewers and friends and enemies are going to write, but by keeping the response pinned to a specific date, you can get the book into people’s hands with minimal friction.

But here’s an interesting example. I was working at FSG when Franzen’s Freedom was published, and I remember everyone losing their shit when Kakutani’s review ran over two weeks before the book’s publication date. Two weeks! Not to be outdone, the New York Times Book Review published their review online four days later. Both of these, I believe, were in response to Time’s famous/infamous cover story, which was published online on August 12–almost three weeks before the book’s publication date. As I recall, the issue of the magazine with Franzen on the cover was actually off newsstands by the time the book was in stores.

Things worked out fine in the end, but this is a case where the publisher’s interests seem somewhat in sync with the consumer’s, no? The consumer spent weeks reading about something that she couldn’t actually go out and buy, or download, or yell about on Twitter.

But this is all very concrete, and who would I be if I didn’t ask you a wholly abstract, unanswerable question? That question is: is an embargo still an embargo if it gets broken by Michiko Kakutani basically every single time? You and I knew that she would break the embargo on Watchman, because it was utterly predictable. And we know that she’ll break the embargo on Purity. In his Newsweek article, Schonfeld says that the Times doesn’t honor an embargo if a book is acquired independently, and that’s fair enough, I guess. But are we all fooling ourselves? Why does everyone continue to adhere to a policy that’s consistently violated over and over again? Is it because we love being normative?

Alex: I have no fucking clue. Maybe because it’s the kind of thing that no one is actually going to do anything to stop, so we’re stuck in a never-ending cycle? Or maybe it’s because stories about “breaking embargo” get wrapped up into the marketing machine for hits, generating even more meta-publicity. Market the marketing! Embargo the marketing of the marketing and then market the embargo of the marketing of the marketing! I don’t think that actually means anything, but if you’re reading this you’ve read over 2,000 words of nonsense, so that’s your problem.

Mark: Indeed. Dear reader, it is always your problem.

Alex, can we reward our poor reader’s (I place that apostrophe there advisedly) tolerance for our nonsense with some sweet tunes?

Alex: You know we can. I haven’t picked the tunes in a while! So let’s go with something extra sweet. Here are two golden oldies from Tim Buckley.