Publicity Move du Jour: The Embargo, Served Cold

It seems counterintuitive, in a business driven by buzz, that one of the most cutting-edge weapons in a publisher’s arsenal depends on not letting people talk about-or even read-their books in advance. It’s called the embargo, and it’s looking like a pretty good strategy right now. It was used on two current best-sellers: Queen Noor’s Leap of Faith and Trisha Meili’s I Am the Central Park Jogger . It’s the reason no one has yet seen former Clinton staffer Sidney Blumenthal’s The Clinton Wars , which is embargoed until May 20 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux but currently ranks first for nonfiction on Amazon.com, thanks to pre-orders.

Embargoing means that you don’t release advance copies to reviewers or booksellers, and you don’t allow any pre-publication interviews. It means that if the publisher wants a piece of the book to be bought by a magazine for “first serial,” only carefully selected magazines can get a look-and even then, the magazine editors must sign a confidentiality agreement, under pain of career death, agreeing to run the excerpt on some specified date. It means that there can be no pre-publication reviews and that bookstores have to order “blind” and don’t get the title shipped very far in advance-and when they do receive them, they agree not to make them available to customers until that date, also known as the one-day laydown. (One-day laydowns exist with non-embargoed books as well-think John Grisham every February-but that’s another story.)

If you ask publishers, they’ll tell you that embargoes are intended to alert the public to the existence of the book, and then manage the ensuing publicity to make sure it doesn’t get “taken out of context.” In the case of Mr. Blumenthal’s book-which surely will include some not-so-nice portrayals of the anti-Clinton press-the embargo, according to Jeff Seroy, the senior vice president of publicity and marketing at F.S.G., “was meant to enable the book to be considered dispassionately, without making it available well before publication for drive-bys by the far right.”

In most cases, publishers will say that all they’re doing is protecting their authors, or managing the publicity, in an effort to give the book a big push out of the publishing gate. But more and more, embargoes are about creating hype for books that would have gone unnoticed. Who, for example, would have paid any attention to Margaret Salinger’s Dream Catcher (2000)-in which the daughter of the famously reclusive J.D. shockingly revealed that her father had weird eating habits and was just a tad elusive as a dad-if Washington Square Press hadn’t decided to embargo it? (At the 11th hour-after some key chapters were leaked, giving the book more press than it deserved-the publisher lifted the embargo. And guess what happened? There were just a few desultory reviews, and the book died.)

Publishers may say they shy away from embargoes-“I think they’re usually more trouble than they’re worth,” said Tina Constable, the executive director of publicity for Crown, which nonetheless had an impressive embargoing success a few years back with the controversial IBM and the Holocaust , which hit the best-seller lists. But apparently they’re all too tempting. The fact is that a carefully calibrated publicity campaign is just about the only way publishers can guarantee themselves some control. Publicists get to demand that journalists sign those confidentiality agreements, and by picking and choosing who to offer that option, they can pretty much predict the type of coverage they’ll get. Anyone who refuses to sign gets “punished”: Their articles and reviews will arrive late.

Embargoes, in other words, allow publishers to act like Alexander Haig in the Reagan White House, frantically running around announcing that they’re in charge and demanding obedience. Or maybe they’re more like withholding lovers-passive-aggressive, tantalizing and oh-so-attractive. The more embargoed the book is, the thinking goes, the more people will think they want it.

But as any withholding lover can tell you, there are risks to playing hard to get. For one thing, there can be timing problems. Mr. Blumenthal’s book, for example, will not have an excerpt in Time or Newsweek . Some say the magazines simply passed, but a more likely scenario is that, booked up with war coverage, the weeklies couldn’t promise a publication date that F.S.G. would accept. (The book, which lands in stores on May 20, will be excerpted on Salon.com on May 5.) And then there’s the backlash issue: “People start reviewing the embargo rather than the book,” said Ms. Constable. “An embargo can create hype, but it can also work against you by creating a suspicious media. The book has to really prove itself.”

So why run the risk? Maybe, as publishers will tell you, controlling the publicity increases awareness and sales. But it seems to me that, like all weapons of mass dissemination, embargoes should be used very, very sparingly. “To be embargoed, a book needs a ‘gotcha’ fact-the kind of revelation that can land you on page 1 of The New York Times or The Washington Post ,” said former Little, Brown publisher Sarah Crichton, who successfully embargoed George Stephanopoulos’ juicy Clinton tell-all, All Too Human . But, she added, the book also needs “legs” (as they say in Hollywood). Hell hath no fury like an expectant reader scorned-and a book that has only one interesting factoid worth controlling leads to bad word-of-mouth and a quick demise.

Then again, there are embargoed books that break all the rules. To wit, the most successful embargo in the history of publishing was levied on a book that wasn’t controversial, was fiction and already had plenty of word of mouth. That book was, of course, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire , which Scholastic decreed would not be seen by anyone until midnight on a certain date in July 2000. Once they were told that they couldn’t get a look at it earlier, both the press and the public went wild. There were reports of break-ins at the warehouses holding the books, and practically every parent in America logged on or lined up to get a copy the first day. There were even some leaks-of the title and the plot-which embargoing publishers dutifully decried, but which some will admit actually helped the book. Within weeks, millions of copies were sold.

Would Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire have been a best-seller in any case? Undoubtedly. But this way, at least, the journalists and the publicists got to have a little fun.

Sara Nelson is the author of the forthcoming So Many Books, So Little Time (Putnam).

Publicity Move du Jour: The Embargo, Served Cold