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Book Notes

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Embargoed

It was supposed to be the crowning moment of last month's National Book Festival. More than 1,000 people had gathered under a tent on the Mall to hear Bob Woodward speak. But moments before the bestselling author, an assistant managing editor of this newspaper, came to the microphone, the crowd booed.

They had just been told that Woodward wouldn't talk to them about State of Denial , his provocative new book about the Bush administration's conduct of the war in Iraq. Though information from the book had leaked two days earlier in the New York Times, and though Woodward himself had signed copies of the book at the festival earlier that afternoon, he still couldn't discuss its contents. C-SPAN was broadcasting his appearance, but Woodward had already promised "60 Minutes" that it would air the first book-related interview the next night.

"Even though the book was being sold in stores, even though the whole embargo was broken, he was legally bound not to speak about his own book," says Book World's editor, Marie Arana, who had the unenviable task of breaking the news to the crowd. "It was the apex of the ridiculous extreme that an embargo can go to."

That apex keeps getting higher. Only a week earlier at the White House, the president of Pakistan, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, told reporters he couldn't answer questions about his charge that former deputy secretary of state Richard L. Armitage had threatened to bomb Pakistan "back to the Stone Age" if it backed Al-Qaeda's Taliban hosts in the wake of 9/11. The incident, Musharraf said, was recounted in his new book, In the Line of Fire, which was embargoed; he was "honor-bound" not to speak about its contents until the publication date. Incidentally, he'd also promised "60 Minutes" an exclusive interview.

Though book embargoes have been around for a while -- some believe they began with Woodward and Carl Bernstein's 1976 book The Final Days -- they've never been as common as they are now. "It used to be the idea was that you wanted to protect the writer from leaks and get the book out there on a given day," says Sara Nelson, the editor-in-chief of Publishers Weekly. "Now it really has to do with what TV show has made you promise not to use the material" -- or what periodical has paid thousands of dollars for the right to print the first excerpt.

When Paul Burrell sold pieces of The Way We Were, his second memoir about his job as Princess Diana's butler, to the Mail on Sunday in England, the Mail stipulated that neither the book's title, nor its author, nor even its subject could be announced before the first excerpt ran last September. That meant that Burrell's American publisher, William Morrow, spent all of August asking booksellers to blindly order a title it would describe only as a "world-wide publishing event" and "the must-read-tell-all book for Fall."

But embargoes have also grown popular because they're great marketing tools. Embargoes help publishers synchronize news outlets all over the country and sometimes all over the world. They help books open big, the way Hollywood movies open with single nationwide screening dates. "You don't want a book dribbling out at a slow rate of sale," says W.W. Norton president Drake McFeely. "You want to get the highest velocity you can for the book over a few days around the publication date." High velocities land books on bestseller lists and breed follow-up reports that keep people talking.

Embargoes can make books sound a lot more important than they are. Time magazine's book critic, Lev Grossman, calls those books faux embargoes. "The prime example there," he says, "is the Seth Mnookin book [about the Boston Red Sox]. It had absolutely nothing in the way of bombshells. But they put an embargo on it, and I had to sign something and meet with the P.R. director in person, you know, like on a street corner in disguise." (Simon & Schuster said it had embargoed the book to keep sports reporters from leaking its news.)

Many journalists complain that publishers also use embargoes to manipulate the press in more devious ways. Almost every critic interviewed for this article had a story about either getting around an embargo with a publicist's consent or being barred by a publisher's non-disclosure agreement from sharing a book with their publication's newsroom. Few people want to admit publicly to such maneuvers, but orchestrated leaks are more than just paranoid fantasy.

In 2005, for example, PublicAffairs used an embargo to give the New York Times a big head start on former Guantanamo chaplain James Yee's For God and Country, which charged that the prison's commanding officer knowingly fostered the abuse of detainees. After getting many book review sections, including Book World, to sign a non-disclosure agreement in return for pre-publication access to the book, PublicAffairs passed it to reporters at the New York Times. The Post had no inkling that the publisher had purposefully tied its hands until a story based on Yee's book popped up in the Times. When Arana and Warren Bass, a nonfiction editor at Book World, demanded an explanation, "We got an email back saying, 'The story had to break somewhere and we chose the New York Times,' " Bass recalls. PublicAffairs subsequently apologized profusely to The Post for the episode.

Already several editors have made it a policy never to sign such agreements, even if it means missing out on advance copies of important books. Sam Tanenhaus, who edits the Sunday book review at the New York Times, is among those who won't be herded by embargo schedules -- and he refuses to hide embargoed books from the daily news sections. "Just give us the book when you're ready for [the newspaper] to have it," he tells publishers. That policy means he usually doesn't see embargoed books until they're out in stores.

The Times's daily newspaper, however, is notorious for writing about embargoed books early. (The Sunday and daily sections don't coordinate their contents.) Indeed, for many reporters, blowing the lid off of embargoes has become a beat in itself. Barbara Meade of Washington's Politics and Prose bookstore says that she gets loads of calls from journalists begging her to sell them books on the sly. MaryAnn Brownlow of the "L" Street Borders is similarly pestered. "Couldn't I just come in the back and speed-read a book?" she says reporters ask her. Both Meade and Brownlow always say no.

"The irony is that it's journalists who are encouraging the embargos," says literary agent Chris Calhoun, who represents Pakistan's Musharraf. According to Woodward, that's nothing new. "If The Post has a scoop, they put it out in the newspaper," he says. "That's embargoed, effectively. Maybe it's ready on a Monday, and they wait to run it on a Thursday."

He had State of Denial embargoed, he says, to ensure that the book's contents were presented "coherently." It took him two-and-half years to gather all the information in the book. He was conducting interviews for it as late as July 2006. The manuscript was completed only last month. And once his publisher, Simon & Schuster, had made an agreement with "60 Minutes," he wasn't about to break it, no matter what anybody else leaked.

"Wait a minute; wait a minute," Arana told the booing crowd. "This is a guy who's kept secrets for 35 years. You could at least let him keep one for 24 more hours." The crowd grew quiet. Nobody walked out. They must have had the sense that this time the embargo was for real.

-- Marcela Valdes valdes.marcela@gmail.com

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