Embargo vs. Event, or, Why The New York Times HP Review Didn’t Matter

July 23rd, 2007 · 8 Comments
by Kassia Krozser

While a goodly number of world spent the weekend reading the final installment in the Harry Potter series (do you want to be caught uninformed the next you venture out in public?), others spent the weekend debating…embargoes. Not the political kind, the literary kind.

Unlike traditional book embargoes, the release of the final Harry Potter was an extraordinary event.

Generally, literary embargoes are not especially polarizing issues. They are designed to create a false sense of importance around a book — by pretending that the contents are so completely mind-blowing that the consumer must purchase the book in order to discover the truth inside, publishers and marketers hope to, in all reality, recoup their investment before the world realizes they’ve been taken.

Embargoes of politically themed novels have been all the rage for the past several years, despite the general lack of earth-shattering revelations. I think few would argue that the consumer had been served particularly well; in fact, as one of my ever-helpful cost saving tips for the publishing industry, I would suggest that, while everyone and his or her mother feels the need to write memoirs, not every memoir requires a generous advance and room on the bookshelf.

Put another way, a lot of people serve at the President’s pleasure; we don’t require books from every single one of them.

This time around, of course, the debate over embargoes grew very specific. The New York Times started the firestorm by publishing a review by Michiko Kakutani on Thursday, July 19. While the review does not truly contain spoilers — though, despite her care, Kakutani does allude to certain developments — there has been hue and cry about breaking of the embargo. And, in all fairness, the review acknowledges that it has broken faith with the community.

I will not speculate about the Times’s reasons for publishing this review on Thursday — if it was to influence buyers on the fence, I’m not sure such a general review would do the trick (nor am I sure that a NYT review at all would do the trick). If it was to reassure fans of the series, again, I am not sure this review would help (any true fan would want to see with his or her own eyes). If it was to lure non-believers into the series, well, see above. Starting with Book 7 is not the way to lure new fans.

So while the New York Times can argue that it was first (or really close to first), can it argue that its review, rushed and purposely vague, was worth the column inches? Had the paper chosen to wait, Kakutani could have written a review that did all 750-plus pages justice. The end result reads more like a literate book report than an insightful book review.

Bragging rights, such as they are, seemed to be goal with the NYT review. In the process, the early publication of the review — despite the fact that it was clear desire of the author, publisher, and, in most cases, community that everyone started at the same place, various time zones notwithstanding — has ignited debate over whether or not the early review mattered. The lines fall on the “if you don’t want to know, don’t read it” versus “it breaks faith” sides.

For some of us, wanting to experience the journey uninfluenced by the thoughts of others lead to a media blackout until Sunday noon (!@#$ book didn’t arrive until after 5 p.m. on Saturday!). No newspapers, no email, no blogs, no television, no grocery store tabloids. Okay, the tabloids were okay. They’re still a week behind.

Unlike traditional book embargoes, the release of the final Harry Potter was an extraordinary event. Readers held a global party, everyone celebrating in their own way. And how cool is that all those celebrations revolved, ultimately, around sitting in a favorite spot and reading?

[tags]harry potter, harry potter and the deathly hallows, new york times, michiko kakutani, book reviews, publishing, reading[/tags]

File Under: Square Pegs

8 responses so far ↓

  • Mitzi // Jul 23, 2007 at 11:04 am

    And that was the BEST thing – all of us (millions of us) reading and being taken into that magical world at the same time.

    That’s what it was all about!

    Mitzi

  • booklover // Jul 23, 2007 at 12:32 pm

    As this is the last book, there was no reason for any media outlet to accept the conditions set down by Scholastic, Rowling, etc., since there are no real consequences to behold. Can you imagine a judge fining the New York Times for breaking an arbitrary embargo date? If we had sold the book before the SOS date, what would have happened to us? Would the publishing houses stop selling their books in our store, thereby losing about a quarter of the market? Doubtful. We didn’t sell it before midnight, of course, but this game was designed more to give the publisher another tool to build hype (as if they needed it) then for any valid reason. Your point that the review didn’t matter is also true. Most of the kids who bought the book don’t read the New York Times (as, I doubt, do their parents). In this case, I think this is all much ado about nothing.

  • Kassia Krozser // Jul 24, 2007 at 9:15 pm

    I so avoided commenting on the “what are they gonna do, sue?” angle, because, well, what are they gonna do? Sue? I mean, if it’s proven that the embargo was broken, what, if any, were the damages? Sure, you could say you won’t sell that retail outlet, but, really…

    This is why I think embargoes are silly. Of course, I also think that some things that are part of books really fall under the notion of “news”. Why should we pay $25 to discover deep dark secrets about our (current) government?

    As for the NYT review, well, you’re right. And you’re right. And there’s a reason for that, on both levels (child and parent). But ultimately, to my mind, it was the kind of review that really served no purpose. It didn’t offer broader understanding of the novel, it didn’t convince potential readers one way or the other, and it didn’t even offer spoilers. Kakutani is a very good reviewer; this convinces me that the goal was first over best.

  • Kassia Krozser // Jul 24, 2007 at 9:19 pm

    Mitzi — so true, so true. There is something fantastic about going out to lunch with a friend and…discussing a book. Really discussing a book. Talking about a book in detail. Having the kind of conversation that people usually have about movies or TV shows. Reveling in the fact that we both had a great, great weekend. Also, making a non-Potter reader feel like he needs to start with book one and keep going.

    For all of the discussion about how book reviews in newspapers are on the decline, it’s (in my mind) because there are so few books that two people can discuss in great detail over lunch. My friend swears she stayed in bed all day Sunday and read. I sat in the backyard… That’s really what it’s all about.

  • Edward Champion’s Return of the Reluctant » Roundup // Jul 25, 2007 at 6:05 am

    […] Kassia on why literary embargoes don’t matter. […]

  • marydell // Jul 25, 2007 at 7:21 am

    “What are they gonna do? Sue?”

    Actually, yes. The first lawsuit was filed before the release date.

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/07/19/AR2007071900374.html

  • Kassia Krozser // Jul 25, 2007 at 7:32 am

    I stand corrected, though, if our legal system proves normal (my former boss used to note that litigation kept America working), by the time the suit wends its way through the system, it will be nothing but a forgotten artifact of the Potter era. The publishers will spend far more pursuing a suit than the case is worth (what damages can they prove, for example?). Since it’s likely a civil suit, can you imagine arguing this case in front of a jury?

  • booklover // Jul 25, 2007 at 3:50 pm

    A lawsuit against anyone putting the book on a website likely stands a chance in claiming violation of copyright, but to sue someone because they shipped a book early really takes chutzpah. First, one would have to prove intent, i.e., that the distributor planned to do it knowing full well that whatever agreement they signed with Scholastic prohibited it (destroy all those e-mails guys!). I’m not even a lawyer and yet the “it was an honest mistake” defense immediately jumps to mind.

    As far as reviews go, aren’t they really all a sham anyway? What one literary figure thinks about a particular book means little to most people I serve (no one comes in and says “you know, the New York Times really liked James Patterson’s new book, so that makes me want to buy it”). Reviews are just one more attempt to get free publicity, like embargoes. I find that most reviews I agree with has little effect in my enjoyment of a book and the reviews I don’t agree with doesn’t dissuade me from reading it.