Why Embargoes Are Silly In A Long Tail World

October 23rd, 2006 · No Comments
by Kassia Krozser

We live in a world of false gratification. We want to know that something is a success before it’s even launched. We want big shipping numbers that bear no relationship to long-term profitability. We live in a world predicated on old-fashioned mores.

There was incredible buzz about Bob Woodward’s book, State of Denial: Bush at War, Part III…the week before it was released. While the title and its revelations were on everybody’s lips, the books were safely locked away in boxes. Not. For. Sale.

By the time the book hit the shelves, a lot of us felt like we’d already read it. The content had been discussed ad infinitum and, frankly, the good stuff had already been dissected. You know the old saying about buying the cow, getting the milk for free? That’s sort of how it goes these days. Had the book been available, oh, when it was the hottest thing on the market, then maybe more sales would have been made.

What purpose does an embargo serve? Well, it creates a media event (see: Harry Potter). If you’re going to create a major media event, of course, you need to have serious, across-the-board excitement. Kids aren’t lining up at midnight to buy books by Bob Woodward or David Kuo. The embargo system exists to bolster a fragmented, inconsistent, and often arbitrary bestseller list program. Or, if you will, to fulfill the needs of someone’s ego.

Embargoes don’t aid the consumer. Unless they are tied to the major media event, guaranteeing that customers will come and buy no matter what, they don’t necessarily help the bookseller. If we can’t buy a book on the day we want to buy it, we go elsewhere, or, worse, forget about the purchase altogether. Humans are a fickle species, and with increasing pressure on our time and energy (not to mention that every week sees the release of the season’s hottest book), it makes no sense at all to continue with silly embargoes.

What makes this whole process even sillier is that embargoes extend beyond book sales. Authors must consider television ratings. Giving an exclusive interview to 60 Minutes means that Bob Woodward couldn’t talk about his book…to a crowd who’d gathered specifically to hear about it:

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.

Yeah, that gets the people excited about making a purchase, doesn’t it? Embargoes reached the height of ridiculous when that leader of a country told people that he couldn’t answer questions about prosecuting the war on terror because he was honor bound not to release the details of his upcoming book. Good dodge when you don’t want to answer a question, but it raises questions about who’s running this planet.

Television networks are slowly, painfully learning that people don’t like appointment TV. We want to consume media at our convenience. Maintaining embargoes doesn’t help sales — and often doesn’t make sense. It’s time to stop the nonsense now. Also, get better tools to track bestsellers.

File Under: Square Pegs