Why embargo?

Ever since the release two weeks ago of Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman, I've been thinking about the publishing industry and libraries and book releases and embargoes.

For those who are not familiar, an embargo is, essentially, a release date for a book. Some embargoes are adhered to more strictly than others (think: Harry Potter). The idea is that the book is sent to bookstores and libraries before the release date but with the understanding that the stores and libraries will embargo the title; that is, do the necessary processing and cataloging of the title in their system but wait until the actual release date to put the physical book on the shelves and release it to the public.

And since I am a librarian writing this from a librarian's perspective, I will let you in on a dirty little secret: many, many libraries ignore these embargoes entirely.

Some of the reasons are benign neglect - sometimes the vendor who sells us the books does not actually tell us there is a release date. Sometimes the person unpacking the delivery forgets to look at and record the release date. Sometimes the slip of paper we write the release dates on gets lost. Sometimes librarians simply decide they don't care. For many libraries, with budget cuts and staffing shortages, books are typically processed well after their release dates anyway, so some of us just assume it will never be an issue and stop caring.

I actually work for a library currently that makes its best effort to honor release dates and embargoes. In fact, this comprises a large part of my actual day-to-day job. We also process materials very quickly, so that new books often hit the shelves the same day they are released, which means we are processing them far enough in advance that we have to store them until the embargo date.

So I often find myself thinking: what is the actual point of all this extra work I'm doing to accommodate all these different release dates? The average reader could not care less when a book goes on sale or whether or not they get it early/late. And since embargoes are so frequently ignored, they're all but useless at controlling who gets to see a book when.

Let's face it: books leak. Books leak all the time, sometimes for the reasons I mentioned above, sometimes because of piracy or other shady enterprises, and sometimes because bookstores and other retailers (hello, Walmart) simply think, "I have this book and I'm putting it on the salesfloor because I have no room to store it and I can start making money now. Screw it." Publishers also often release Advanced Reader Copies (ARCs) or uncorrected proofs to reviewers and bloggers and other industry folk so they can preview the book early, write press blurbs for it, and start generating a buzz around a new title to boost sales once it is released.

Which brings me back to Go Set a Watchman.

Go Set a Watchman notably had no ARCs or reviewer copies released. The publisher made every attempt to keep the contents as "hush hush" as possible. The first chapter of Go Set a Watchman was released by the publisher a few days early so the public could get a preview of the book, but otherwise the contents were completely unknown until release day. Mostly. Sort of. Maybe.

Of course, in a world of 7 billion people, one publisher cannot control everything. One Walmart store in Louisiana put the book on display a few days early - they were soon forced to take the display down until the official release date, but I have no idea if any copies had already been sold by then. But really: what if they had? What if some copies leaked?

What if some copies had been released a day or two early, by that Walmart in Louisiana, or by a librarian, or by anyone anywhere else? Does the world stop turning? Is the entire book experience ruined?

Clearly, I think the answer is no. Embargoes exist to benefit one entity alone: publishers. They are part of a planned marketing campaign whose sole purpose is to drum up interest in a particular title and maximize profits. If GSAW had not been strictly embargoed, somebody might have had the chance to tell us all how disappointing a read it was, and then fewer people might have bought it. This would have been a great service to the readers but results in less bottom line for HarperCollins.

So when I see regular people concerning themselves with embargoes, I can't help but think: Stop. There are so many better things to worry about. Let the publishers do their job. Let yourself enjoy your books.

And the world keeps spinning.