Strict-for-Sale: The Book Publisher's Embargo

A tireless promoter of books and authors, Ben McNally has been a bookseller in Toronto for more than thirty years. His Bay Street bookstore will...

One day a couple weeks ago, Dan Sharpe got to work at 6 in the morning so that he could deliver review copies of the new novel by Dan Brown, Inferno, to various media contacts in Toronto.

All booksellers in the country had to sign an embargo agreement that kept us from selling the book until the publication date, but I was astonished to discover that the media had not even been given that option. (And somehow, despite all the precaution, The New York Times apparently managed to sneak out a review prior to the on sale date.)

There seem to be more and more of these strict-on-sale titles (most of which, to be honest, do not figure in the inventory of a small shop like ours) and it seems to me that they are, for the most part, misguided and superfluous irritants for all parties concerned.

Some titles justify being held back, and at our shop we’ve always honoured the desire of publishers to maintain a uniform release date. We have a small place; it is, admittedly, pretty easy for us to do. That doesn’t make it any more palatable when a customer we’ve sent away empty-handed after telling them they’ll have to wait until Tuesday telephones us an hour later to say they picked up a copy elsewhere. I’ll have to admit that it bugs me a lot less than it used to, but as the number of embargoed titles increases, oversight becomes progressively more problematic.

There’s a history here. Publishers have for many years given each book a specific publication date, and endeavoured to make sure that the books were actually in the stores that had ordered them in advance of that date, so that when the reviews broke, on the pub date, customers could race to the nearest bookshop and grab a copy. It’s only common sense.

That, of course, was back in the days when reviewers didn’t publish their reviews until publication date. You might be surprised how influential book reviewers still are. (Heck, even I’m surprised, but that isn’t what we’re dealing with right here.)

A publisher recently sent me a form letter to sign in which I promised never to violate strict-on-sale dates, even in cases where there was no indication in the shipment that there was any restriction whatsoever on the contents.

I didn’t sign it.

More interestingly, there was nothing in the letter to indicate what would happen if I did violate the conditions after I’d signed the letter.

It seems to me that this is increasingly a mug’s game. As with most things in our Byzantine business, this issue revolves on mutual respect. Who can forget the extraordinary anticipation that surrounded the strictly timed release of the Harry Potter books? (And who can forget that Canada Post agreed to work on a Saturday so that the online contingent would be able to deliver simultaneously?)

And what are publishers supposed to do when their carefully planned campaigns are undone by a photo snapped and e-mailed showing that someone, somewhere, in the book business, can’t read big letters on the outside of a box, or willfully ignores the instructions on an invoice?

It’s not always easy, even for the best-intentioned. I had a visit recently from a British publisher who stopped by on a Friday afternoon on his way to catch a plane back to England. He always buys a book from me when he’s in town, and in this case he wanted a copy of the new John le Carré.

“It’s not out here, yet,” I informed him, but it’s on sale Tuesday so we might see it today. You might find a copy at the airport unless it’s strict-on-sale.”

The book had been available in the UK for more than a week, and would have made the perfect airplane read. After he left I discovered that we had a full carton of the book in the store, marked Strict on Sale May 7.

I’m glad I didn’t see it when he was in the store. It would have been awfully hard to justify not selling him a copy.

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A tireless promoter of books and authors, Ben McNally has been a bookseller in Toronto for more than thirty years. His Bay Street bookstore will celebrate its fifth anniversary this fall.