My podcast with Diane Ravitch is scheduled for posting tomorrow morning on NRO. This coincides with her book’s formal publication date. When we arranged to record, Diane wanted to make sure that we would not release the interview beforehand. She didn’t want us to “break the embargo,” as they say in the news and publishing industries. It’s a typical request and I would honor it even without hearing it: I don’t want to put up podcasts with authors before their books go on sale everywhere. It’s a disservice not just to authors, but also to listeners.
Over the weekend, I learned from Diane’s Twitter feed, two outlets broke the embargo on The Death and Life of the Great American School System: The Washington Post printed an article on the book and the L.A. Times published a review. Media organizations do this all the time, and they do it with increasing frequency, thanks to pressure from blogs. Journalism places a huge premium not just on reporting the news, but on reporting it first. So the temptation to break embargoes can be irresistible, especially when books have news value. Remember the controversy over Harry Reid’s comments about Barack Obama? (Reid praised Obama for his ability to speak “with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.”) The quote originally appeared in a book, and it made the news before the book’s publication date–i.e., a writer broke the embargo. (In this case, technically, a book store broke the embargo–an enterprising reporter saw a copy on sale, bought it, read it, and passed on what he learned.)
Embargoes on books are almost impossible to enforce, except in special circumstances. Review copies often go out months in advance of publication. What’s more, the vast majority of books are desperate for publicity. Many authors are willing collaborators with embargo-breakers. They welcome whatever attention they receive, whether it’s after an on-sale date or before.
In a world of instant news, the book embargo already may be a thing of the past.
UPDATE: Here’s a story in Publisher’s Weekly about a new embargo-busting dilemma.
UPDATE 2: Karl Rove’s book doesn’t come out until next week, but it’s all over the news right now–another example of a busted embargo.