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Embargoed Carter book lands briefly on Google books

By Craig Fehrman

Jimmy Carter's "White House Diary," embargoed by its publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux until its release on Monday, had a brief ride on Google books on Wednesday morning. Its inadvertent preview caused the publisher some consternation and provided a peek into the tricky world of stage-managing book releases.

Publishers tend to be very protective of their political titles. While reviewers normally get an advanced readers edition weeks or even months before a book's release date, political books are different. Publishers often mail review copies on the same day the book comes out; if they're feeling really generous, they mail the book (along with a non-disclosure agreement) a week before publication.

That's what Farrar, Straus and Giroux did with "White House Diary," and this process seems reasonable since, for political books, the details are often the payoff. A political book's revelations and its newsy spin will power the early publicity, and publishers work very hard to make sure this coincides with the book actually being in stores.

Reporters, of course, work just as hard to dig this information up. Laura Bush's memoir, "Spoken from the Heart," came out on May 4 of this year, but the New York Times ran a story summarizing the book's greatest hits on April 27. The Times' full review went live the next day, and other outlets (including the Post) tracked down early copies of their own.

The Times, which said only that it obtained Spoken from the Heart "at a bookstore," attracted some industry outrage for breaking the Laura Bush embargo. But this sort of thing has been going on for a while now -- and has been kneecapping the Times as much as anyone else.

Let's take the example of Richard Nixon. In 1976, the Times' syndication arm bought the serial rights to "RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon" for $750,000 and, by selling excerpts to more than 60 newspapers and magazines around the world, turned it into just under $1 million. When the Nixon page proofs were ready, the Times sent a courier to the printer in Crawfordsville, Ind. The courier carried one half of an official letter, the printer held the other, Pinkerton guards watched over the whole thing -- and, just to make sure, the Times called ahead with a physical description of its man.

These security measures actually made sense. A few weeks before, the Times had orchestrated the syndication of Nixon aide H. R. Haldeman's "The Ends of Power." When the Post obtained a bootleg copy and ran a summary 12 days before the book's released, it cost the Times almost $500,000 in syndication revenue.

This is where broken embargoes have done most of their damage. Bookstores sign affidavits promising not to sell their inventory before the release date, but the media have never reached a similar consensus.

That's one reason we've seen a decline in major syndication deals for political books. In fact, it's one reason Carter's White House Diary isn't getting syndicated.

Except it sort of did, thanks to Google Books. For a while you could have read Carter's new preface, some other paratexts, and the first 50 pages of the diary -- up to the entry for May 9, 1977. The slip-up didn't seem to be Google's fault. Different publishers negotiate different deals for the searchability of their books, and Farrar, Straus and Giroux makes a lot of its titles available for preview, generally a week or two before their release dates. (See Mark Feldstein's "Poisoning the Press" and Michael Cunningham's "By Nightfall," both of which come out September 28.)

I asked John Sterling, editor of "White House Diary" and executive vice president of Macmillan, what happened here. Sterling reemphasized the Carter embargo. "We consider this the sort of glitch that is bound to happen occasionally given the technical complexities involved in coordinating the publication of books in both physical and electronic form,” he said, adding that he was going to work on taking the title down from Google books. And down it came.

-- Craig Fehrman is working on a book about presidents and their books.

By Steven E. Levingston  |  September 15, 2010; 10:59 AM ET
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