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With Bush memoir, another embargo is broken

By Stephen Lowman

decision points.jpgBook publishers have gone to great lengths in the past year to keep big political memoirs out of the hands of journalists. In response, journalists have worked themselves into a lather to obtain them. But outside of newsrooms and political parlors, it’s a safe bet that most Americans are not salivating over the juicy details.

The latest commotion comes courtesy of President George W. Bush’s memoir, “Decision Points,” which doesn’t actually hit stores until Nov. 9. Bush’s publisher, Crown, embargoed the book, meaning the media was not given an advanced copy and booksellers face legal action if they sell the book early.

This sent news organizations into tizzy, with each seeking to be the first to get the book and break news about its content. Yesterday, The New York Times did just that after it “obtained” a copy. The big news was that Bush pondered replacing Dick Cheney with Sen. Bill Frist before the start of the 2004 election.

Interesting, sure. But it’s not exactly like three years ago when Americans stood in long lines at midnight, fretting about who would win the last clash between a boy wizard and Lord Voldemort in another embargoed book, the final “Harry Potter.” Yet a publisher’s embargo bestows significance on a book that may not actually offer up terribly much that the public actually cares about.

Tidbits we learned from recent 2008 election recaps and memoirs from Bush White House figures were hardly enough grist to sustain the 24-hour news mill, and most were probably quickly forgotten soon after being read.

What gnawing questions have these books answered?

--What did Laura Bush think about her daughter Jenna’s underage drinking? (It “was just dumb.”)
--How did Karl Rove feel about the possibility his adoptive father being gay? (“Frankly, I don’t care.”)
--How did Sarah Palin react to the rumors that she was divorcing her husband, Todd? (“Divorce Todd? Have you seen Todd?”)

Embargoes are useful to publishers because they help build anticipation for a book’s release. And although they may publicly state that they are angered when news organizations break them, they are also pretty pleased by the free publicity that leaks give their book.

But embargoes can be problematic. For example, at the 2006 National Book Festival 1,000 showed up to hear Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward speak about his latest volume on the Bush administration, “State of Denial.” But at the last minute they were told he was barred from speaking because the book was embargoed and that Woodward’s first interview had been promised to “60 Minutes.” When an audience boos, it’s hardly a marketing success. (Matt Lauer has snagged Bush’s first interview since leaving office. It will air as a primetime special on Nov. 8, the night before Bush's memoir is released.)

Publicists may pull their hair out trying to protect their embargo and members of the media may fall over themselves to break it, but it’s hard to say if there are any winners in this game. In fact, the two biggest losers may be the customers and the booksellers. Both miss out when books that are hyped online aren’t available for purchase at the store. Will a disappointed reader’s interest still be piqued next week?

—Stephen Lowman

By Stephen Lowman  | November 3, 2010; 3:30 PM ET
Tags:  bush memoir; embargoed memoir  
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Next: Words to soothe the Democrats’ soul


This is all inside baseball. Who cares if an embargo is broken, or not? Your readers are interested in the content of the story, not all the troubles that went into making it.

Posted by: edwardallen54 | November 3, 2010 7:28 PM | Report abuse

From the other side, I must say that publicists *hate* the embargo process as well. There's virtually no way to control access (especially now in the Wiki-Leaks era), and valuable relationships in the media can be permanently damaged by being forced to withhold what may be perceived as "news" from key contacts. I'll be glad for the day when everyone in the biz realises that embargoes are a frustrating waste of energy!

Posted by: MaryKateMaco | November 4, 2010 1:55 PM | Report abuse

Those who covet the moronic excuses for bad decisions are in a bad way.

Posted by: snowyphile | November 7, 2010 10:53 AM | Report abuse

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