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When you work in a bookshop, new titles arrive all the time: any day of the week, any time of the month.

It’s like Christmas every day (but without the gin-soaked afternoon nap and second-degree oven burns.) 

In fact, the whole thing is just a complete random free-for-all.

Only it isn’t. Well not on paper.

There’s actually a system: almost every book is officially published on a Thursday and the following sequence applies

  • Tuesday – Distributed from the warehouse
  • Wednesday – Received in shops
  • Thursday – Sold to the public 

(which does sound like a very low-quality Cure song, it’s true.) 

If you take all our shop’s new titles in the month of May, only four were officially published on a day of the week other than a Thursday.

One of these, Paula Hawkins’ latest book, had a publication date on a Tuesday. Tuesday I ask you. Those people at Doubleday, they are ker-azy!

The Thursday release date probably isn’t news to book-trade types, certainly those in the publishing world.

The only reason your average punter might know about it, however, is because of

 

Super Thursday

 

that notorious day in October when about 500 hardback books are simultaneously released.

(If you’re a delivery man, it’s the day after Weighty Wednesday.)

On Super Thursday, a huge payload of autobiographies, cookery books and thick books on WAR arrive at bookshops with an almighty thud, only to be outsold by all those books written by gamers, vloggers and internet sensations that came in at the same time but with less fuss.

I’ve no idea how Super Thursday got past the alliteration police. It must be one for fans of Freaky Monday and Throwback Saturday.

Super Thursday has now become a staple of the book industry calendar however and provides good publicity for the book trade in the run-up to Christmas.

 

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The other 51 non-Super Thursdays in the year are not celebrated to the same degree.  

While the majority of books are officially published on these Thursdays, more often than not they are sent out to bookshops well in advance of their publication date.  

To go a bit statistical for a minute, if we take all the books my shop ordered with an official publication date of Thursday 4th May for instance, we can see that:

  • 68% arrived before 4th May.
  • 52% actually arrived in April.
  • 30% arrived on a Wednesday for Thursday publication.

My friend’s 10 year old daughter helped me with these figures. She also explained at great length the difference between mean and median and introduced me to something called

The Poo God of Numbers.

I gave her an out-of-date Easter Egg and told her that if she revealed my identity to anyone, I would be forced to drop her phone in the fish tank. 

She seemed to think this was fair.

 

It is rewarding as a bookseller to receive books earlier than the publication date. Customers are suitably impressed:  

Ooh. You’ve done well there. I thought it wasn’t out until the end of the week.   

When we knew it was you that wanted a copy, Mrs Whatever-Your-Name-Is, we pulled out all the stops.

Well, it sounds better than:

Yeah, they just turn up early sometimes.

 

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There isn’t a general consensus as to whether Indies or chain booksellers receive books first.

Indie Bookshops may have to wait an extra day or two if their books are coming via a wholesaler, while larger shops tend to receive books direct from the publisher.

On the other hand, Indies can take books straight out of the box and whisk them onto the shop floor before the ink dries, while larger shops are prone to Huge Unpacking Backlogs which can add many a day before a particular book sees daylight.

Large shops will of course deny the existence of Huge Unpacking Backlogs but think back to that time you asked a staff member for a book and they disappeared out of sight only to re-appear five minutes later.

Ask yourself the following: 

  • Were they dishevelled and breathless?
  • Did they look like they had lost a fight with a wild boar?
  • Were they covered in cardboard shavings from head to toe?  
  • Were they making a considerable effort not to vomit on your book?

 

These are all evidence of a Huge Unpacking Backlog. 

 

Books in big bookshops also have to endure Being In The Storeroom and Interim Trolley Purgatory, both indeterminate time periods found somewhere in between Being Unpacked and Being On The Shop Floor.

 

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So this early delivery and sell-it-as-soon-as-you-get-it attitude is the norm in the book trade but there are exceptions:

 

The Publisher’s Embargo

 

A publisher’s embargo is where the books turn up with an ‘embargo date’ note enclosed in the box. The bookseller is required to wait until the official publication date before displaying or selling the book.  

You can view all forthcoming embargoed titles on the Booksellers Association website.

Next to each title and embargoed date, the relevant publisher offers a reason for the embargo, usually

  • Key Title   but sometimes
  • High Profile Release
  • Serialisation
  • Film Tie-In or
  • Major Marketing and Publicity Campaign

There are others too, but you get the general idea.

I’d have thought

Because we bloody say so. People have worked hard on this.

would be a valid reason, but the publishers tend to go for courtesy and restraint.        

Being a bit of a goody two shoes, I always try to respect embargoes.

I invoke the “will of the publishers” when titles arrive early, and off to the storeroom they go, until exact publication date.  

There are only a very few titles where an embargo is asked for, after all.

So I stick to these embargoed dates rigidly. But do other shops?

I decided to put it to the test:

 

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SECRET BOOKSELLER UNDERCOVER EMBARGO TEST:

 

I rang up 20 bookshops on the morning of Wednesday May 3rd

(well actually one of my staff did while I listened in, but I’m going to write this in the first person just to make things easier.)

I asked all the shops if they had a copy of the new Tom Gates hardback (Family, Friends and Furry Creatures) in their shop and whether I could buy one today.

The book was embargoed for sale until Thursday May 4th. 

I made no mention of embargoes or publication dates and tried not to manipulate the conversation in any way.  It was just a simple enquiry.  

Ten of the bookshops were branches of a chain, which I am defining as a retailer with five or more outlets (so Daunt Books and Foyles both qualify here) and ten were Independent Bookshops.

I chose this particular Tom Gates book for the following reasons:

  • I had received a clear embargo notice myself when my copies of the book arrived some days before, so these were still in the storeroom.
  • This title was listed as embargoed on the Booksellers Association website (reason for embargo = Key Title), where the following text is clearly displayed at the top of the page:

The following titles are governed by the Embargoed Titles Code of Practice & Embargo Notice and must not be sold before the embargo date. Publishers reserve the right to impose sanctions against any retailer contravening the terms of this Code of Practice.

You can read the full Code of Practice here.

  • It’s a popular and very funny series so I reckoned that most bookshops would stock it.
  • The very talented author-illustrator was tweeting that the book is due out on Thursday, and if May 4th is good enough for the author, it’s good enough for me.

 

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Let’s start with the Large Booksellers:

 

  • 9 of the 10 shops were happy to sell me a copy of the book a day early:

Waterstones Birmingham

Waterstones Maidstone

Waterstones Wakefield

WhSmith Holborn

Rye Bookshop (fun-size Waterstones)

Foyles Charing Cross Road

WHSmith St Ives

Daunt Books Marylebone and

Hatchards Piccadilly

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  • The chap at Waterstones Wakefield pointed out to me that I should buy it today as it was the book’s

last day at half-price.

  • The lady at WHSmith Holborn informed me that

we have broken the embargo so it is available today.

  • The man at Foyles Charing Cross Road told me they were selling it today as there had been a

date change.

(I’m assuming he meant the publication date as opposed to an unprecedented re-dating of Wednesday. Either way, this was news to me!)

 

  • The 1 shop out of 10 that was keeping to the embargo was Blackwell’s Oxford. They informed me that that although they had stock, they were

not allowed to sell it until tomorrow.

 

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Now let’s have a look at the Independent Shops:

 

  • 4 of the 10 shops were happy to sell me a copy of the book a day early.
  • 4 of the 10 shops did not have stock yet and all informed me that the book wasn’t published until the next day.  
  • 2 shops out of 10 (Mostly Books Abingdon and Toppings Bath) had stock and were keeping to the embargo.
  • The friendly lady at Mostly Books specifically said she was

not allowed to sell it until tomorrow

and a similar sentiment was expressed by the chap at Toppings.

  • Both these shops and the 4 without stock offered to reserve or order a copy for me for the next day.

(I didn’t ask any shop to put aside or order the book though, as that would have been a bit mean!)

 

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So what do we make of all this?

 

  • 13 out of 20 shops were breaking the embargo for one reason or another (if you can call “we have broken the embargo” a reason). I was expecting one or two maybe but not 13. 

 

  • Only 3 out of 20 shops were actively enforcing the embargo.

 

  • I found out afterwards that Bertrams Books released their stock on 3rd May to help enforce the embargo, and this may explain why some of the Indies had not received stock yet. The 4 shops without stock all acknowledged the publication date, so you could say that

7 out of 20 shops maximum were obeying the embargo, though 4 possibly by default.

This is still a lot less than half: 35% or less.

(Intriguingly, Bertrams tend to keep hold of embargoed books and send them out to the bookshop for publication date whereas Gardners send out the books early and trust the bookseller to enforce the embargo. It’s like having wholesaler Mum and Dads with different parenting philosophies.)

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  •  I wonder why the 4 Indie Bookshops were happy to sell me the book: 

Were they unaware of the embargo?

Did they put the book out by accident?

Could they not turn down a potential sale?

Are they just very cynical about embargoes?

I don’t know. I’m not making excuses for them, as embargoes are supposed to be adhered to across the board.

I decided on reflection however not to name these 4 shops, as this is just my own survey, not a witch-hunt, and I feel a bit of sisterly brotherhood is in order when it comes to other Indies. 

I would probably reveal their names under torture or prolonged exposure to Top Gear.

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  • Waterstones were selling the Tom Gates book in a half-price promotion from April 30th across their shops.  April 30th was the date when their staff started tweeting about the offer.

That’s five days of selling the book before the official embargoed publication date.

Most promotions are arranged well in advance, so a title has clearly not been put out by accident when it is part of a five-day half-price promotion across hundreds of stores.

I wonder if the publishers (Scholastic) were complicit in this early selling and promotion.

The day that the Waterstones staff member referred to as the “last day at half-price” was, as far as I was concerned, the last day of the embargo.

When Toppings in Bath started to sell the book on the correct publication date, Waterstones in Bath had already had five days selling the same book, and with a very aggressive discount. How can this be remotely fair?

Waterstones appear to be riding roughshod over the whole embargo process.

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  • It is perhaps worth pointing out that Amazon, so often the book industry bad guy, did respect this embargo date. The Amazon webpage informed me that

This title will be released on May 4 2017

and they were taking pre-orders, which we can all do.

I wonder if publishers are laying down the law to Amazon while turning a blind eye to Waterstones.

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  • Has any publisher in fact ever ‘imposed sanctions against any retailer contravening the terms of this Code of Practice?’

This is starting to look like a very empty threat to me.

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  • It’s tempting to ask the following: why the hell should my shop stick to these embargoes when Waterstones, WhSmith, Foyles, Hatchards, Daunt Books and a handful of Indies don’t bother? 

 

  • Why also should Bertrams hold on to stock on behalf of shops for the same reason? 

 

 

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The Signed Publisher’s Embargo

 

This is where the bookseller has to read and sign a long embargo document. It tends to be for a major event publication, basically any book by J.K.Rowling. 

A quick perusal of one of these documents reveals that the publishers are not kidding around. One embargo is

governed by the laws of England and shall be subject to the exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England   

while

actions, proceedings, claims, demands, costs, awards, damages or losses

are all invoked as a result of breach. 

 

Basically, if you want to know what Anne Boleyn went through from her Tower days onwards, selling a J.K.Rowling book a day early would be a good starting point.   

 

On these forms, Booksellers are given a choice of various conditions which they must comply with. On one form it was suggested we should:  

employ security guards to guard copies of the book

or

keep copies of the book in a secure locked cage in the Secure Area.

I don’t know about you but my bookshop always has a secure locked cage at the ready (in our Secure Area) in case an escaped tiger pays a visit, or in the event that one of our customers undergoes a sudden transformation into a werewolf.  

How I am supposed to explain to new staff, that as well as a kettle and a pile of free proof copies, we also appear to provide some kind of Sado-Masochism dungeon, is not made clear.    

Basically, the publishers take a very firm line with these titles.

If you store copies of a new Harry Potter book in the actual Chamber of Secrets, this ironically may not be deemed secure enough by the publisher, because in Section 2c) it quite clearly states that  

a basilisk or any other legendary reptile does not provide adequate security to prevent unauthorised access.

(OK, I made that bit up.)

 

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This is all well and good for a new Harry Potter book where the exact minute of availability is known by the entire world, but what about signed embargoes for those authors who, through no fault of their own, happen not to be J.K.Rowling?

Well, this is where I sometimes begin to question whether publishers aren’t getting ideas slightly above their station.

I once signed an embargo form for three copies of a book, kept them in my “secured locked cage”, brought them out on to the shop floor when legally permitted, waited three months, and then returned them to the publishers having sold none.

Was my signature entirely necessary in this instance?

 

One slightly unfortunate trait of the embargo system is that publishers name a calendar date only, not an exact time of sale.

Thus, in one foul stroke, was born the seemingly endless late-night fancy-dress sleepover party from hell that was and is:

 

The Harry Potter Midnight Bookshop Launch

 

Because of course midnight is technically the start of the day.

Well it is, if you’re the sort of pedant who thinks that we have eight fingers, or that the world cannot in fact ‘in every corner sing’ because the earth is spherical.      

I can still remember standing at a till (in my albeit brief big bookshop days) at 12.45 am, dressed as Bellatrix Lestrange, taking thousands of pounds I could only dream of earning myself, from the sweaty hands of a never-ending queue of over-tired kids and thinking:

It’s true what they say: the best parties are rarely organised by your employer.

Most of the kids were booing me too, the filthy Muggles.

And don’t even get me started on mandatory shop-floor Quidditch.

Yes, I played lame earth-bound Quidditch because it was on a shop rota. Thanks big bookshop.

By the way, anyone who has a hardback Harry Potter book covered in mascara and eyeliner smudges should know that:

  1. I was very tired. I couldn’t stop rubbing my eyes.
  2. These are now highly collectable. Ahem.        

 

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I felt sorry for the kids, who mostly seemed to be taking part in some kind of timed read-a-thon. I wished they could read the new Harry Potter book in the same way they read every book:

  • in a familiar setting.
  • not surrounded by other kids.
  • at a time when they were awake.
  • away from the glare of photographers.
  • without being hit in the head by a rubber-band ball, I mean Snitch.

Bellatrix playing Quidditch is very wrong: the shoes, the corset, the hair, the whole ‘supreme evil’ thing.

 

I felt a bit sorry too for small bookshops being pressurised to open at midnight. Some towns are just full of drunk people at that time.

I also felt sorry for myself, getting such a late cab home, and then having to work the following morning. That shop rota again!

I wished that Bloomsbury would specify 8am for the next Harry Potter. They never did.

 

When the Harry Potter playscript was published more recently, Little Brown Publishers released the book on Saturday night at midnight, ensuring, because of slightly archaic let’s-pretend-it’s-still-the-1970s Sunday trading laws, that large bookshops could only take money pre-midnight and only give out the book post-midnight.

That must have been fun. Thankfully I had my own shop by then and slept through the whole thing!

 

So, although some of the stipulations made by publishers are a bit over the top, and the midnight launches are not to everybody’s taste, the signed embargo does ensure fairness and this is a good thing.

All shops sell the book at the same time, and this as we have seen, is a bit of a rarity.  

 

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Exclusive Release Dates

 

This is the super-exciting phenomenon where a bookshop legitimately receives advanced copies of a book pre-publication date and sells them before anyone else.

Unfortunately for us Indies, that bookshop is…..…Waterstones.

I’m starting to see a pattern here!

This happened recently when a much-awaited children’s book, part two of a popular series, started selling early in Waterstones: the regular 6.99 paperback but with special coloured pages and many of them signed too.

Even though this was a series of books we and many Indie Bookshops had supported, the publisher saw fit to give Waterstones a huge four-week head start over other retailers.

(Insert boo-ing noise here). 

This wasn’t embargo-dodging. It was good old-fashioned favouritism.

Although James Daunt is happy to give the We Don’t Want To Tread On Any Indie Bookshop’s Toes line regarding Waterstones’ fun-size village branches, once again, when it comes to receiving new titles earlier than other bookshops, it is quite clearly every man, woman, bookshop and Twitter Feed for themselves.       

 

Of the four pre-orders we took for this book:

 

  • Two cancelled as they had bought it at Waterstones (we aren’t even particularly near to a Waterstones). We had to politely tell both these customers that we understood.  
  • One we just never heard from at all.
  • The final young man turned up to our shop four weeks after the book first appeared elsewhere, caught sight of the bog-standard edition we were eventually allowed to have, and was pretty close to breaking down in tears.

Your Indie Bookshop: Where Crushing Disappointment is only a phone call away.

Besides, in my shop, ‘breaking down in tears’ is a pursuit reserved exclusively for management, staff and visiting authors.  

I don’t know if the publisher in question thinks they were socking it to Amazon by doing this, but it seems to me that it is primarily other bricks-and-mortar retailers who suffer as a consequence.

This incident caused so much bad will that it actually put me off promoting either this author or this publisher in future.

There are plenty more of both for my shop to get behind after all.

I wonder if other shops feel the same way about this sort of thing too. Do let me know.

 

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One question raised by the above might be:

 

Would a publisher ever give Indies a four-week head start?

 

After all, there are at least 900 Indies compared to less than 300 Waterstones.

The answer IMHO is a resounding no.

Indies sometimes get exclusive publications for Independent Book Week but they are usually niche titles or signed copies of existing titles (nothing wrong with these at all) but I really can’t see any major publication coming our way first.

Waterstones have a lot of buying power these days, and a central role to play in literary events and launches. Publishers I believe are wary of getting on the wrong side of them.

It is now not uncommon for Waterstones to have final say on book jacket design and even book title.

If you want confirmation of this, you’ll have to ask a few Secret Authors or Secret Publishers.

(I wonder if covers get rejected for not looking like an organic dark chocolate wrapper designed by Liberty, which seems to be the current vogue.)

 

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Before I conclude, it does occur to me that a lot of what I have discovered and written about in this blogpost must be common knowledge in the book trade, so now I’m starting to wonder:

a) Is it a mistake for me to break rank and go public with this information?

b) Have I broken the book trade’s deadly code of silence (omerta imprinta)?

c) Am I at risk of making powerful enemies in high places (Maidstone and Wakefield for instance)? 

d) Will I return home and find the literary equivalent of a horse’s head in my bed:

  • A Nibbie covered in red ink.
  • A ‘refused returns’ note with reason: W01 Whistleblower.
  • An Ottaker’s Book Voucher with ‘You’re Next’ written on it.
  • A note saying ‘I know what you read last summer.’  

e) Maybe I should I just go back to writing about less controversial subjects:

 

No. My mind is made up. In the words of that great philosopher Tony Hadley:

I want the truth to be out.

If anyone wants me, I’ll be at my nearest Embassy.

 

CONCLUSION

I don’t think any Indie Bookshop would disagree with the point that it is important for the book trade as a whole that we have a thriving profit-making book chain on the high street, making full use of the many talents of its staff.

Maybe however, on those days when we are not throwing awards at Waterstones, we might all like to consider the following:

Publisher-endorsed early exclusives at Waterstones and blatant embargo-dodging by Waterstones and nearly all other large bookshops are both creating a very unlevel playing field across the bookselling community. This situation will not be helped if publishers either collude or turn a blind eye when it comes to embargo-dodging.   

This is what James Daunt had to say when complaining about Amazon’s tax arrangements in the Financial Times: 

 we are not operating in a level playing field

and here he is talking about the UK Book Industry when it comes to pricing:  

we don’t do anything to keep the playing field level

Well. I’m throwing those sentiments right back at you, Mr Daunt. 

The apparent disdain for a code of practice produced by The Booksellers Association and The Publishers Association shown by Waterstones in particular, but also WHSmith, Foyles, Daunt Books and Hatchards just makes it harder for honest retailers like Toppings, Mostly Books and Blackwell’s Oxford to sell key and potentially lucrative new titles and it can also have the unfortunate effect of making shops such as my own seem second-rate in the eyes of their own customers.

The only time an embargo appears to work is when a huge Harry Potter-style book is published, and this is probably because most retailers cannot get away with breaking it, as opposed to any desire for fair play.

For all other embargoes, the system looks to be broken. Everybody is on a different page. 

With just one title, I found that 65% of bookshops were breaking a supposedly industry-enforced embargo, some very blatantly at that.  

It is hard to believe for a minute that this is an isolated incident.

On the BA website, the publisher of Joe Wicks’ Cooking for Family and Friends has written the following reason why an embargo is in place on this title:

A retailer could obtain a substantial competitive edge by having stock earlier than other booksellers.

I agree with this sentiment and it reads well, but unfortunately this ‘substantial competitive edge’ is already enjoyed by a lawless element in the book trade.

What are we going to do about it?  

     

 

4 comments on “Publisher Embargoes: An Investigation”

  1. It’s common for the wholeseller to not care, especially with paperbacks eg. :

    Sellout p/b – came in from G three weeks before publication

    Underground Railroad p/b – got from B today, it’s due out 29/6

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