Breaking the Embargo

Tomorrow is the big day for readers and retailers around the world, as the embargo on sales of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is finally lifted. Of course, the book has already been extensively leaked, leading to an assortment of lawsuits and angry words over companies which broke the publisher’s embargo, and the people who took advantage of the breaks.

The idea of an embargo is not unique to Harry Potter. It’s just that, most of the time, people don’t care. Most publishers set specific release dates for their new books, usually on Tuesdays, for anyone who wants to know. When booksellers purchase from these companies, they agree not to open embargoed boxes until the listed on-sale date, which is usually stamped on the carton. Distributors do likewise. If a bookstore breaks an embargo, the publisher usually says that it will not ship books with a specific on-sale date in the future until after the date has passed.

By and large, no one really cares. Only with Harry Potter have we seen consumers worked into a fever pitch over the release of a book. I think that this is in line with the trend in the last decade or so to hype things like movie openings and the releases of major video games. Oddly enough, most of these things would sell well enough even without the publicity, with things like midnight parties simply acting as icing on the cake. It’s not as though people wouldn’t buy Harry Potter if they had to wait until bookstores normally opened to do so, which begs the question of what’s with the hype? Why this book? What is the big deal?

For me, along with many other readers, this book is a long time in coming. We’ve been reading the series for years, and we’d like to know what happens. Since a huge community has grown around Harry Potter, we sort of feed the frenzy ourselves by pushing for midnight parties and other events like them. Booksellers, of course, will take advantage of the opportunity to publicize themselves, in the hopes of selling products not related to Harry Potter. Publishers are hoping to advance their brand, and distributors are always happy to sell more books.

There’s something mystical and cool about the idea of the whole world getting excited about something and reading it all at once, which is why I am kind of sad that people have chosen to break the embargo. It makes me especially sad that people have felt the need to publish spoilers, since I have to say that spoilers really would ruin the book for me. The experience of reading it would simply not be the same if I knew what was going to happen, and I wish people had not gone to such lengths to try and publicize important events in the book. For the people publishing spoilers, of course, it generates publicity, because people give them the attention they crave, more’s the pity.

Honestly, given the opportunity to read the book ahead of time, I do not think that I would. I am looking forward to the experience of drinking it in with the rest of the world. (Well, eight hours behind every English speaking country other than the United States, and months before readers in other languages. But you know what I mean.)

Embargos themselves are not…well, terribly legally enforceable. Yes, bookstores sign contracts and the penalties are clear. And Scholastic and Bloomsbury could argue that pursing embargo breakers protects the property. But I don’t think it does, really. I think that most people are going to read the book anyway, to see how the things that happen occur, and to drink in the subtle nuances which a spoiler cannot convey. Honestly, I don’t really care about the embargo being broken, I care about people willfully and maliciously spreading spoilers.

I do not entirely know if I approve of the practice of embargos on books. It seems like murky territory to me, and I kind of hope that the Harry Potter frenzy is the end of it. There are, after all, more important things in life, and while I am trembling with excitement about what is going to be in many hands only hours from now…I also have other things to be excited about, interested in, and concerned with, as do most Harry Potter fans.

Some might call us nerdy. I think it’s wishful escapism into a fantasy world, as one way to deal with the awful and sometimes bitter place we inhabit. Is that such a terrible thing?