Amazon recently started shipping preorders of Margaret Atwood’s book Testaments. The problem, notably, is that Atwood’s book is not supposed to launch until Tuesday, 10 September. Amazon is violating the embargo that all sellers of the book have agreed to. And its indie bookselling rivals are pissed.
The book, which is a sequel to her seminal work, The Handmaid’s Tale, has been one of the most anticipated novel releases this year. It’s already in development as a series at Hulu, and just yesterday was shortlisted for the coveted Booker Prize. Its leak would be tantamount to someone leaking the finale of Game of Thrones to Amazon customers who pre-ordered the new season.
Atwood’s publisher, Penguin Random House, has already apologised for the embargo breaking in a series of tweets and a statement to Publishers Weekly.
...to the bestselling The Handmaid’s Tale. In order to ensure our readers around the world receive their copies on the same day, our global publication date remains Tuesday, September 10.
— Penguin Random House (@penguinrandom) September 4, 2019
In response to a request for comment, Amazon sent Gizmodo this response:
Due to a technical error a small number of customers were inadvertently sent copies of Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments. We apologise for this error; we value our relationship with authors, agents, and publishers, and regret the difficulties this has caused them and our fellow booksellers.
While Amazon customers who pre-ordered found a welcome surprise in their mailbox thanks to the gaffe, indie booksellers are feeling very slighted. Lexi Beach of Astoria Bookshop tweeted her frustration in this thread.
A reasonable person might argue that a vendor should see consequences for every copy of an embargoed book they release early. https://t.co/bx5a5gKAdW
— Lexi Beach (@lexiatwork) September 4, 2019
Paul Swyden, owner of Silver Unicorn Books in the US state of Massachusetts, noted that Amazon wasn’t even mentioned in Penguin Random House’s statement.
In case you're curious about how little leverage PRH has, they wouldn't even mention Amazon by name in this statement. And, for those of you who don't deal with this every day, PRH as a whole is bigger than every other publisher. In most cases, much, much bigger. https://t.co/otjhoneVoY
— Paul Swydan (@Swydan) September 4, 2019
Amazon isn’t a stranger to releasing things when it shouldn’t, and to some extent, it can be forgiven. As someone who is often subject to embargoes myself, I’m fully aware of how one simple mistake can lead to a busted embargo. It can happen even if no one involved wants it to happen.
In the field of journalism, a broken embargo is a big deal. You can lose access to products, miss invites to big events, or simply not get briefed on news. Publications have been blacklisted for embargo violations.
Things are a little different in the retail world, but the rules generally still apply. A broken embargo could mean a damaged relationship with a publisher. It could mean not getting that publisher’s next big book on time, which could lead to lost sales. Smaller independent booksellers are very cautious of this because they can’t afford to take any other approach.
But Amazon is a retail juggernaut. It can violate an embargo (and again, we have no reason to believe this embargo violation was intentional), but publishers still have to do business with it because it sells the bulk of the books people read. It’s got the whole publishing industry over a barrel and all the publishers can do is beg Amazon not to do it again.
The problem is... Amazon is developing an awfully bad habit of breaking the rules. This is the third time in the last year the company has released something early when it had zero right to. In November 2018 Amazon accidentally streamed an episode of Doctor Who days early to anyone who bought the episode. Then in December, a bootleg of the cult favourite One Cut of the Dead appeared on Amazon’s streaming video service without the permission of the US rights holder. In both instances, as with the Testament’s embargo violation, it appears that it was an accident.
But Amazon is so big and makes so much money that you’d think it would be able to do a better job of mitigating gaffes like this. And it is not just embargo violations that show Amazon’s careless regards for what’s legal or appropriate by the agreements shared between retailers and publishers and suppliers. In June the New York Times had a report noting Amazon’s tremendous problem with counterfeit books – including handbooks used by people in the medical field. Then late last month the Wall Street Journal reported on Amazon’s inability to police counterfeit products on its site – many of which violate federal safety guidelines.
Amazon can get away with it because it’s just that big. But maybe its time for publishers and suppliers to stop playing so nice with the retail giant. If it can do whatever it wants than what impetus do others have to abide by the rules Amazon overlooks.
Featured image: Penguin Random House