Breaking Book Embargoes: Is a Bookstore Deal The New York Times' Edge?


The paper of record has done it again. The New York Times (NYT) has made it something of a bloodsport to publish juicy book excerpts well in advance of their publication dates, angering other news outlets who played by the publisher's rules. Today, the Times lifted the lid on former First Lady Laura Bush's memoir Spoken From the Heart six days before its May 4 release from Scribner, zeroing in on the details behind her involvement at 17 in a fatal car crash.

Even though the book was supposed to be under a strict embargo, the Times claims that "a copy of the book...was obtained by The New York Times at a bookstore." They've used that phrase on previous occasions for highly anticipated political books, such as their first-look account of former President Bill Clinton's autobiography.

"As always, we are disturbed about this clear failure of respect for copyright and the direct infringement on our right of first publication," said Simon & Schuster spokesperson Adam Rothberg. "It's a sad commentary that in recent years we've devolved to a state where shopping for a book and then quoting its key passages substitutes for the actual hard work of reporting."

"Embargoes Seem Anachronistic"

Embargo breaks especially upset magazines and newspapers that have paid to publish exclusive excerpts in advance. In 2006, the Times ran a front-page story on the contents of former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina's memoir, pre-empting Newsweek's exclusive excerpt by several days.

"By the time it got to us, there didn't feel to be that much newsworthy left in it," then-assistant managing editor Kathleen Deveny told Forbes at the time. "[These days] it's a bit of a free-for-all when it comes to serial rights," she added.

Four years later, with news cycles at warp speed, embargoes are even tougher to enforce. "Given [the] inability to control the news cycle and the influence of pre-orders on the best-seller list, embargoes seem anachronistic," said Julia Cheiffetz, a senior editor at Harper, on Twitter.

And this year has been an embargo buster's dream, thanks to recent and upcoming political memoirs from architects of the previous Administration, including Karl Rove, Dick Cheney, Condoleeza Rice and former President George W. Bush, whose book Decision Points has a Nov. 9 release date.

Bookshop Deal Provides Access?

But how has The New York Times has been able to land its juicy book scoops before every other equally hungry news outlet? Back in 2006, John Markoff, who wrote the embargo-breaking story on Fiorina, told Forbes
that Times reporters look for embargoed books in airports "because they're often aggressive and often clueless about embargoes."

What Markoff didn't say is that the paper has made it astonishingly easy for reporters to do so of late because all they need to do is look for the stores with the newspaper's name and logo on it.

Starting in 2005, the Times partnered with Atlanta-based airport and hotel retailer The Paradies Shops for branded bookstores in select airports. The first one opened up at the Blue Grass Airport in Lexington, Ky., and a second shop opened in the Delta Terminal at New York's La Guardia Airport in 2006. Travelers can now find New York Times stores at airports in West Palm Beach, Louisville, Atlanta, El Paso, Jacksonville and Providence.

In granting Paradies Shops the right to sell company-branded merchandise and give potential customers access to news and features from the paper and its website, did the Times also enable a tacit arrangement for its reporters to get embargoed books before everyone else?

Times spokeswoman Diane McNulty nor a Simon & Schuster spokesperson responded to DailyFinance's requests for comment. But if those dots connect, it may not be long before other news outlets follow the Times's lead in licensing their brands to airport bookshops -- and leveling the embargo-breaking playing field.

The article has been updated from an earlier version.